June 2017 Wrapup: Part I

17 Jul

June started off absolutely terribly for me. It took me almost 10 days to get through 3 slim books, way off my usual pace. I’m not exactly sure why–it wasn’t a reading slump, I was just slow as molasses. Thankfully it picked up in the last few days and I read some really fun & great books back-to-back. There’s even a mini theme (horror with mountains on the cover, what a strange niche genre) going on. So let’s get into it!

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The Perfect Stranger, by Megan Miranda*. Finished June 3rd. Unlike most people, I actually found this book to be more impressive than All the Missing Girls. ATMG relies on its flash-backwards narrative to hold interest: if told from past to present it’s a pretty dull mystery with unlikeable characters and nonsensical side plots. It’s certainly a page-turner, but the core story did not stand out among the sea of female-lead thrillers we’ve been getting this past few years. However, I think The Perfect Stranger is a far superior novel.

It actually has a lot of thematic overlap: the main character is bitter and aloof, trying to start over for herself. The other main female character is a mysterious figure from her past who disappears. There’s that small-town claustrophobia and lots of flashbacks. But TPS has much, much stronger characters. Leah, our lead, is indeed and unlikeable character but it’s handled much better. You never feel any fondness towards her but she’s very intriguing and fleshed out well. She was a reporter in Boston and lost her job under suspicious circumstances and is starting over in Pennsylvania as a teacher with her best friend Emmy. This is a thriller, not a character-driven novel, so don’t expect perfection about Leah’s jobs–past and present. Becoming a HS teacher is not really as easy as saying “yes I will do this” and getting a job 5 minutes latter but that’s the realm of thrillers for you.

Emmy, the friend from the past and current roommate, is really the star here. She’s so strange and intriguing–clearly a ‘bad girl’ but in a very interesting way. Her legal indiscretions often seem geared to help Leah rather than hurt her, and her motives (both when they first met 8 years ago and in present-day Penn) remain cloaked in mystery. “Who is Emmy?” is really the core narrative question. As for the mystery itself, a lot is going on. Leah is being stalked by a teacher at her work and a woman in the woods near her house (who looks suspiciously like Leah) is attacked. A few days later, Emmy goes missing. So we have 3 strands in the present, plus the slowly unraveling mystery of how Leah lost her job.

They tie together really perfectly, and while I guessed some of the twists the full end did come as a surprise. It’s not a ‘wow shock what a TWIST’ kind of book because all the details add up so smoothly you definitely could do the detective work on your own. But I tend to like that kind of mystery: where the pieces are right in front of you and the author does some clever sleight of hand to keep you from the answer rather than springing some big huge twist on the reader.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller this is definitely better than most of the books flooding the market. It’s far from perfect–a lot of the job-related details make no sense and Leah is incredibly frustrating as a main character at times–but it scratches that girl-lead-thriller itch really well.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Persons Unknown, by Susie Steiner*. Finished June 7th. For some reason, I was really in the mood for thrillers and mysteries this month. I think it’s in part because Man Booker International and the Bailey’s Prize are finally over and I was kind of literary fiction’d out. Last year I read the first book in this series, Persons Unknown, and really enjoyed it. While I was hoping the next book in the series would be from a different POV character this focuses on Manon again, which I ended up enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.

Manon is such an interesting lead for a detective novel. This book has many POV characters, but she is obviously the focus: not only is the series named after her, but she forms the heart and soul of both books. She is flawed, but not in the usual way you see in detective novels. She’s not the “tough with a heart of god, has daddy issues, drinks too much” trope. Manon truly tries her best in every situation and wants to make life better for all her friends and family, yet ends up failing (sometimes rather spectacularly) because her intentions never seen to quite meet up with what she thought things would be like.

This takes place quite a bit after the first book in the series. Manon has adopted Fly, who she was taking care of in the first book, moved them to a more rural location, and switched her job to to cold cases. Fly is a city kid at heart and Manon is a detective at heart, so these all end up being pretty bad moves. To top it off Manon is pregnant, and Fly none too happy about that decision. While her personal life is falling apart her family, including the sister she lives with, becomes involved in the newest murder case.

I think this is a stronger book in every way than the first one. Maybe it’s because we already know the characters, but I felt that the personal drama was a lot more hard-hitting. The case is also more intriguing, and while Missing, Presumed faltered a bit towards the end Persons Unknown picks up the pace rapidly and ends with a bang. This is definitely a series I will be continuing with: it’s the closest thing I’ve found to Tana French.

 

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors. Finished June 8th. When I first heard about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal it sounded like something I would love. In fact, it was at the top of my “want to read” list for Man Booker International. I mean, it’s about a woman with driving anxiety i.e. me. That’s right, I don’t know how to drive. It’s actually because I have no reason to (where am I going to store a car in NYC?) but at this point I’ve built it up as this big scary thing I will one day have to do. So I expected this to be very relateble.

But… it’s not. The main character, Ingrid, is absolutely unbearable. She’s a hot mess, which is certainly something you can do and make your main character likeable, but everything about Ingrid is annoying. Her “car anxiety” isn’t actually about driving, it’s because she literally doesn’t have the spine to tell her instructor she doesn’t know how to switch gears. Most of the first half of the book is her internally whining about this but doing absolutely nothing to solve it. Riveting fiction, let me tell you.

Ingrid thinks her life is terrible. She has a nice apartment, she has her dream job (translating the works of a very prolific crime novelist), she has disposable cash. What a hard, terrible life. But Ingrid will tell you it’s ~literally the worst~ because her sister is married? Ingrid’s sister Kate, who she has fallen out of touch with, got married. This is enough to make Ingrid apoplectic with jealousy. A large chunk of the book is her writing letters to Kate and then promptly throwing them out. They aren’t even interesting letters. It’s like “Hey Kate, we’ve fallen out of touch but I think of you often. Remember [childhood occurrence]? Anyway, give me a call when you have a chance!” Then she throws out the letter and writes an identical one two chapters later. When she finally does call Kate, Ingrid spends their entire conversation ranting about her own life while simultaneously imagining that Kate is lying and trying to get rid of her (I mean, even if she is, can you blame her? I’m on team Kate here).

Ingrid’s other problem (other than being the worst) is that she has very few friends. However, this is totally on her because 1) she seems like a terrible person and who would want to be friends with her and 2) she throws away the opportunity to form new friendships multiple times in this slim little novel. Her massage therapist invites her on a hike with a few other people and Ingrid goes and then literally runs away from them. Now you might be thinking “she has anxiety!” No. Ingrid runs away to go eat cake and think about how lame and stupid her massage therapist is. What a classy, lovely dame. No idea why she’s friendless.

If you want to read a dry, dull book about a self-obsessed moron boy oh boy is this the book for you. I honestly don’t understand how it made the MBI longlist (let alone the shortlist) because the translation is just not great. It uses odd, stilted slang that feels very out of place with the tone and there are some obvious errors (like referring to a greeting card as a postcard–they’re not the same thing).

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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Compass, by Mathias Enard. Finished June 10th. This is a book I was not expecting to love so much. I have seen it described as difficult, erudite, surreal, and dense. I suppose it is all of those things, but I fell utterly in love.

This is not a casual reading experience. In some ways, calling it dense is an understatement. Compass is one night in the mind of a dying man who is reminiscing about his past. He is an Orientalist, as are all of his friends and colleagues. While there is a kind of over-arching plot focusing on Sarah, a girl he loves but never quite found the right moment to be with, most of his thoughts are reminiscing about Orientalism. There is a lot of discussion about Orient vs Occident, what makes something seem exotic, the line between the two both geographically and metaphorically. There are dozens and dozens of anecdotes about the history of Orientalism. If any of this sounds boring to you, turn back now. But if it’s a concept you are interested in, be prepared to learn more than you ever thought you would.

The amazing thing about Compass is that you can have no background knowledge of the subject matter and not feel lost. Enard guides us gently along the stories and anecdotes, and while I’m sure I missed well over 75% of the references I never felt confused or overwhelmed. I found the history described here fascinating, as it’s an area I never really knew much about. The history of Europe and the Middle East is a lot more complex (and entertaining) than I originally thought. Did you know the first mosque in Germany was built in a POW camp during WWI? Just one of the many forgotten parts of history Compass covers.

I found basically everything about this book magical. The whole new world of knowledge opening before me, the lyrical and smooth writing, the tangled history of our protagonist. I feel like you could read this a dozen times and come away with something new. I stretched this book out over as many days as possible because I really didn’t want it to end. Perhaps my second-favorite of the MBI longlist, and a keen example of why I love literary prizes: had this not been shortlisted, there is no way I would have read it. And what a mistake that would have been.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The White Road, by Sarah Lotz. Finished June 12th.

Who is the third who walks beside you?

I am a big fan of Sarah Lotz’ previous two books, The Three and Day Four. I know the latter is far from popular but I just really enjoy her weird, quirky, literary brand of horror. Everything in her books is just slightly off-kilter and surreal, the line between real-world horror and supernatural horror is excellent, and while her books tend to be large they are also very compelling. I was thrilled when we got the synopsis for The White Road because it sounds a lot like The Descent, one of my favorite horror movies. I was ready for strange cave horror and I… kind of got it?

The first 20% of this book is phenomenal. It’s two guys in a terrifying cave system looking for dead bodies. I’m very claustrophobic, so even normal caving is difficult for me to read about. Add in a possibly haunted set of narrow caves with dead bodies and rising waters and I’m sold. Because above all else, I love being scared. It’s why I read horror: that creeping terror that has you checking behind the shower curtain at 2am, the way you’ll rush into bed and get your feet off the floor as soon as possible just in case there are gremlins lurking there. And boy oh boy does the first section deliver on that. It’s so eerie and surreal, really pushing the “is this just crazy people or is something more sinister at work” vibe of hers that I love so much.

From there, it is kind of downhill. It pains me to say that because I did enjoy The White Road, but it did not live up to my expectations. As you can tell from the cover, this switches to mountain horror early on. It’s an interesting contrast, going from the bowls of the earth to the top of Everest. And there’s certainly a lot of potential in mountain horror. But it felt a little flat. The characters were trope-y, the horror was not as potent, the vibe was a lot less subtle. It plays with some cool ideas but most of them never feel explored to their full potential.

I think one of the main problems is that it’s too short for what it tries to do. There’s the first cave section, the “middle” mountain section which makes up most of the book, and then a sort of afterword that deals with PTSD and mental illness. The middle section was too long and stiffer than what we usually get from Lotz. The ending part was great, but too short–it felt very rushed. I wanted at least 50 more pages to explore that section of the main character’s life, and it was really weird that we’d skip over years after spending the majority of the book exploring just a few weeks in Simon’s life.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked this, and I think if I hadn’t read her other books I would like it more. The first section is really a master class in horror. But I am hoping she returns to the world of The Three in her next book, because it’s where she excels and I think there’s a lot of potential left there.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Black Mad Wheel, by Josh Malerman. Finished June 12th. Josh Malerman is an absolute master of sensory horror. In Bird Box the horror element is something the protagonists cannot see, and here it is a noise–which, obviously as readers, we cannot hear. I fully expect his next novel to involve some weird qualia like color or emotion. Bird Box was great, but I without a doubt prefer Black Mad Wheel. Sadly, I don’t think it will be anywhere near as popular, because it is just really strange and surreal.

The premise is… odd, and you do have to kind of accept that this is a book-world and not the real world. It’s the late 50′s and a band called The Danes gets a rather odd offer from the government. All 4 of the band members used to be soldiers, and the US wants to put them in service again and ship them off to Africa to investigate a strange sound. You can spend a lot of time thinking, “why this group of people? If they need musicians, why not find some in active service?” but just let that go and come along for the ride.

BMW is told in alternating past-present chapters. We get Philip in the hospital after some horrible accident in the desert broke almost all of his bones, and Philip before as he explores the sound with his band-mates and a few soldiers. The switching back and forth is done smoothly and becomes a set rhythm early on, but halfway through Malerman toys with the reader and starts giving us, say, 2 chapters set in Africa back to back. It’s disorienting in a way I’ve never experienced a text to be disorienting. Which, given the focus on the sound being some kind of new horrible thing, is quite deliciously smart. A lot of the book is like this: the horror elements are strong, but nothing you can quite pin down and say “it’s scary because of x and y.” In a way, this book reminds me of House of Leaves. There’s just something horribly wrong with every aspect of the story but I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what it is.

I docked half a star because there’s a romance element I think ended up being unnecessary, but I adored everything else here. It’s a riveting, can’t-sleep-until-I-finish-this type of book. It is surreal and upsetting. It’s evocative and dreamy in a nightmarish sort of way. It’s basically everything I want from a horror novel, and Malerman is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors in the genre.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Ararat, by Christopher Golden. Finished June 14th.

“I felt it in me, like poison in my veins, and I know God couldn’t stop it. Do you see? God isn’t here anymore. He can’t help us.”

This book is the equivalent of an action movie: all flash, no substance. This is not exactly a criticism because there is certainly a place in literature for fun, dramatic romps. Not every book needs to be deep and meaningful. Sometimes you really just want something that will clean out your brain, and Ararat definitely delivers on that.

The concept is actually super interesting: due to an avalanche, Noah’s ark is discovered hidden inside of Mount Ararat. Only instead of finding Noah inside, they find the mummified corpse of what appears to be a demon. Things understandably go downhill from there. This reminds me of writers like Crichton, where a really interesting idea that could be used to explore some deep concepts turns into a fast-paced thriller. So don’t go into this expecting some intense discussions of religion and evil, cause you won’t find that here.

What you will find is some over-the-top violent horror. I mean, people get their jaws ripped off. It’s great for gore-fiends like me, but not for the faint of heart. There’s also a lot of personal relationship and familial drama injected, which usually I would find annoying but it does work here. There’s a lot of “are these people just doing horrible things because they’re human, or is it the demon” layer of mystery. I mean, it’s a thin layer, but it’s there. It’s one of those things I wish was explored more (my major complaint throughout the book) but I have to remind myself that’s not what Ararat is trying to accomplish.

This was a solid 3-star read for me until the end, which was quite unexpected and great. Definitely worth half a star, and really a different twist from what you expect from action-movie-in-a-book. And, of course, this would make a fantastic movie: it’s very cinematic, and I think they trope-y characters would work a lot better on the full screen. I also have to give a big shoutout to Golden for including an incredibly diverse cast in a genre that tends to go for all-white-male testosterone fest.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Hunger, by Roxane Gay. Finished June 14th. This was a rough book for me to read, probably because it hit quite close to home. Like Roxane, I developed an eating disorder as a teenager in a response to trauma (though mine went in the opposite direction). Like Roxane, I inexplicably have no memory of vast swaths of my childhood. Like Roxane, I recoil from physical touch with strangers and spend a lot of time making myself as small as possible in public situations. Like Roxane, I have items of clothing I adore but am scared to wear out of the house. We are opposites physically (I am quite short and small) but I felt an almost immediate and intense connection to her in the opening chapters. So for me, parts of this book were a knife to the heart because they rang brutally, honestly true.

The strength of Hunger is in how blatantly honest Roxane is about her life and body. She does not shy away from the rough details, the pain of her day to day life, the struggle to love any part of herself. It is almost never an easy thing to read about. In the last chapter she states that this is the hardest thing she’s ever done, and it reads like it. At 12 she was gang raped and the chapters detailing that are searing and vivid. Huge TW if that’s an issue for you, obviously, because it forms the core of this memoir. There is, thankfully, not enough detail for it to feel voyeuristic or intentionally upsetting, but even the blurry moments we get are almost too much.

Up until about halfway through this was an easy 5-star for me. The writing is as beautiful and crisp as what you’d expect from Gay. Her writing is so personal and involving, but you know she’s holding just a bit of herself back–enough to keep the reader at the distance she likes to keep strangers. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not but it’s quite clever. I find memoirs written in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way kind of boring. I want the writing, the mood, to fit the story being told, and Hunger does that with finesse. But by the halfway mark I was actually asking myself, “didn’t I read this already?”

Hunger is broken up into almost 90 mini-chapters, flitting from thought to thought. The central narrative moves forward in time from childhood to now, but many of the chapters deal with her personal struggles with her body. But many (and I mean MANY) of them are simply saying the same thing over and over and over. With the same words, even. Repetition of overarching thematic phrases can be done well, but here it is excessive. I think it’s because snippets of this are from other things (her tumblr, various online publications) and towards the end it really does feel slapped together. I think this needed some serious editing, because it starts feeling like a slog when you’re reading the exact same phrase about the exact same topic over and over and over. It would have been much, much better to condense the similar-sounding chapters together into something a bit longer and more cohesive. I think with a good edit this would easily be 5 stars, but I can’t overlook something that large and distracting.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Down Among The Sicks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire. Finished June 15th.

Some adventures begin easily. It is not hard, after all, to be sucked up by a tornado or pushed through a particularly porous mirror; there is no skill involved in being swept away by a great wave or pulled down a rabbit hole. Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.

Other adventures must be committed to before they have even properly begun. How else will they know the worthy from the unworthy, if they do not require a certain amount of effort on the part of the ones who would undertake them? Some adventures are cruel, because it is the only way they know how to be kind.

Every Heart a Doorway was one of my favorite reads from last year. I was thrilled to learn that it was actually a series of novellas, with Every Heart a sort of core narrative that we would be spinning off from. We are getting the stories of several occupants of the boarding house, following their portal fantasy adventures to some very strange worlds. This is the story of Jack and Jill, central characters to Every Heart, and their trip to a world of vampires and mad scientists.

Like the first book in the series, this is a fairy tale with a dark heart. There is, of course, an element of whimsy to twin girls finding a door to another world. But the world they find is the Moors, where they are forced to choose between living with a vampire or living with, essentially, Dr. Frankenstein. Oh, and there are werewolves and ghouls and hints of Lovecraftian cults as well, elements I wish were explored a bit more in the narrative.

And, like Every Heart, we explore the ideas of gender and sexuality in a way that never seems heavy-handed or preachy. Jack and Jill have been forced by their parents into separate and very different roles: Jacqueline is the pretty girlie one, and Jillian is the tomboy. Neither has a say in this, and it’s not what they want. So when they go to a world where they can re-imagine themselves, where Jack can be the apprentice of a mad scientist and Jill can be the haunted daughter of a vampire? They jump at the opportunity like the children they are. There are an unlimited number of ways to “be a girl” and Sticks and Bones really plays with this idea to its full potential.

I feel like the first 2/3rds of this were much stronger than the ending section, which is something I felt about the first book as well. There’s a slow, creeping pace to it, and then we are thrown several years into the future. I think this series would just generally work better as full-length novels, or at least with another 50 pages to work with. That’s pretty much my only complaint, though.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 99/200

Goal Books: 93

Impulse Reads: 6

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

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