June 2017 Wrapup: Part II

21 Jul

[Note: I apologize for how terribly late these post are! I have had a hectic month and am working hard to catch up. July Part I should be up very soon!]

The second half of June was a lot like the first: many thrillers and fast reads. I was traveling quite a bit in June and needed easy books I could dip in and out of without being confused. It actually ended up being a decent reading month with 19 books in total. Far from my best, but also far from my worst!

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Concomitance, by Monica McClure. Finished June 15th. This short but impactful poetry collection tells the story of what it is to be a woman in a commercial society. Each poem features a different event in the author’s life, but it is told through the lens of what beauty products and clothing brands she wore during that time. This is probably something most women in America can identify with: I think we can all instantly think of “that Valentine’s day I wore the purple MAC lipstick” or “my super cute Forever 21 top that I always wear to amusement parks.”

It is, of course, a symptom of capitalism and the appearance-based culture most women are a part of, willingly or not. While this is on the surface an almost superficial look at the author’s life, it’s also a pretty biting commentary on modern society. It’s dry and self-deprecating, simply written but with many moving lines. If you like poetry and feminist critiques I would definitely give this a shot.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Final Girls, by Mira Grant*. Finished June 16th. I would consider myself a low-key fan of Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire. I have enjoyed everything of hers that I’ve read, even if some have been far more successful than others. They still always end up being fun horror romps, especially when she writes as Mira Grant.

Final Girls is no different. This novella is about a near-future where virtual reality technology has been harnessed to help people overcome trauma. People are put into a totally immersive horror-movie-esque experience that will either help them get past their history or bond with a person they are estranged from. Our main girl, Esther, is a journalist who doubts both the effectiveness and the ethics of this treatment. During her tour of the facility, she’s offered a little horror movie experience of her own, and is joined by the project’s mastermind, Dr. Jennifer Webb.

The majority of this story is about Esther and Jennifer in the VR machine, bonding in a cheesy teenage horror movie. It’s cute and very meta, with all those tropes we all love to hate on full display. But of course things don’t go as expected: just look at that cover. The turns it took weren’t totally unexpected, but this was a total blast of a read. I almost wish I’d saved it for Halloween, this would be such a good cold-weather spooky read.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne. Finished June 17th. I have bad luck with popular thrillers, especially when I read hyped ones right at release. And while I got hit by the “why am I reading this” blues later in the month, The Marsh King’s Daughter actually lived up to the hype (mostly). I do think the comparisons to Room are very misleading: aside from having one thing in common (a child born to a captured mother), they are very different. Room is a slow-burn piece of literary fiction, and this is a fast-paced thriller based on revenge.

Helena was born thinking her life was normal, even though her father had kidnapped her mother and held her captive for over a decade. Neither of them told Helena this (we assume because they both, for different reasons, wanted her to have as normal a childhood as possible), and it was only after a traumatic event that she escaped & realized what her life had been. We flip back and forth between past-Helena as a child and current-Helena, who has formed a life with a man who has no idea about her past. Her father escapes from prison and Helena knows he will come after her (and her two daughters).

This is a tense thriller, one of the few in the genre that manages to have all the thriller elements I want: rapid-fire pace, a decent plot, good twists and turns, interesting characters, and a satisfactory ending. Of course this is a dark book, with many scenes in Helena’s past that are quite disturbing when you know what is really going on, so if you are sensitive to child abuse or rape this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you want a thriller that actually delivers on its promises, definitely check this out.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Hike, by Drew Magary. Finished June 18th. There are few words that would describe how bizarre and magical this book is. See all that weird shit on the cover? Winged vampires, bloody swans, men in dog masks wrestling, boats, a smoke monster, a conquistador, etc. All of those things are in The Hike. Along with all the weirdos on the back cover, as well.

The Hike plays with the line between fantasy, surrealism, magical realism, and bizarro. It would technically fit in any of those genres, but I think it belongs in a space of its own. It’s violent, hilarious, slapstick comedy-horror at its absolute best.

Until the very end this was a solid 4-star book for me but the ending is just mindblowing and amazing. And surprisingly emotional, given how overall goofy this novel is. The end is suddenly serious and hard-hitting, but in a way that totally fits with the rest of the book. Highly recommend this one!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Last Place You Look, by Kristen Lepionka. Finished June 18th. This is a mystery novel that could so easily go into cheesy trope territory. On paper, the main character sounds like a walking mishmash of every detective novel: her father was a cop, she’s a private detective, she inherited a lot of his issues (including a drinking problem), she sleeps around and stays out too late. But somehow, Roxane Weary stands head and shoulders above almost every other detective I’ve read about. She is just amazingly complex: headstrong but emotionally sensitive, openly bisexual, determined, willing to make mistakes. Roxane is just wonderfully human.

To go along with the great main character (who is getting a whole series, of which this is the first) there is a great mystery. We get the past-present mystery overlap which seems to popular recently, except in this case the past mystery is “solved:” Roxane is actually hired by the sister of a man on death row for murder. Said sister insists that she saw one of the victims walking around alive and well.

This case ends up connected to both a bunch of cold cases and a ongoing case, and Roxane is stuck in the middle. This is a satisfying mystery that falls into a more traditional “putting the pieces together” model than the current “endless twists and wham moments” that I am growing rather tired of. I am very, very picky about the detective/mystery genre: I want great characters, interesting writing, a good mystery, and a solid conclusion. And, as you can tell by the rating, The Last Place You Look hit every mark for me. Definitely going to read anything this author writes in the future!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wasserberg. Finished June 20th. This book has many elements that I usually love, but I feel that the amazing premise was burdened by an overly childish narrative. This book is about children in a cult/commune, and having horrible events be seen through childish eyes can certainly be done well (Hurt People, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Room) but here it feels a little too washed-out. This might be because there is little depth to the cult at Foxlowe.

There are strange pagan elements to their life and it seems a commune-turned-bad type situation, but there is never enough context. Why are all of these adults totally fine with the child abuse that goes on, especially since for many of them it’s their own child being abused? Why do they worship the Solstices so fervently? What is the cult leader Freya telling them to make them trust her so implicitly? What are the details of their beliefs? It’s kind of a head-scratching situation. And the lack of details made many of the plot details nonsensical.

There are some very cool elements at work here, but they never seem to come together. Possibly because we cut away from Foxlowe just when we start to get some answers, which is incredibly frustrating (and adult Green is an annoying, unpleasant narrator). Green is a very traumatized person, but she’s almost unbearable by the middle of the book. The reader is given little reason to feel bad for her, since she has such a flat affect as a child and then immediately turns into a bitter trainwreck. I did enjoy Foxlowe, but at the end I was really left thinking about what could have been with a little more time & polish.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Party, by Robyn Harding. Finished June 21st. This light, fluffy book is exactly what you’d expect from the blurb and cover: Liane Moriarty light. 2.5 seems like a low rating but I didn’t hate it. It was mindless fun, which sometimes you need, but not particularly well-executed mindless fun. I have very few feelings about this one way or the other and not much to say about it. All the characters are terrible but the plot is interesting, though it never really delivers on the wham-moment reveal you are expecting. The drama is a bit trite and everyone acts like a moron, but the writing is solid and the pacing is excellent. Probably a really good beach read.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Sunshine State, by Sarah Gerard. Finished June 21st. While I enjoyed this book of essays, it was really a mixed bag for me. I adore Sarah Gerard’s writing: it is biting and luminous and dark and funny, and her novel Binary Star swept me away. I wanted more of that style from this collection than what I ended up with.

Her personal essays, like “BFF” or “Rabbit,” are beautiful and touching. We get dark little peeks into her childhood and teen years that felt raw and brimming with emotion. And her journalistic essays about other concepts, like the magical “Sunshine State” that focuses on an animal hoarder in charge of a wildlife sanctuary, are just as amazing (though in a totally different way, of course–Gerard does a great job at making these far-away events seem intense and personal).

But many here fall in the middle, like “Going Diamond” and “Mother-Father God.” These essays focus on personal events (like her parents’ involvement in Christian Science and Amway) but alternate between her own history and the history of the church/company. Since her writing on these topics when separate is so good I really expected the combination to be magical, but it was so lacking. I found the constant back-and-forth made her writing come off as dry and distanced.

I still gave this 4 stars because I found many of the essays memorable and beautiful, but it was so wildly inconsistent. Especially because a lot of the half-personal-half-journalism essays were all grouped together, and it was hard for me to power through all of them.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, by Alison Weir. Finished June 26th. Katherine of Aragon is absolutely my favorite of Henry’s queens. She was such an amazing woman, and I often wonder what history would have been like if she had been allowed to rule. It would have been some good times for England, guys. A lot less wife murder too.

I have never read any Weir before this book, and I’m not yet sold on her as the queen of historical fiction. I enjoyed this book, but I felt like she made Katherine WAY more passive than she was in reality. It was really frustrating: she is portrayed as a bystander in her own life for the first 40% or so. She grows a spine and is far more the Katherine I love in the second half, but this was only after Anne entered the scene. I think Katherine was a great, fierce woman way before then.

Of course that is a personal quibble based on my own perception of these historical figures. The writing was great and I think the pacing was excellent (even if we do skim over some important events), so I will be reading the rest of the 5 books in this series. One for each wife!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt*. Finished June 28th. This book is the love child of His Bloody Project and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It is a historical mystery/thriller based on the infamous Lizzy Borden case, where a girl killed both her father and stepmother with an axe in a sensationally violent fashion. This is a story that has held on to its intrigue throughout the decades, because what possibly could have been her motive? What was going on in that house to cause such a violent reaction? Or was Lizzy just crazy?

We have multiple points of view here: Lizzy herself, Lizzy’s sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and a strange man who may or may not have had something to do with the crime. They alternate pretty consistently, but because of this we got a lot less of Lizzy than what I wanted. I mean, she is at the core of this, so I really wish we had gotten less POVs or a longer story to flesh Lizzy out a bit more as a character.

I feel like my thoughts when reading this were, “this was good, but I wish Schmidt had done x a little differently.” I don’t think this book pushed its story far enough. There are a lot of horrible and bizarre things happening in the Borden house, but it felt like Schmidt shied away from the darker potential she’d built and went for the strange and baffling instead. I wanted the vibe to be darker, creepier, more disturbing. It actually was all of those things, but not as much as you’d be expecting in a story of gristly murder.

The strength of this novel is the writing. It’s flighty and whimsical, especially when we are in Lizzy’s head. There is a strange, airy surrealness here that makes it feel like a fairy tale. When the moments of violence come, they have a particularly dark impact. It also builds suspense fantastically: because of all the shifting narratives we will often know about a core event before the characters it will affect the most, and the buildup to that confrontation actually happening is so tense it’s almost unbearable. It’s one of those books where you know something terrible is going to happen, but you just want to get it over with to break that layer of anxiety.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 109/200

Goal Books: 102

Impulse Reads: 7

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

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