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May 2017 Wrapup: Part II

13 Jun

May ended up being a very solid reading month, and the best one in terms of meeting goals. I was very behind on my TBR challenge (read 75 TBR books before the end of the year) and decided that May was going to be focused on that. I aimed for 15 read and ended up with 16! Plus I finished my first long series of the year. All in all a really great month.

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The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey. Finished May 17th. This is a book that I think is going to suffer from terrible marketing. I have seen multiple blurbs that state it is The Martian x Station Eleven. I guess that’s true if by that you mean that they have vaguely connected elements (astronauts and uh… being alone?). But then you might as well say that The Wanderers is Brokeback Mountain x Halo, because it has gay characters and video games.

Even though I knew it probably wouldn’t be what the blurb promised, I still felt let down by The Wanderers. The premise is fantastic, but it feels bogged down by multiple, pointless side stories. We get the perspective of three astronauts who are doing a “test run” of a Mars mission in a desert in Utah. But we also get the perspectives of their family members (one for each astronaut, so 3 in total) and the perspective of one of the men assigned to watch the test run. Which gives us a whopping total of 7 perspectives in what is honestly a pretty short novel. It’s too many! I honestly only liked 3 of them in total (2 of the astronauts and 1 of the family members), and basically every family member added nothing to the plot besides “it’s hard to have a parent/husband who is often in space.” Like wow, I actually could have guessed that one all on my own! Some of the stories, like Dmitri’s, were actually kind of cute but they didn’t connect at ALL to the main plot so reading them felt odd and disjointed.

The writing here is lovely, but the plot is a hot mess. You’d think a story revolving around 3 people spent in fake isolation for a year and a half would get very strange and psychological. Well, about 70% of the way in some very cool elements of paranoia are introduced, but like every other story thread they are quickly wrapped up or dropped entirely. This did have the core of a very strong book. If it was just Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei in “fake space” as they slowly started to lose their grip on reality, it could have been spectacular. Easily a 5-star book. Instead it’s an odd sort of family drama that touches lightly on a lot of really cool elements but never gives the reader a good look at any of them.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami. Finished May 20th. I love Murakami. He is one of my favorite authors. But for some reason, I haven’t been wowed by his previous short story collections. I find them okay, but not very memorable. In (almost) all of his novels, there are moments where you get stories from very fringe side-characters that end up being very bizarre and nonsensical. His short stories tend to read like just those moments, without the context of a whole novel. And while the “short story in the actual story” tends to be my favorite moments of his books, I never like them that much on their own. I think the whimsy fades when we get 8 or 10 “what the hell, this is so weird” stories all in a row.

Men Without Women is the exact opposite of his previous collections. The stories are grounded in reality, and while there are a few almost-magical-realism elements in a few of them, the focus is on the characters. As you might guess from the title, this is a collection about love and heartbreak. All of them have a male protagonist who either loses a woman over the course of the story or is reminiscing about his loss. These encounters range from marriage to one-night-stands, but they show the massive impact a person can have on our life.

The writing is, of course, beautiful (and by extension beautifully translated). Of course all of his usual tropes are here (middle-age man with ennui, jazz, cats, strange ladies, beer, bars, etc) so if Murakami doesn’t do it for you I don’t think this collection will change your mind. But it is a massive treat for long-time fans and I also think would be an excellent starting point for Murakami newbies. There is such a deep, emotional humanity in every one of these tales. This is the rare collection where I would not leave out a single story. And I will think about them all for a long time to come.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life, by Yiyun Li. Finished May 20th. This is a difficult book to review, because it’s hard to explain. It bills itself as a memoir and I suppose that’s the most accurate label, but it rarely feels like a true memoir. Yiyun Li spends very little time thinking about her own life and the events that are at the core of this story remain shrouded in mystery.

It is, above all else, a book about mental health. Li suffers from depression and has been hospitalized several times for it. These hospitalizations are really all the center of the story, though we get very few scenes actually in the hospital. It’s talked about in vague terms (for example, she refers to her ever-changing “roommates” and it’s not until a few chapters later that I realized she meant people sharing a room with her in the hospital, not literal roommates) and Li skirts around her own issues. This may seem like a negative trait, but it works quite well. She’s very open about how depression makes you feel, and there are some hauntingly beautiful passages I related to a little too much.

My main issue was her heavy reliance on other literature throughout. A lot of this book is her in conversation with other authors or famous works of literature. Which could be interesting but I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know most of what she was referencing. This can certainly be done well (Compass, Do Not Say We Have Nothing), but she didn’t really provide a lot of context clues to help the reader out. She’ll mention a book and spend 2 paragraphs talking about why it was important to her life, but never go into what the damn book is even about. It is at times frustrating, but I think that is almost the point. This is not really a memoir, and it is also not really a book for the reader. It’s Li exploring her mental illness and life on her own terms, which is certainly an interesting concept. I’m not sure it’s pulled off as well as it could be, but the parts of this that worked for me really worked.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Devil’s Larder, by Jim Crace. Finished May 22nd. This is, strangely enough, the first collection of flash fiction I have ever read. I do love short stories, but I always found the idea of 1-5 pages stories a little odd. How can you fit anything in that? Well, Jim Crace is here to school me on the art of micro-stories because this book was amazing.

It’s a collection of over 60 pieces of flash fiction, which might seem intimidating but it’s also a ridiculously short book for so much content. There are stories that range from about 6 pages to one that is only 2 words. How could that be effective, you wonder? Well, the unifying theme of food really helps tie everything together. There is a strong magical realism bend here, but each story stands on its own as a unique little oddity. While they all involve food in one way or another, they vary wildly in tone and content. Some are about the mundane lives of average people, others veer right into bizarro. The variety keeps it fresh and interesting the whole way through.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Dark Tower, by Stephen King. Finished May 25th. I have finally climbed to the top of the dark tower, and my heart will forever hurt over what I found there. There is nothing I can say about the plot of this book that would not be a spoiler for the previous ones (given that it’s book 8 in a series), but suffice to say The Dark Tower ripped my heart out, stomped on it, and made me love every second of this torture.

This is a series unlike any other. It’s a mashup of so many genres: science fiction, epic fantasy, Western, even elements of magical realism and straight-up surrealism. While the plot and mood vary wildly from book to book, it’s really the characters that hold the whole thing together. I will never forget Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy. If, like me, you were hesitating on picking up this series because it’s described as being “really weird” and “so strange,” don’t! Any fan of King will feel right at home in the world of the dark tower.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Hotels of North America, by Rick Moody. Finished May 25th. I read a lot of odd, off-the-wall books in May, and this was probably the strangest. It’s about the life of a middle-age man (Reginald) who gives inspirational lectures, but it is told entirely through online hotel reviews. Yes, you read that right. The entire book is a series of hotel reviews on a travel site.

It’s an interesting idea, but tricky to pull off. Thankfully Moody really put a lot of effort into the format. Each review contains a kernel of Reginald’s life while also being depressingly funny. Reginald is not a happy man: his life is kind of in shambles, and he stays in some truly horrible hotels for his job. His reviews are rambling messes that only occasionally touch on the amenities of the hotel. Most of them are more about the mood and atmosphere of the place, and what happened to him there. Of course, realistically, these wouldn’t fly as popular reviews, but if you can suspend your disbelief it’s a really wonderful little gem.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar. Finished May 26th. Finally, King has returned to Castle Rock! It has been many years for him, but I read Needful Things only a year or so ago so it doesn’t really feel like that long. It’s definitely one of his richest settings and with the upcoming TV show I was very pleased to see new written content for the town.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Gwendy’s Button Box is its Dark Tower connections. Sure, it takes place in Castle Rock, but it opens with the Man in Black giving a girl an item that can fulfill her heart’s desires (very Leland Gaunt, no? more ammo for my ‘Gaunt is Flagg’ headcanon). So it really has connections to a ton of King’s other works.

This was a pleasant but not spectacular read. It definitely went in a direction I wasn’t expecting and the scenes right before the end were a real punch in the gut, but I feel it was a little more bright and happy than what we usually get from King (perhaps because he had a co-writer?). A great novella for Constant Readers but if you’re not familiar with his other books I don’t know how effective this would be.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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How to Be Human, by Paula Cocozza. Finished May 27th. He was an escape artist, she thought admiringly. Maybe he could free her too.

This is, oddly enough, the third book I have read about humans having strange relationships with foxes. There’s Lady into Fox, The Fox Woman, and now How to Be Human. But unlike the other books in the same vein that I have read, there is no aspect of humanity to the fox in Human. It’s literally about a woman who becomes utterly obsessed with an animal.

Mary has recently gotten out of a horrible relationship, and her life seems very small and sad. She goes to work, comes home, eats, sleeps, repeat. She is often late and is constantly berated by her boss. She lusts after the seemingly happy life of her next-door neighbors and their two small children. Basically, Mary is a crazy cat lady without the cats. One day she finds a fox in her backyard and quickly becomes… enamored with it.

This is a very uncomfortable book. There is nothing overtly illicit between Mary’s feelings about “her fox” but the book is always pushing you right to the edge of your comfort level. Mary refers to the fox as her boyfriend in public. She gets flustered every time he leaves her a “present.” She thinks, longingly, about what life would be if she could just run away and live with her fox. It’s not a “I wish he was my pet” type of affection, so if you are easily squicked out this is probably not the book for you.

Somehow it manages to be both fascinating and boring. As many other reviews have noted, How to be Human is a strange combination of factors and you’re probably not going to love all of them. It is deathly slow and really drags towards the middle. But the writing is lovely and the plot so fascinating that you can’t look away. It feels very much like a first novel: there are moments of brilliance and it has the bones of something utterly amazing. I rated it 4 stars so obviously I enjoyed it, but it always felt like it could have been better. Like it needed another layer of polish to really deliver on everything it promises.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Hold the Dark, by William Giraldi. Finished May 29th. He knew what haunted meant. The dead don’t haunt the living. The living haunt themselves.

This book was such a pleasant surprise. Let’s be honest, I picked it up because there is a wolf on a cover. That’s literally enough to sell a book for me. Plus it’s shelved as a thriller/mystery, which is also right up my alley. Thankfully I did not read the whole blurb (which has some early-book spoilers, so if you’re interested in Hold the Dark I would recommend NOT looking at the Goodreads summary) and went into this totally blind.

It is indeed a thriller… of sorts. This is a bloody, bleak revenge tale. The premise is simple: in a small village in Alaska, wolves have taken (and eaten) 3 children in a very short span of time. One of the grieving mothers (Medora Slone) contacts a man who is something of a wolf expert to come and help them. This man, Russel Core, loves wolves and is very reluctant about killing one but goes to the village anyway. Both Medora and Core have ulterior motives here, and nothing is what it first seems like.

This is a very bleak book. It is set in utter desolation: we are in Alaska right before the winter solstice, which means about 6 hours of light a day. It’s freezing cold, the village barely has enough people to be called that, and everyone who lives there is far below the poverty line. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel lonely and cold right down to your bones. There are a few scenes of Medora’s huband, Vernon, at war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and while the scenery is certainly different the tone is the same. Instead of cold we have oppressive heat, and the horrors of war are not exactly pleasant reading. This is an uncomfortable novel in almost every aspect.

It is also brutal. There is a lot of violence here, and most of it is senseless. Remember when I said this was a revenge story? Well, it’s not a justice sort of revenge. It’s revenge blinded by bloodlust and anger. There is little logic to how the characters act: for the most part, they are actually insane or teetering right on the border. It’s like the Alaskan wilderness has burrowed into their hearts and turned them into something other than human. Which is a main theme of the book: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be an animal? And where do we draw the line between the two?

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Scratch, by Steve Himmer. Finished May 31st. Even when other animals lose their ability to plant fear in your hearts, when the howl of coyotes or the rumbling of bears makes your heart flutter with the nostalgia of ignorance, and you feel yourself drawn back to nature-as if you have ever been able to leave-the call-and-response of a pack in the hills sends you scampering back to your cars, onto the roads, out of the mountains toward home where you lock double-paned windows and pull down heavy shades and turn up the lights as bright as you can. Is there anything else left in the forest as frightening as wolves?

There’s me, I suppose. There’s still me.

This book was such a pleasant surprise. I am easily sucked in by a good book cover and that is about 80% of the reason I picked up Scratch. That and the title. I barely even skimmed over the summary before I added it to my TBR. Usually this ends badly for me, but Scratch is a very happy exception.

It’s a hard book to describe. On the surface it is about a construction planner named Martin who starts a project in a small town. It’s a very isolated community, but he falls in love with it and wants to live in one of the houses he is building. But something about the town is… off. Martin begins having very strange dreams, the animals start acting bizarrely, and people are slowly disappearing.

It’s a good setup, but the charm of this book lies in the narrator. Because it’s told to us by the devil. Or rather, a devil. Scratch is a disembodied entity who lives in the forest Martin is building in, and he has complete control over the environment. Most of the book follows Martin directly but we get increasingly eerie asides as Scratch talks directly to the reader. It’s used sparingly and very effectively. It’s clear that Scratch has a plan for Martin (and the reader!), and watching it play out is an increasingly stressful experience.

This is a tense, psychologically-driven book. It’s not a thriller per say because the pacing is slow and there is only a faint air of mystery, but if you like spooky woods and devils and mayhem I really can’t recommend this enough.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

It’s odd that I rounded off the month with 3 books that had very similar themes (human vs animal, nature vs humans) even though I really didn’t intend to. I also read 4 in a row with wolves/foxes (the last 3 I read, plus one I am in the middle of). Is it a sign?! Probably not, but I always love odd coincidences like that.

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 90/200

Goal Books: 84

Impulse Reads: 6

Top 5 Wednesday: Summer Reads

17 May

Surprise, it’s another Top 5 Wednesday! I know I don’t do them very frequently, but I like to wait until a topic really piques my interest if I’m going to do a whole post on it.

When I think of summer reads, I think of books that make you really feel the season. Books that are hot, humid, and sweltering. The kind of books that if you read in the dead of winter, you’d find yourself throwing off your blanket because it just feels wrong to read them all bundled up. I know a lot of people think summer = light, fun, fluffy books but I like to read things that are seasonal in setting rather than mood (for summertime, at least). So let’s get into it!

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Summertime, All The Cats Are Bored, by Philippe Georget. Everything about this book screams “summer.” The title, the cover, the moody hot atmosphere of the mystery. It’s a very slow, languid detective novel, so if you are in the mood for a fast-paced thriller this is not the book for you. The mystery is interesting enough, but the real reason to read this is the main detective. He’s hilarious, and nothing like your usual “tough grizzled murder mystery solver.” Basically he just wants a nice calm summer break but all these dang murders keep happening!

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Panic, by Lauren Oliver. My most potent summer memories all revolve around high school. You still get summer vacation like a kid, but you’re old enough to make the memories last. And, you know, to do really stupid things like hang out in derelict buildings and jump into waterfalls from cliffs dangling above them. Panic might not be an amazing book (even I must admit it’s only okay), but it captures that feeling of I-can-do-anything teen invincibility so well. There are few books that really feel like you do in that time of your life: the summer heat, the hormones, the rush of doing dangerous things just to feel alive. If you want a book that makes you look back at your own teenage choices and think, “holy hell was I stupid” then Panic might be the book for you.

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Hurt People, by Cote Smith. This is a recent read, but it’s also the first one I thought of when this topic came up. Hurt People is from the perspective of a young child and his (slightly older) brother one hot and dangerous summer. The actual plot is quite bleak but the childish perspective adds a layer of dreaminess to the narrative. The boys spend the majority of the summer plotting ways to get into the neighborhood swimming pool without their mom knowing, and what person doesn’t have insanely fond memories of swimming in cool water during a heat wave? It’s a nostalgic read, but one that will also tug on your heartstrings a bit.

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The Summer that Melted Everything, by Tiffany Daniels. As you can tell by the name, this book is hot. It takes place during the hottest summer on record in a small town when… the devil comes to visit. Only the devil is a little black boy. Tiffany McDaniel’s descriptions of the heat made me feel sweltering: I was desperate for an ice pop basically the whole time. This was also my favorite book of 2016! The writing is stunning, the plot is interesting, the themes are dark and relevant… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish that you too had an ice pop.

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The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. When I think “books that make you feel so hot you want to die” nothing can beat The Windup Girl. It takes place in a flooded, post-apocalyptic Thailand and is a strange mashup of steampunk and environmental spec fic. It’s also so freaking hot. Every moment in this book is dripping in sweat: not only is there no air conditioning, but global warming has kicked into full gear so it’s routinely around 110 degrees. And the characters are surrounded by water, so it’s also humid. Lovely! It’s also tragically sad, like the other top three books on this list: I wonder if summer books are more likely to be melancholy, or if I just read a lot of depressing fiction?

May 2017 Wrapup: Part I

16 May

My TBR list is getting frighteningly, unmanageably out of control. One of my goals this year was to read 75 books off of it, which is a noble endeavor that I’ve kind of been avoiding. So I’ve decided that May is “read your TBR month” meaning that all of my night-time (aka primary) reads can only be books from that list. Which is 445+ titles, so a lot to pick from! It’s gone well so far with 7 TBR books down, and I am currently in the middle of 2 others. Ideally I’d love to read 15 by the end of the month, but we’ll see how that goes…

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Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal. Finished May 1st. Everything about this book sounded so appealing to me. It’s about a Mormon girl who is forced to be a Sister Wife (aka second/third/etc wife of a polygamist) at the tender age of 15. She is wild at heart and does not at all believe in the community, so from the moment she finds out about her “engagement” she plots to escape–along with the help of her husband’s nephew, who falls head over heels for her.

This may seem like a damsel in distress story but Loretta is anything but a damsel. Even amidst horrifying circumstances she is brave and canny. And, thankfully, also not a “heart of gold with a rough exterior” archetype. Part of the magic of this novel is slowly realizing that Loretta is very much in charge of everything that happens, and works very hard to shape the reactions (and actions) of everyone around her. She’s a fascinating character, and I do wish we’d been given a bit more of her perspective.

Intertwined with Loretta’s story is the lore of Evel Knievel. Thus the title, Daredevils. We get in-between fragment-chapters of Knievel addressing America about his long history of daredevil tricks, and these themes mirror the actual narrative. He’s also an important, shadowy presence in the book in many clever and strange ways. It sounds like a bizarre combination of things (escape from a cult, coming of age, crazy road trips, Evel Knievel…) but some weird alchemy holds it all together very well.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Night Mark, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished May 3rd. I hate to say that a Tiffany Reisz book was not for me, but I think I am just not the target audience here. I love Reisz for the snark and bite of her work: sure, we get happy stories from her, but there is always darkness teeming under the surface. And while I suppose The Night Mark has a few dark moments, it is primarily a romance. Which I don’t like.

I mean, we do get time travel, which I thought was enough of a hook to get me to bite. But this is not The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s not a tragedy, it’s not a deconstruction of time travel tropes. It’s a pretty straightforward ‘woman’s husband dies, woman gets with new terrible husband, woman gets divorced, woman somehow travels back to 1921 and finds a man who is exactly like husband #1 in looks and personality’ story. There is death, there are elements of sadness, but the focus is on the love between Faye (our heroine) and Will/Carrick (first husband/dude in past).

As usual with Reisz, I think the characters were the strongest point of this. The side characters are great, and Faye is a decently snarky narrator (though she pales in comparison to queen Nora). I’m sure romance lovers will enjoy this because the writing is much better than what you usually find in the genre and there’s a decently engaging plot with twists and turns. I just wanted something more like her Original Sinners series or her stand-alone The Bourbon Thief, which does the “dark romance” thing way better.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Oola, by Brittany Newell. Finished May 4th. A dark, quirky, moody story of obsession gone wrong. 20-somethings Leif and Oola meet at a party and he is almost instantly smitten with her. Well, I suppose smitten is not the right word exactly, because there is nothing positive about Leif’s attention. It is clear that Oola isn’t exactly looking for a relationship, but the two end up together anyway under strange circumstances. Leif is part of an extensive and very wealthy family, and his “job” is to house-sit for various relatives while they are on vacation. Which is a lot. Basically, Leif offers Oola free room and board and an adventurous romp across Europe & the US. She says yes because come on now, who wouldn’t?

It is clear from the beginning that neither of our protagonists is quite right in the head, but it’s truly shocking how bizarre things get. Oola at first appears listless and eccentric, but it’s soon clear that she is perhaps as crazy as Leif. And Leif… whoof. One of the most unique narrators I have ever encountered. There are shades of Joe from You, but Leif is delivered with more insidious finesse. His madness creeps up on the reader as slowly as it creeps up on Oola. By the time they are in Big Sur and Leif has constructed a literal museum to Oola in the attic by stealing everything she touches, part of you doesn’t even realize how crazy it is until you put the book down.

This is a purely character-driven book, so if you’re looking for plot it’s probably not for you. I mean, things happen, but the actual events are few and far between. For the most part we are just hanging out with Leif and Oola as they drift aimlessly through life. There’s a sense of ennui and hopelessness to both the writing and the plot. While Leif’s commentary is biting and sarcastic, it’s also sad and rather pathetic. Just like him.

I was going to rate this a solid 4 until I got to the last chapter. In it, Leif addresses the reader directly. He’d done it a few times before but only in bits and pieces: his end monologue sent shivers down my spine and I know it’s going to stay with me for a long, long time

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Moto and Me, by Suzi Eszterhas*. Finished May 4th. As a kid, I was pretty obsessed with Joy Adamson. I read all of her books over and over for probably a year straight. My mom kept Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard from me until I had run through the lion & cheetah ones a thousand times, so for a while I got to live in a blissful world where an amazing human wasn’t killed by poachers because she loved animals. SIGH. So obviously I am a sucker for abandoned wildlife stories.

I also got to kind of live out that fantasy when, at 16 years old, my mom and I ended up with three 10-day old kittens. Because their cat-mom tried to eat them (and successfully ate two of their siblings, rip those adorable kittens). They were kind of shoved on us by a negligent owner, and the animal rescue place told us that they’d take them, but there was no way 3 kittens that young would survive. I was inconsolable until my mom agreed to raise them with me. And suck it, animal rescue, because all 3 of them are 11 years old now and alive and well (and obnoxious, but we love them. handraised kittens are huge brats!)

So Moto and Me ticks off a lot of boxes for me. Adorable teeny abandoned kitten raised by a woman living on a wildlife reserve? Endless pictures of said adorable Serval kitten along with lots of educational information? Yes please. This book is definitely aimed at a young audience (I think it would be perfect to read with a kid), so don’t expect a huge depth to the story. The focus is definitely on the nitty gritty of taking care of Moto, which includes cool details like teaching him to fish by putting a catfish in a bowl of water. Side note: if you are squeamish, there are shots of Moto hunting and playing with his prey.

The photography is really the star here. While the story is simply told, the photographs are rich and beautiful. We get to see Moto grow from a tiny, helpless kitten to a beautiful wild animal. Because Suzi Eszterhas is just fostering Moto and setting him up for a life in the wild, there is a bittersweet element at play. If you want a book that will make you feel warm and fuzzy in these troubled times and also tug on your heartstrings a lot, check this one out.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Taming the Beast, by Emily McGuire. Finished May 6th. If you want a book that will make you feel non-stop nauseous then boy oh boy do I have something for you. Taming the Beast is a hard thing to describe: we get obvious comparisons to Lolita, Lamb, etc because it is about an “affair” a 14-year-old girl has with her teacher, but that’s really only a small section of the novel. It’s divided into 4 parts, and only in the first do we see poor young Sarah “seduced” by her 40+ year old teacher Daniel.

The rest follows Sarah’s life in the aftermath of this. Her teacher leaves school after only a few months, and her life is just a downward slide from there. Drugs, alcohol, constantly sleeping with anyone she comes into contact with, literally living in squalor. Sarah is such a sad but nuanced character: you want to hug her and shake some sense into her at the same time. The narrative around her is actually quite clever, because it’s clear that the story is framing Daniel as the bad guy (why some people seem to think this is an erotic romance is truly beyond me) but Sarah is obsessed with him. Even as an adult, she thinks they were in love and that there is no other man for her. In fact, her whole life becomes chasing the feeling of their time together. She thinks she’s just looking for love, but she’s looking for someone to hurt her… which doesn’t happen until Daniel comes back 8 years later.

This is a really, really rough read. Big flashing TW for rape & physical abuse. It is a tragedy in 4 acts, and you know from the first chapter that we will not get a happy ending. It’s just a study of the depth of depravity that humans can get up to. And because the reader becomes so fond of poor, precocious Sarah, it’s particularly distressing. It’s hard to watch a character throw away everything good in their life. And in that way, this actually reminded me a smidge of A Little Life. So, you know, if you like books that hurt you deep in your soul perhaps you’d enjoy this!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich. Finished May 8th. Idaho is a hard book to describe. The premise is classic thriller/mystery: on a hot summer day, a child is murdered with an axe. There is indeed a strong mystery element here: not a whodunnit (because this is revealed in the first chapter), but a whydunnit. Because the motive is kept from the reader for the majority of the book. Actually… I would say the motive is kept from the reader from the whole book. Don’t come into this expecting a resolution, because there isn’t one. We are given bits and pieces of the crime, but there is no “so this is what happened” scene that wraps everything in a nice bow. I must admit that I found this a bit frustrating, but I also understand that Idaho is not supposed to be about the answers.

Instead, it is more of a character study. It’s an exploration of the power of memory and how one event can ripple through time. The plot jumps through time and from character to character: we have multiple narrators (most of them female), and flick from 1973 to 2025. The themes (identity, memory, perception) are ones that I adore in fiction, and Emily Ruskovich does an excellent job with them. We have, of course, the memory of the crime resonating through the story, but there is a character with dementia so we explore what it means to forget something horrible. Are you better off living with a memory forever? Could forgetting be somehow worse than never letting it go? And how does your perception of your own memories affect your life? It’s totally up my alley.

And the writing is gorgeous. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscape, but even the quieter moments were beautifully rendered. I really do think this had the making of a 5-star read for me, but the focus on the mystery was distracting. I really wish we had just had Jenny say “I don’t know why I did it” near the beginning because it’s really hard as a reader to not want a resolution when presented with a mystery. And it really does seem like all the threads are coming together, the tension rises with each chapter, but then… there’s nothing. It just ends. If the focus had been on “dealing with a senseless crime” rather than “exploring why/how the crime happened” I would have adored this. As it is, I have a really serious love-hate relationship with it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Impossible Fairy Tale, by Han Yujoo. Finished May 12th. This book has all the ingredients of something I should love. Strange Asian magical realism about dark, disturbing children? Twisted fairy-tale elements? Surreal and unsettling writing? A surprise meta-narrative? Yes to all of these things. And while I think The Impossible Fairy Tale does a lot right, I found it falling surprisingly flat for me by the end.

My absolute favorite element here was the writing itself. It’s strange and disturbing and unlike anything I’ve read before. The narrative will circle around itself, starting with an idea or concept and discussing it in a strangely repetitive fashion before veering in a totally different direction. There are large chunks that literally feel like you are in a dark fairy tale: it’s confusing and gets under your skin, but also feels strangely glimmering and magical. I was totally enchanted by it, and I’ll read anything Yujoo writes in the future for sure.

And the first half of the story is actually fairly strong. It’s definitely got that fairy tale style where the reader is kept at arm’s length from the characters so there is an emotional distance, but the mirroring of Mia (the Good Child) and The Child (the “Bad” Child) was deftly done and very interesting. In fact, there are a lot of aspects of the story (from characters to plots to colors) that are mirrored so cleverly. It makes you feel off-balance because it’s repetitive but also… not quite the same. Like fun house mirror versions of things you read about.

My issue is the same as almost everyone else’s: the big shift right in the middle. I actually loved the idea (someone writing a story suddenly confronted with a character they thought they had made up) but it went nowhere. The plot was moving along steadily, there’s a big event, the characters come to life (or were possibly alive all along?) and then bam, dead in the water. It meanders around for another 40% of what feels like filler. I think there was SO much potential when The Child confronts The Author, but we got nothing out of it. It was a waste of paper, really, and I found myself insanely frustrated with this section. What was the point? I have no idea.

3 stars is usually a pretty “it was okay, I’m neutral on it” rating, but this book I both loved and hated. It was magical but frustrating, and didn’t live up to either the hype or the amazing premise. I’m happy I read it because the writing is truly fantastic, but I’m also really sad about the (lack of) direction it went in to.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Woman No. 17, by Edan Lepucki. Finished May 14th. Toxic friendships/relationships seems to be the theme of the month for me. Oola, Taming the Beast, Daredevils, and now Woman No. 17. This book is like a mashup of Eileen and The Goddesses: two very strange women form a weirdly intense and entwining friendship that threatens to tear them both down.

On one side we have Lady, a woman in her 40′s who has just separated from her husband. She has a young child she needs a nanny for, and also an 18-year-old son from a previous relationship who is totally mute (but otherwise normal). Well, Lady doesn’t really need a nanny: she doesn’t work, she’s not a “lady who lunches.” She just honestly does not want to spend all day caring for her young child. It’s not that she doesn’t love him, it’s just that she finds all-day child-care exhausting. Enter S, a girl fresh out of college who enters Lady’s life as a live-in nanny.

S is a bit more secretive about her past, but she has a lot in common with Lady. They both have pretty severe mother issues, which is the dominant theme of this book: motherhood and womanhood. What makes you a good parent, is it possible to raise a child without messing them up in some way, are we doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes, etc. Mixed into this are a lot of questions about identity.

Art is also an important theme in Woman No. 17. S is an artist, and Lady’s sister-in-law is a very famous photographer. The idea of “living life like it’s an art piece” is explored in-depth, though in a quite twisted fashion. This book really dives into the psyche of some messed-up people, so if unlikeable protagonists are not your thing steer clear of this one. Both Lady and S are just… they are hot messes. You feel bad for them but at the same time can’t help being a bit horrified and repulsed. We’re just witnesses to them shoving their lives down the drain as they make increasingly bad and stupid decisions.

While there are perhaps some mystery/thriller elements, and I know the phrase ‘noir’ has been tossed about quite a bit, this is a character study more than anything else. We get some reveals but they are of personal histories, not deep and hidden mysteries. There’s tension, but it is not of the classic thriller variety. It’s a book of decadence and self-destruction. I really enjoyed it despite how constantly uneasy it made me feel, and it’s a strong second showing from Lepucki.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Illustrated Edition, by J. K. Rowling. Finished May 14th. As I’ve mentioned previously, I got the illustrated editions of the first two Harry Potter books for Christmas last year. It had been ages since I read them, so it was nice going back into these early stories with fresh eyes.

Like with Sorcerer’s Stone, there are so many events here that echo throughout the series. I’d never noticed most of them (for example, we find out how the Vanishing Cabinet was broken!), and while I used to rank this as one of my least-favorite Potter books I appreciated it a whole lot more this time. Plus the illustrations are just… so amazing. If you’re a fan, it’s worth it to grab copies of these. They are truly special.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 80/200

Goal Books: 74

Impulse Reads: 6

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

Bailey’s Shortlist 2017 Discussion

10 May

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While I have not read every book on the Bailey’s longlist (mostly because I either can’t get the remaining titles/have 0 interest in them), I have finally finished the 6 books on the shortlist! And since the winner will be announced in the not-too-far-future, I thought it was high time to have an informal discussion about the books on it. I’ve reviewed them all so I am not going to rehash all my opinions here, but just generally discuss how I feel about the shortlist, who I want to win, and its strengths and weaknesses.  To start off here is the list, in order of least- to most-favorites.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

The Power, Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo

The Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeline Thien

I can break these into 3 general categories.

Would be (mildly) upset if they won: I feel that books with large, glaring flaws really do not deserve to win a prize, no matter how strong certain aspects are. Unless it’s a prize that values that specific aspect (like Goldsmiths, for example). So it’s no surprise that I would be a little annoyed if First Love or The Power won. I feel like First Love is kind of a universal head-scratcher: it’s not a bad book, but it combines a total lack of plot with just okay writing and a not-original concept. I actually liked FL, but I do wonder how it even got on the list.

The Power is probably a controversial pick for the “please don’t win” category because it is well-loved. But I found it to have very glaring issues that I discuss in my review.

Basically neutral: It’s no surprise that the middle two on my list, Stay With Me and The Dark Circle, are my “meh” books. I didn’t hate them, and in fact I enjoyed both books. They’re just not overly memorable and I had an issue with each of them (SWM is a little melodramatic and TDC lacked a bit of plot depth & cohesion). But they both feel like very prize-y books, especially this particular prize, so I can see either winning. I wouldn’t care too much if they did… but I also wouldn’t be upset.

Favorites: Rounding out the list are The Sport of Kings and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I absolutely adored both of these books. DNSWHN was already a favorite after I read it for the Man Booker last year, and was my runner-up winner for that prize (Hot Milk was number 1 in my heart). I feel like both are just very strong all around: deep characters, complex but not convoluted plots, gorgeous (though very different) writing. And in fact they are quite similar! Both are family sagas that deal with very tough topics (racism, oppression, etc), and both have a ‘hobby’ as a backdrop and ongoing thematic/metaphorical element (horse racing for SoK, music for Do Not Say). Both are lush and dense and easy to sink in to.

Winner prediction: While Stay With Me seems to be the fan favorite, I predict that The Power will win. It just seems very Bailey’s, no? Not overly literary but well written, has strong feminist themes, and commercial appeal. The Sport of Kings has been shortlisted for a LOT of other awards though, so maybe this is finally its time to shine.

In general, I did not find this to be a very strong shortlist. It had only two really memorable titles for me, and they were ones I would have read anyway (or in the case of the Thien, already had read). I honestly think the longlist is much, much stronger overall, and most of my favorites (like The Lonely Hearts Hotel, my #1 fave Bailey’s book, and Hag-Seed) were left off (along with the fan-faves The Essex Serpent and The Gustav Sonata). I honestly cannot fathom how something like First Love got on over them. In fact, I am not even sure what Bailey’s is looking for when they pick a shortlisted novel. Most of the truly innovative books didn’t make the shortlist, and they don’t seem to have been picked on specific things like strong plots or standout writing. So what gives? Then again, judging a prize is obviously not a quantifiable thing, and perhaps I should leave it up to the professionals. But I will be salty about Lonely Hearts Hotel until the day I die.

Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part II

4 May

I am almost on time with my final wrapup this month. So proud. Actually I had 3 instead of 2 for April (Part I and Dewey’s) so it’s okay that this is not bang on the first of the month. April ended up being a pretty great reading month: 22 books finished! Of course that was with the huge boost Dewey’s gave me. Last year I was regularly doing 20+ a month without readathons, I wonder what happened? Oh, I know: in 2016 I spent part of each day reading (as opposed to my usual, only-before-bed habit) and in 2017 I’ve been playing so many video games. The 100 hours I’ve sunk into Persona 5 could be, like, 40+ books read but what fun would that be.

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Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. Finished April 16th. Sometimes I’ll be really enjoying a book, and suddenly come to a part where you can see the seams coming undone. It begins to drift further and further from what I want it to be, until I wind up at a hot mess of an ending. Sadly, that happened with Perfect Little World: a book with a lot of potential that somehow manages to squander every one of its interesting premises.

I’ll start with the good, because I really don’t want to be massively negative about this. I gave it 3 stars, after all! And that is mostly because of how much I enjoyed the first 2/3rds or so. PLW is about the ‘Infinite Family Project,’ where ten families (9 sets of parents and one single mom, Izzy, our main character) raise their children communally. It sounds like a hippie commune, but it’s led by a child psychologist and funded by a billionaire. So it’s a really scientific commune! With a premise like that, you expect one of two things: a really annoying utopia, or a utopia-turned-dystopia narrative. Thankfully, PLW skirts the border between the two and gives us a story grounded in humanity.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not the wreck the reader (and the outside world in the novel) expect. Sure, there is tension and not all the parents get along. Sure, our main doctor has a host of issues from his parent’s bizarre choices when raising him. Sure, the woman funding the project is really, really old. But for the most part, it presents a nuanced and mainly positive spin on the idea.

However… I had a lot of issues. Many of them I could have overlooked had the ending not been so terribly trite, rushed, and sappy. For instance, our main character Izzy is so annoying. She’s perfect. Perfect grades in school (literally), she’s good at everything she does, she’s beautiful, she’s kind. Kevin Wilson tries to balance her away from being a Mary Sue with a tragic backstory (ironically one of the trademarks of a Mary Sue) and her strange sense of aloofness. Izzy doesn’t like being close to people. She comes off very holier-than-thou yet incredibly boring at the same time. But she’s a decent narrator when she is not talking about herself, so the whole book is not through this “woe is me, poor damaged but perfect girl” lens.

I think the moment I realized I was not going to love this book was when Izzy started falling for the doctor leading the project (this is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the prologue). I actually said “oh god really? We’re going there?” when it happened. It’s SO TRITE. Only single woman on the project, only single man, both are damaged by ~rough childhood~, of course they end up together. I though Izzy was actually going to get the “you know what? I don’t need a man” narrative which I would have really respected. Instead it’s so chick-lit-y and sappy and bleh.

The last half of the book feels very rushed. We get quite a few pre-IFP chapters with Izzy, and the intro chapters to the project itself are quite long. And after that, every year in the IFP is only one chapter, with some of them being quite short (like 20 pages short). It’s so rushed! We don’t get the in-depth look at either the children’s development or the parental relations. A LOT of these chapters are spent on Izzy at art school (a plot that goes nowhere because she doesn’t even want to be an artist, sigh).

And the ending! Oh god. It’s so sappy and wrapped in a bow. I was really disappointed in it, mainly because it doesn’t fit at all what we are told about the family & children. Literally makes no sense in its own universe, which is one of the worst things you can do with an ending.

I do think this book had a lot of potential. I think Wilson was too smitten with Izzy as a character, and needed to cut that cord badly. The book should have had a different narrator every year (we follow a different set of parents, for example) and should have been much longer (or the intro chapters should have been cut). Too much of this novel felt like useless fluff to the narrative, and we were left with so little meat on the bone.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone Illustrated, by J. K. Rowling. Finished April 17th. I mean, it’s Harry Potter, what is there to say? I got the illustrated versions of books 1 & 2 for Christmas, and it felt like the perfect time to read them. I actually haven’t re-read the first book in… many years! Let me tell you, I have re-read 3 through 7 dozens of times (no exaggeration) but I tend to skip the early novels on my re-reads. Mostly because they just don’t have enough meat on them.

But I was surprised at how much of Sorcerer’s Stone becomes important down the line. So many hints and nudges toward the final reveals. It’s clear that Rowling had a really tight gameplan from the very beginning. Still far from my favorite of the series, but I really appreciated it more this time around.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marlena, by Julie Buntin. Finished April 18th. I always find it hardest to discuss books I adored. If it’s a book I hate, there’s lots to talk about. If it’s a middle of the road book, it’s easy to point out both the flaws and the positives. But when I want to do nothing but gush? I find that a lot harder, since I want to avoid spoilers but I also want to do nothing but talk about how much I adored it. Which isn’t that interesting, usually. Yet here we are.

I am a sucker for the toxic female friendship trope. It’s usually done well enough, but I so rarely find a book that really nails that heady, teenage-friendship-gone-wrong feeling I am looking for. Last year’s Girls on Fire was close but no cigar, and I was a bit worried Marlena would be in that YA-trying-to-be-adult niche that just… it doesn’t work. Pick a side, don’t mix the two! Thankfully, Marlena is head and shoulders above pretty much every other book I’ve read in this micro-genre.

I think the thing that makes it so great is that our narrator, Cat, is telling her story as an adult. She is fully grown and reflecting back on her brief but bright-burning friendship with Marlena, her beautiful but troubled next door neighbor. Her life is still clearly affected by her months with Marlena, which is a touch I adored. So often characters go through trauma and then end up totally fine as adults (or have some stupid single flaw like ~can’t stay in one place~). Adult-Cat is an alcoholic, an issue that clearly starts when she begins drinking with Marlena.

While this is a book about teen girls, it is not at all fluffy or frivolous or lacking in depth. It tackles some really serious issues, and Cat’s adult voice adds a layer of gravitas to the tale. Plus, we know right off the bat that Marlena dies after Cat knows her for less than a year. This is a tragedy, pure and simple. There’s really no bright light in the darkness, and while the ending gives us a tiny glimmer of hope for adult-Cat it’s just bleak in general. At the same time, all the teenage dialogue and stupidity feels completely authentic. It’s really hard to write a book about teenagers without it feeling either childish or like an adult trying to be “hip” but Marlena is just… perfect.

I loved everything about this book. The writing was absolutely gorgeous, from the stunning opening line (“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”) to the poignant and bittersweet end. The characters are real and flawed and human. The story is compelling but never over-the-top or melodramatic. My only complaint is that I wanted it to be so much longer, I wanted my time in this story to never end.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Penric and the Shaman, by  Lois McMaster Bujold. Hugo Nominated Novella. Finished April 24th. The last Hugo-nominated novella! And for me, my least-favorite (though I did still give it 3 stars).

I think the most impressive thing about Penric and the Shaman is that it’s a sequel novella set in an already-established world but I went in blind and was never confused. The worldbuiling is handled so well, and there is enough recap of the main elements that I felt like I understood it by the end. I do wonder if that is tedious for a long-time reader, though! Are they just sitting there like “no shit there are 5 gods, move along now.”

It’s an interesting world for sure, especially the religion built around its gods. I always like when books do that (i.e Gentleman Bastards). There’s shamans, spirit walks, tons of animals, demons, priests, etc. But I wasn’t particularly riveted by the main plotline. It’s kind of a mystery–a murder mystery at first, and then a magic mystery. It becomes “how do the magic elements line up to solve this plotline?” Which I guess is a cool and unique device but… I just didn’t really care about the characters. Maybe because it’s a sequel and a lot of Penric & Desdemona character growth has already happened? They just felt a little flat to me.

It’s certainly not a bad novella, and I think I might have rated it higher if I hadn’t already read the rest of the Hugo novella nominees (which were all 5- or 4-star reads for me).

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Song of Susannah, by Stephen King. Finished April 24th. The penultimate Dark Tower book! And actually my least-favorite so far. That’s not to say I didn’t like it: I mean, I gave it 3.5 stars! But I found it too short and slow-paced. The entire 500+ pages take place in maybe 3 or 4 hours? It crawls through a very short section of time so not a whole lot could possibly happen.

We do get quite a few answers to questions that were raised in previous books, and there was one element in particular (that, apparently, is the most controversial aspect of the series!) I absolutely loved. But it just wasn’t as powerful as Wolves of the Calla or The Waste Lands, which were my favorites. So far. Fingers crossed I like the last book the best!

I think there is a common thread between all the books in the series I absolutely adored. They all feature the core 4 (Roland, Jake, Oy, Eddie, & Susannah) together. When they are separated/not together (like in Song or The Drawing of the Three) I like but don’t love them. Interesting!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfeg. Finished April 26th. I didn’t really love last year’s Booker-nominated Eileen, so it might seem a bit odd that I picked this up. But there were aspects of Eileen that I did enjoy (and, to be honest, I need to read a short story collection by a woman for Read Harder) so I decided to give Moshfeg a second chance.

First off: I think Moshfeg is incredibly pretentious and obnoxious as a human being, and I can’t help but let my perception of her affect my reading of her stories a bit. I kept finishing a story, thinking “okay so what was that about” and then realizing she probably thinks it was ~deep~ and ~meaningful.~ I had to actively stop myself from doing this because it was ruining the book for me. Pro tip: unless you’ve heard from others that an author is an awesome human, maybe don’t read interviews with them.

Like Eileen, these stories all focus on the sordid and dirty side of humanity. They are alternately disgusting, cringey, and gag-inducing. There’s a lot of poop and vomit and weird sex and eating disorders and drugs and squalor. But many of them seem more like chapters in a book than stories. They’ll start off interesting, and just kind of… end? Without anything really happening? It felt like reading a ton of opening chapters, but not in a fun If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler kind of way. It was boring and frustrating, which is not what I want from a story collection.

I’m being so negative, but I did not hate this. Moshfeg can indeed write, and I find her fascination with humanity’s disgusting side to be quite intriguing. Sometimes you find yourself identifying with a character and have to take a step back and just…. reconsider some of your life choices. There were a few standouts I will remember, but all in all this was a well written but poorly constructed collection I’ll soon forget.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Why God is a Woman, by Nin Andrews. Finished April 27th. This pose-poetry collection (isn’t it really more like flash fiction at this point? who decides what is prose-poetry? why is that even a category, if they are two separate things? so many random questions here) does what The Power really wanted to. It takes an inverted view of gender and uses this to discuss some very serious ideas & issues.

Why God is a Woman is a magical-realism “story” that takes place on an island where women are the dominant sex, and men sprout wings at puberty. The wings are obviously a metaphor for girls getting their period (the wings bleed as they come in, they have to wear cotton pads, it’s embarrassing and they are teased about it, etc) but they also are an interesting twist on women being the “flighty” sex. Almost every metaphor here works on two levels like this. There is a very obvious one and then a more subtle, insidious comparison to modern life and gender.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect collection. Some of it came off as a little too silly (like all the women in a town are named Angelina because they look like Angelina Jolie?) and some of it is a bit heavy-handed in its delivery. But overall I found this very enjoyable and it was basically what I wanted from The Power on a social commentary level.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The White Princess, by Philippa Gregory. Finished April 30th. So, Philippa Gregory is one of those authors who I insist I “just kind of like.” But I’ve read 11 of her books at this point, so who am I kidding? Some of them I unabashedly love (like The Constant Princess, which kickstarted my interest in historical fiction), some are bland, and others play a little too fast and loose with history for my liking. White Princess definitely falls into the latter category.

This is the story of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry Tudor and mother of Henry VIII. A very important historical figure! And we’ve seen her several times before in Gregory’s books (namely in the 3 they bunched together for the White Queen tv show). And there are some, ah, magical realism elements at play. Because, you know, maybe Elizabeth and her mother actually did have magical powers! It’s possible, right? But even giving her the “okay so there’s a weird death song they hear when a member of the family dies and they’re descended from a literal water goddess” thing, the amount of liberties taken with history are truly astounding.

For instance, there is no actual proof that Elizabeth had an affair with her uncle, Richard III. But here they were madly in love and she spends about half the book mourning him. And Richard of York, the prince who died in the Tower… probably died in the Tower. Yet here Gregory has decided that one of his many pretenders was actually the real Richard of York, smuggled out of the Tower in secret! And Henry Tudor rapes Elizabeth before their wedding, which there is NO HISTORICAL PROOF FOR. It’s kind of gross that it was included tbh.

So why 3 stars? Something about her books is like crack, guys. Historical fiction crack. I just can’t stop reading them, and I’ve actually read almost all of the Tudor/Cousin’s War books at this point. Might as well finish ‘em off, right?

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 71/200

Goal Books: 65

Impulse Reads: 6

Reading Wrapup: Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon April 2017

4 May

I was down in Philadelphia for the NFL draft on the day Dewey’s actually took place, so I did it exactly 1 week early on April 22nd. I usually just include readathon books in regular wrapups but then they end up being impossibly long, so I decided to split it up this time around! This was a good readathon for me: I only read for about 11 hours (maybe 12? I took a really long break to go for a walk & make dinner) and I didn’t wake up early or stay up later than usual. But I got 7 books read, and 1,186 pages! I mean, I mostly read short things (does Fuku Fuku even count?), but I also hit a lot of goals. I got 2 Man Booker International books, 1 Bailey’s, and 1 Hugo novella off my list, along with 3 physical unread books I own. 2 of them even count for the Read Harder challenge. So they all met goals, which is great! I was hoping to get to both of the Hugo novellas I had to read, but oh well, still a successful readathon.

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Our Numbered Days, by Neil Hilborn. How do you review poetry? I always find it such a daunting task, because poetry is a lot more personal than novels. What we like and what we don’t like won’t always be easily defined, and a great poem for me will fall entirely flat for someone else even if we think we have the same taste in poetry. That said, I absolutely adored this collection. It reminded me a little bit of Melissa Broder and Sam Pink (my favorite modern poets): dark, twisty, emotional, and charged with passion. Many of the poems are about depression and OCD, so I felt a very close personal connection with them that neurotypical readers probably won’t have.

Fun as meditation, meditation being
doing exactly what you want to do
at the exact moment you want
to do it. When I say “I am having fun”
I am also saying “I can’t imagine
being anywhere else.” So suck it,

depression. I don’t need you, I have
not needed you, and even when I don’t
mean it I will say I’m having fun
and I don’t want to be anywhere else.
I will wield my joy like a broadsword
or a fucking nerf gun. I will have
fun like my life depends on it
because it does.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg. MBI longlisted. This was an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable novel about a young girl growing up in 1980′s Poland. It’s an interesting mix of those traditional coming of age elements (discovering sexuality, testing the relationship between parent and child, figuring out what it means to be an adult) with the fall of Communism in the background. For example, in one chapter we have the excitement of a girl getting her first real, grown-up dress, tempered with the knowledge that her mother had to purchase such lovely fabric on the black market. These historical details are very much in the background and don’t dominate the narrative, but they do make an important framework. Because of this, I really suggest reading the translator’s note at the back of the book before reading the novel (novella?) if you aren’t familiar with Polish history. It has almost no spoilers, and provides a lot of context that would have otherwise gone over my head.

The writing is sparkling and beautiful. Wioletta Greg is a poet first and storyteller second, which is pretty clear here. There will be absolutely dazzling sentences about decidedly mediocre characters & plot event. Language alone cannot carry a story to greatness, which is my main takeaway here. Coming of age is a genre I usually greatly enjoy, but everything here lacks depth and connection.

It’s really more a series of vignettes or short stories. We get snippets of Wiola’s life, but none of it feels connected. She gets a cat in one chapter, the cat dies in the next, and that’s it. No more mention of the cat except in very brief passing. It basically goes “oh I am happy I have a cat! Oh no, now I am sad there is no more cat. Anyway here’s what happened with my aunt soandso 2 weeks later.” Many of these chapters really could stand alone as short stories, which is not a compliment. It all feels disconnected, both from the reader and from itself.

I feel almost entirely neutral about Swallowing Mercury. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I’m sure a few weeks from now I will have trouble even remembering the details of the story, if you can call a series of life snippets a story at all. However, if you like slice of life style fiction this might be a lot more up your alley.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Liquid Status, by Bradley Sands. The blurb for this compares it to Blake Butler, especially There Is No Year, which is right on the money. This is a strange, bizarre little novella about a family that becomes trapped in their house after the grandmother dies in the living room. Things get very strange very quickly: after the door disappears, the first thing that happens is the grandmother turning into a Slip ‘n Slide. And that is one of the least out there things that happens in the pages of Liquid Status.

I gave this a good rating, but it might actually be a little too Blake Butler. The influence is clear, and a harsher reviewer might even call it derivative. But there’s a humor here that you don’t find in Butler’s writing. The bizarre events have an element of comedy to go along with the horror, and I actually laughed aloud at some passages. But it’s missing the hallucinatory power of Butler’s language, and at the end I was left a little more puzzled than enraptured.

Bizarro is a genre I do enjoy when done right, and I sadly find that most things in the genre are misses for me. I want there to be some reason behind the strangeness, a meaning the reader can at least try to eke out. Writers like Jeremy Robert Johnson do this very well, and of course Blake Butler (though personally I would never classify him as bizarro), and I think I can safely add Bradley Sands to that category. I did want a little more from Liquid Status than I got, but in the end I’m very glad to have found a new author to follow.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant. Bailey’s shortlisted. The last of the Bailey’s books I plan on tackling! I haven’t read the whole longlist (though I might eventually get to Barkskins), but I do think 13 out of 16 is pretty good. My main goal was to get to the entire shortlist, and this is the last of those 6 I had unread.

The name does make it seem like this will be a more moody and dark book than it actually is. While the plot, which centers on two twins who end up in a tuberculosis sanatorium before a cure is discovered, it certainly not sunshine and rainbows, it’s got a strongly positive core. There is a large and diverse cast at the sanatorium: men and women from all walks of life, and while their lives are far from pleasant they form strong bonds and friendships.

This is not the type of book I would normally pick up, but I found it quite enjoyable. It was basically everything I wanted from The Ballroom. The writing is beautiful, the setting is slow and atmospheric, the cast of characters is very strong. However, I did not find it particularly memorable. While I’m certainly not upset that I read it, it’s also not a book that will stick with me down the line.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Unseen, by Roy Jacobsen. MBI shortlisted. Oddly enough, the things I loved about The Unseen were things I had issues with in Swallowing Mercury. They both have short chapters and most of them could stand alone as short stories. The Unseen is about a family on an isolated island in Norway and we get snippets of their daily life throughout quite a few years. And while some of the chapters were almost stand-alones, there was more connectivity on The Unseen and I felt like the characters were significantly more engaging and sympathetic.

This is a dark, desolate book. The lives of all the characters are very harsh, and there is little for them to live for other than their family. The island they live on seems to be actively working against them: for example, the father decides to build a structure on their property, and it is almost instantly blown down during a harsh storm. Yet he keeps trying, constructing the bones of the new structure again and again until he gets it right.

There is a level of futility beneath the surface here. Everything seems to go wrong at the most inopportune moment. Life on the island seems almost hopeless, and yet our family keeps trudging forward against the current. It’s poetic in a way, but also depressing. However, I really enjoyed the bleakness and felt like it was delivered amazingly well. While of course this is a book in translation, Jacobsen can spin a beautiful sentence and tell a mesmerizing story.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Fuku Fuku Kitten Tales Vol 2, by Konami Kanata. It’s a cute manga about kittens, what more could you want? While the stories here do not have the depth of emotion you find in The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 1, they’re sure to please any cat lover. No one does feline faces and emotions like Kanata Konami: they’re so perfect and adorable! And, of course, very relateable for any cat owner.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson. Hugo Novella Nominee. What a pleasant surprise this was! I honestly only read it because it was a Hugo novella nominee, and I am so glad I made that choice. Everything about this sparkled. The setting, the character, the stories… I’m in love!

A Taste of Honey tells the story of Aqib, who lives in a very homophobic society. It’s a fantasy setting, of course, but a unique one. Instead of generic European medieval lands, this is African fantasy. The setting is lush, vibrant, and captivating. Aqib works in the royal menagerie, which involves things like taking a tame cheetah out hunting and teaching pink bears to dance. There is also magic, of course, since this is fantasy… but it’s very strange magic. In fact, it’s basically math. And, in a clever twist on the ‘women are the most magical gender’ trope, math is now considered “women’s work.” I say now because there are some hints that this is perhaps Earth way in the future, after an apocalypse that poisoned the planet. There are also all kinds of other witches who do things like talk to birds and lift 10 times their body weight, but it’s also implied that this is connected to opening some part of the brain with, you guessed it, math! We even have math-powered god beings. Wilson manages to squeeze a huge amount of world building into a very slim volume.

At the beginning of the story, Aqib falls in love with the visiting soldier Lucrio. It’s forbidden for them to be together of course, and while this is a fantasy novel it’s also a romance. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, but each section is dated (either by Aqib’s age or by the days he & Lucrio spent together) so it never gets confusing or convoluted. It’s very easy to follow all the threads, and there are a lot of them! The ending was completely unexpected and actually left me a bit teary, which is saying a lot. Wilson managed to make me care so deeply about these characters in well under 200 pages.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

If looking over this list has taught me anything, it’s that I have very strange taste in books.

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?