Tag Archives: Brittany Newell

Favorite Books of 2017

11 Jan

It’s that time of year again, and I’m only a little bit late! It’s always a struggle to cull down my read books to my absolute favorites, especially since I read so much. Choosing a mere 10% of them as my favorites would still be 24 books, and my favorites of 2017 shelf was at 46 by the end of the year. But somehow I have done the impossible, and ended up with 15. The usual rules apply: one book per series, no re-reads, and it’s alphabetically ordered.

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Assassin’s Fate, Robin Hobb. I read all of Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books last year and it quickly became my all-time fantasy series. Like hands down, no competition, give me these books over even Harry Potter. This year we got the ultimate conclusion and it absolutely broke my heart and soul. Perhaps objectively this is not a perfect book (it’s a bit too long, and I feel like there are probably too many fake-out endings) but to me it is the shining jewel atop a pile of fantasy perfection. It’s everything I wanted for the characters, even if their fates do make you want to rip your heart out and sacrifice it to a dragon god.

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Black Mad Wheel, Josh Malerman. Probably the most controversial book on this list, but I loved Black Mad Wheel even more than Bird Box. The atmosphere in this fucked me up hard. I was absolutely terrified reading it: it’s got the kind of existential dread you’d find in House of Leaves combined with a bizarre non-linear narrative. If you want a neat horror story, this is not for you. In fact there are basically zero answers to be found, and let’s be real… the setup doesn’t make a ton of sense. But I adored it not despite these things, but because of them. It’s utterly bizarre and captivating and such a mindfuck. I already loved Malerman because of Bird Box and A House at the Bottom of a Lake, but he is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite horror authors.

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The Familiar Vol 4 Hades, Mark Z. Danielewski. What a surprise, a volume of The Familiar on my favorites! There is going to be one every year until it finally ends, so prepare yourselves. There is something so magical about this series: it’s strange, dark, disturbing, creepy, and confusing, but also whimsical and magical. A crooked fairytale for the modern age. If you like postmodern fiction and haven’t picked this up, what are you waiting for?

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Fever Dream, Samantha Schweblin. Never has a book had a more accurate title than Fever Dream. The entire narrative feels like a hallucination, and I spent pretty much the entire time thinking “what the hell is happening here?” And, shockingly, it does come together and make sense in the end. The swirling, dreamlike horror turns swiftly into dark realism. A word of warning: if you plan on reading this, I highly suggest doing it in one sitting. There are no chapters or even real breaks in the story, and it’s definitely short enough to read in an hour or two.

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Journey Under the Midnight Sun, Keigo Higashino. This is a book that really snuck up on me. I enjoyed it while reading it, but it wasn’t until the last third that I realized how brilliantly it was put together. Even then I only rated it 4 stars initially, and about a week later I couldn’t stop thinking about it and upped my rating to 5 stars. The structure and plot are SO tight, and it might be one of the most perfect mysteries I’ve ever read. Unfortunately everything special about this book is way too spoiler-y to talk about, but if you like grim Asian thrillers/mysteries this is the absolute cream of the crop. It’s a slow burn for sure, so be prepared for tension that ramps up to almost unbearable levels.

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Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. This is the first time the book I loved the most from the Man Booker longlist actually won. Let me tell you, there was loud and exuberant squealing in my house when the winner was revealed. This is such a strange book, with two plot elements (Lincoln mourning his dead son, and ghosts partying it up in limbo) that really don’t seem to fit together. It is told entirely in dialogue and snippets of historical documents (both real and imagined), and while it’s a decent length the pace absolutely flies by. It’s comic and heartbreaking, and if I made a top 5 of 2017 list this would definitely be on it.

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Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O’Neill. This is a book I never would have read if it wasn’t on the Bailey’s longlist. I mean, look at the cover: it’s pretty, but it looks very chick-lit. Especially given the name. But this is a heartbreaking work of historical fiction that is so fantastical it feels like magical realism. There are no actually magical elements here, but it has a dark fairytale vibe. And I do mean dark: there is some really disturbing content in here, interspersed with moments of absolute breathtaking beauty. I cringed, I cried, I wished I could stay in this book-world forever.

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Montpelier Parade, Karl Geary. Ugh, talk about heartbreak. This is another “I wouldn’t have read this if it wasn’t on a book award longlist” entry, and I am so so glad I picked this one up. It’s one of those books that really creeps up on you slowly. At the beginning I was enjoying it, but wasn’t very invested in the plot or characters. By the time I got to the end I was sobbing my eyes out. I just… I can’t with this book. It is SO sad but also really beautiful and moving. The ending destroyed me but was also utterly perfect for the characters? It’s just so good.

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Marlena, Julie Buntin. I love stories about toxic female friendships, and Marlena is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a toxic female friendship story. This book is so beautifully written and moving: it’s everything I have ever wanted in this micro-genre. It seriously feels like I’ve been searching for years for this exact book. It is mature and insightful while managing to maintain a youthful spirit. It portrays the narrow-minded focus of teenage girls with pinpoint precision. There were so many moments that took my breath away, either because I cared so much about the characters or because there was some great insight into teenage girlhood that brought me back to my own childhood.

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The Ones that Got Away, Stephen Graham Jones. This book was a really last-minute addition. I read it during October and didn’t even add it to my yearly favorites shelf then, but I have thought so often about the stories in this collection since I finished it. The first story in particular haunts me, but really everything in this book was fantastic. I love Jones but you never really know what to expect from him: he goes from mood to mood depending on the release. This book is pure, intense, visceral horror: it is exceptionally bloody and disturbing, but all of the gore reveals some cold truths about the human condition. If you like body horror with a little heart (hehe) this is for you!

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Oola, Brittany Newell. While Oola is nowhere near a horror novel, it might be the creepiest thing I read all year. And I read 42 horror books in October alone! It reminds me strongly of both You and Lolita: a story told from the eyes of an obsessive stalker/boyfriend who wears a girl down to her limits. The sanity of both the protagonist and Oola unravel slowly, and you don’t realize how absolutely insane things have gotten until it’s far too late for either of them. The writing is gorgeous and lush and the content will shake your soul up. I think about this book often, and it’s one I would really love to re-read.

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A Short Stay in Hell, Steven L. Peck. This was such a random impulse purchase. I saw it sitting at Barnes & Noble and couldn’t resist that title or premise! It’s about a man who goes to hell and is given a task to escape: he is in the Library of Babel and has to find the story of his life. Once he’s done that, he is free to go to heaven! Sounds simple, right? Well… it’s not. This book gets so much darker and weirder and philosophical than I expected, and I loved every (short) second of it.

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A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson. UGH, my heart. It hurts every time I look at that cover. This is another made-me-cry novel, and those always get on my favorites list. What can I say, I’m a glutton for emotional punishment. This novella is very strange fantasy set in a possibly-post-apocalyptic African country. It’s a love story, but one that will both destroy you and leave you very content. If that makes sense. I loved the world, loved the characters, and am still shocked that Wilson made me feel so strongly in such a short amount of pages.

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson. Oh man. This… might actually be my favorite book of the year, if I had to pick just one. It’s at least top 3. I accidentally read this in scifi September (it’s fantasy–I let the “is it a cyborg mask?” cover confuse me), and I am still recovering. Everything about this is glittering and perfect. The world is incredibly deep (I cannot WAIT for the next book, which is next October), the characters are insanely complex and morally grey, the writing is sharp and poignant, the plot is so twisty, and Dickinson actually made me care about a plot based on accounting. Yes, this is about an accountant in a fantasy world. I fucking hate math yet I love everything about this book. Especially how much it ripped my heart out.

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The Waste Lands, Stephen King. The first half of my reading year was absolutely dominated by my buddy-read of the Dark Tower series. It was so much fun, especially since I had a friend to chat with nonstop along the way! Of course I had to include one of them in my favorites, and while I gave quite a few of the volumes 5 stars it was easy to pick my #1. This book is just bafflingly bizarre. It’s got an evil talking train that tells riddles as the main bad guy. Like, that cover is not metaphorical. There’s a bad train named Blaine. Also a giant guardian bear, a distorted mirror-world New York, gangs that live in a trash labyrinth, a nuclear wasteland complete with mutant animals, doors between worlds, a wheelchair-bound badass black lady, and so much more. If you like sff this series is an absolute must read… although it is very, very strange. Prepare yourself.

 Honorable Mentions (aka I could swap out most of the books on this list with one of these without issue): The Hike, The Golem & The Jinn, Autumn, 4 3 2 1

The interesting thing about compiling these lists is how unexpected the final product ends up being. There were a shocking number of books from award lists (in fact, there was at least one from every award I read with the exception of the National Book Award). Some books I though I would forget ended up instantly on it, and a few I thought were shoe-ins (Autumn, Pachinko, Multiple Choice) were easy to cull from my initial list of about 25. I read a lot of really wonderful books in 2017 and honestly, a random mix of any of the 46 on my favorites shelf would have been easy to be pleased with. I’m sure a month from now I’d organize this list differently, but at the moment I am quite happy with it.

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]