Tag Archives: horror

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.

July 2017 Reading Wrapup: Part II

5 Aug

I just realized how inconsistently I have been titling my wrapups. Hmm, at least I’m not late this month? In fact, I am totally on time! Because the Man Booker longlist just came out and I will be devoting a few weeks to reading all of those back-to-back, and they’ll be getting their own post (I read 2 in July). I already have 11 books in this wrapup though so it’s definitely long enough!

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I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, by Barbara Bourland. Finished July 17th. This book was such a pleasant surprise. I was definitely expecting a light, fluffy read based on the premise (a peek into the life of rich, fashionable women working at a magazine and also maybe there’s murder). Instead it’s a pretty toothy satire of modern life, sexism, social media, and consumerism.

In many ways, it reminds me of We Could Be Beautiful. Both of them follow a rather vapid protagonist but uses them as a lens for cultural criticism while also being over-the-top hilarious. I’ll Eat When I’m Dead is slightly more serious though, especially after a big event halfway through that totally changes the plot and tone. It gets quite dark, and deals realistically with eating disorders and drug addiction. There’s still a fluffy, frivolous layer of fashion and glamour overlaying the whole thing, but it’s not enough to mask this novel’s dark heart.

If you like books that focus a lot on clothing (for example, historical fiction that is like 15% dress descriptions) and satires of the rich & famous, you’ll probably like this. I really don’t think it is for everyone, though: it’s a very niche book but it accomplishes exactly what it set out to. If you want a fluffy contemporary and/or a murder mystery definitely stay away: while it is marketed as being both of those things, it’s neither.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips. Finished July 18th. Fierce Kingdom is a hard book to review, because it relies so hard on the unknown. It is not a spoiler to say that it is about a woman and her son at the zoo who hear gunshots, and end up running (and hiding) for their lives.

This is a thriller in the truest sense: there is no mystery, no stretched-out narrative (it takes place over only 3 hours). It’s just a woman and child trying to survive in very tough and complex circumstances. There is an edge of terror to the whole thing: it really skirts the border between the two genres: horror and thriller (though personally I think a LOT of thrillers & horror overlap).

While this is a very fast read and really gripped me, I didn’t find it very memorable after. There are thrillers that get under your bones, and ones that are just a fast fun read that satisfy that “I want a fun read” itch. Fierce Kingdom was the latter, for me. The setting was great, the characters were decent, the plot was cool, the writing was crisp. I enjoyed this but didn’t love it, and I’m not quite sure why.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel. Finished July 19th. I have a lot of feelings about this book, and none of them are positive. I was expecting a “dark” thriller in that whole “YA masquerading as adult fiction” genre we’ve been getting recently. What can I say: it’s summer, it’s brutally hot, way too hot to actually think complex thoughts while reading. I thought this would be light and breezy. It’s… well, it is those things, very simply written with short, binge-able chapters, but the content made me want to smash my head into a wall.

Let me start off by saying that I have no issue with dark content. I tend to gravitate towards books that deal with heavier topics, so I knew going into this that incest is a theme (that is not really a spoiler, it’s revealed on like page 20), and for some reason I thought it would be handled well. Oh no, my friends, this novel is a slap in the face to real victims of incest.

This is the story of a man who rapes his sisters, his daughters (that he had with his sisters), and then his granddaughters (who are also still kind of technically his daughters). Not ONCE in the ENTIRE BOOK where we learn about the THREE GENERATIONS OF WOMEN he has abused is the word rape used. Nor even is it called abuse. This book ROMANTICIZES INCEST. I’m not shitting you. In every scenario aside for one (out of 6+ girls) it’s shown as voluntary. Like, the fall in love (with their brother/father/grandfather) and sleep with him of their own free will. Sure, the phrase grooming is thrown around, but it’s more “he sets them up to to fall in love with him” rather than “he grooms them for sexual abuse at a young age.” Also, despite what this author thinks, children in this scenario in real life do not think it is “normal.” A child being abused will generally know it is wrong, even if their contact with the outside world is limited. No 14-year-old wants to be raped by her elderly grandfather. I just… I was SO ANGRY with this book.

Oh, and there’s the fact that the plot (aside from, you know, the generational abuse) is ripped straight from Sharp Objects, even including a troubled girl who needs to carve words on things to let out her emotions. Though remember this is pretend-adult-fiction, so she carves them into the wood not her flesh. So, you know, if you really want to read a YA version of Sharp Objects that has no conception of how human relationships work (let me tell you, people do not spend their whole lives agonizing over 6-month-long teenage love affairs, sight) that makes a gross mockery of real-life abuse, boy oh boy is this the book for you.

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All That’s Left To Tell, by Daniel Lowe. Finished July 19th. What a wonderful surprise this novel was. I had little expectations going into it: in fact, I barely knew what the plot was about (aside from “man in Middle East has a weird relationship with kidnapper”). I honestly don’t even remember why this was on my TBR. Probably saw it recommended somewhere, but I have no memory of this at all.

I think that this being marketed as a thriller is going to hurt it. I say that a lot recently, but I think it’s really true. So many novels with any layer of mystery are shoved in the “thriller” genre when they really don’t belong. Sure, there is suspense here, there’s mystery and intrigue, but it’s a slow burn and 100% character driven. In fact, there is little in the way of plot at all. A man, Marc, is kidnapped in Pakistan and spends all of the book talking to Josephine, one of his captors. But Josephine is not interrogating him, she simply wants to know about Marc’s relationship with his recently deceased teenage daughter, Claire.

Marc tells Josephine stories about Claire’s childhood, and Josephine weaves for him a story of future-Claire that will never be. In this story, 35-year-oldClaire is on a road trip to visit Marc on his deathbead, and picks up a traveler named Genevieve. At some point along the way, Genevieve starts telling Claire stories… about Marc. Sounds a little confusing? It’s meant to. There are so many layers to the tales that Josephine and Marc (and Genevieve) start weaving that they being to overlap for the reader in unexpected ways. At times, it’s hard to know who is really telling the story and who is simply listening to it.

There is a layer of the surreal here, of course, because why would Josephine even care about Marc’s child? Why was he kidnapped in the first place, if he is not rich enough to ransom and not famous enough to draw attention? Why did Marc not travel home for his daughter’s funeral? Half of the time I expected magical realism elements to come into play, but the story is mostly grounded in reality. It reminded me of In Pinelight: A Novel, another beautiful book about memory and the power of stories. But don’t come into this expecting a final chapter that gives you all the answers: the ending is very open-ended, and I think there are a lot of different ways to interpret this story (which really fits the themes).

This was a beautiful, powerful reading experience and definitely one of my favorites of the year so far.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann. Finished July 19th. The best description of this book I can come up with is condensed House of Leaves. Imagine the core narrative of HoL in novella form: a family in a strange, dangerous house trying to escape.

I absolutely adored this slim little book. It’s so unsettling, so creepy, so downright “I need to check behind the shower curtains before I go to sleep” scary. A writer takes a vacation in a house that turns out to be… more than meets the eye. That’s all you need to know. I just loved every inch of this, and it had me nervous and anxious by the end (a mark of really good horror).

But this is also quite a literary piece of terror. The writing is deft and strong (even in translation) and the plot allows for multiple interpretations of the events. There are so many layers here, which is amazing because it is barely over 100 pages. I really want to re-read this, because I think it would be very rewarding.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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If We Were Villains, by M.L Rio. I am such a sucker for any book that’s marketed as being like The Secret History. Funnily enough, TSH isn’t one of my favorite books or anything, I just really love that “close, pretentious group of college-age friends with secrets and possibly murder” vibe. So when I saw If We Were Villains I knew we’d be getting along well. Incredibly pretentious college for Shakespearean actors and a group of kids who get maybe a little too into their roles? Sign me up.

IWWV (which, for some reason, I thought was called When We Were Villains the entire time I read it: imagine my disappointment) is very conscious of its Secret History roots. We have many of the same tropes here (including tangled sexual relations, a member of the group on the outskirts, a main character who feels like he doesn’t fit in and has way less money, etc) but goes right off the familiar rails about halfway through. It makes for an uneasy reading experience, because you feel like you know what is going to happen next but then the rug is pulled out and there’s a sudden sense of being in unfamiliar territory.

This was a solid 4-star read for me until the end, when I burst into tears upon reading the last chapter. I really didn’t think I was that invested until I got so emotionally overwhelmed I had to put the book down. And this is, I think, a strength Villains has that Secret History is missing: characters you actually care about. I’m not saying it’s a better book (I enjoyed it more, but I think History is better written by far), but M.L. Rio really made me care about all these lil acting assholes.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Crooked House, by Agatha Christie. Finished July 22nd. I have read 3 Agatha Christie books previously, and I loved my first two (And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express) but found the third (Murder on the Nile) just okay. And this one was another step down. I wonder if it’s that I read her two “best” books first, or if her allure only held for two books for me.

My issue here was the mystery: for me it was paper-thin, and I guessed the twist the second we were introduced to the character who ended up being the murderer. The writing was solid and it had an interesting cast, but as a mystery novel it fell really flat for me. I think I’ll give Christie one more try, because I really did love None/Murder.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne su Maurier. Finished July 22nd. True story: I read this book as a buddy read with my mom. I have a very reading-heavy family, but my parents fall into opposite sides of the reading spectrum (my dad enjoys scifi and fantasy, my mom literary fiction and mystery/thriller). I fall firmly into the middle (aka I read all the genres), so I often end up reading a book along with one of them. Sometimes, we all read the same book and it’s super fun (Raw Shark Texts and Into The Woods are a few we have enjoyed together).

Anyway, my mom told me she was reading this book (and we have a shared Kindle account) so I decided to hop right on that. After all, I really enjoyed Rebecca! And I think I might actually like Rachel more. There is just something so sinister going on here: the reader spends a LOT of time with Rachel, but it feels like we never really know her. It’s quite clever: you never feel like the narrative is lying to you, but it’s so easy to accept that a bunch of shit is going on behind the scenes that you will never know about.

Is Rachel innocent and trapped in terrible circumstances? Is she a black widow looking for her next victim? Is she something in between: a woman in stuck in a shitty life who knows how to manipulate men? Did she love anyone, ever? Is she vulnerable and sweet and constantly taken advantage of, or is it all an act? Is she manipulated by outside forces, or is she in charge of her own destiny?

I think many readers will be unsatisfied by this novel. Rachel is at the core, but we never truly see into her soul. She is an enigma to us, as she is to the narrator. I really, really loved this aspect: figuring her out was a real joy. If you like Gothic fiction with complex characters and uneasy, unclear endings I would definitely recommend this. But if you want your endings neat and wrapped in a bow, stay far away.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Break Down, by B.A. Paris. Finished July 25th. I really enjoyed B.A. Paris’ first novel, Behind Closed Doors, which was a tense piece of psychological horror. It was marketed as a thriller but had no true mystery elements, so I was really hoping The Breakdown would be similar. Because the blurb makes it seem like a Agatha Christie-style mystery, whereas I think Paris’ strength lies in suspense and horror. Sadly it’s more the former than the latter.

This was… okay. Nowhere near as good as Behind Closed Doors, but I also think it’s a lot more marketable since it’s more firmly in the domestic thriller genre. Cass is having memory issues that seem to be triggered by a traumatic event: on a stormy night, she drove by a woman in a broken down car and didn’t stop. Less than an hour later, that woman was murdered. Plagued by guilt and doubting everything she remembers, Cass spirals into darkness.

The mystery element is played pretty straight. I wanted a lot more from this than what I got: all the scenes of Cass forgetting things, acting crazy, having breakdowns, etc were fantastic and very tense (I also liked the interplay of the murder victim’s car break down and Cass’ mental break down–cleverly done). She is also getting mysterious phone calls that she thinks are from the killer, so there’s a hint of a horror element. But the story ends up wrapped in a bow, with a solid conclusion that ties up all the loose ends. That may seem like an odd complaint, but I prefer a bit of ambiguity when it comes to the mystery/thriller genre. And the reveal is written like it’s supposed to be a big twist/wow-moment when it’s honestly pretty predictable: there are only two options for what could be happening, after all (either Cass is crazy or she isn’t crazy).

I will definitely be reading Paris’ next book but I hope it is more like her debut and this is just a second-novel slump.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Tales from Shadowhunter Academy, by Cassandra Clare. Finished July 25th. Ah, more trash. I thought I was free of the Shadowhunter world but here I am again. While I have absolutely no desire to finish The Mortal Instruments, I like basically all the rest of the world.

This was so much fun, just a really enjoyable read. It features one of my favorite of Clare’s characters, but it also delves into SO much of the world. We get backstory for a lot of the Dark Artifices characters, a closer look at Magnus & Alec’s relationship, a lot about Faerie and the Cold Peace… just so much worldbuilding goes on here. I really think it should be labeled as part of the main series because a lot of this is really indispensable and I wish I’d read it before Lady Midnight.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein. Finished July 27th. Tokyo Vice is the memoir/nonfiction account of the first American reporter to work on a major Tokyo newspaper. It’s is a really interesting look at how Japanese society works (something I am always fascinated by), but I think the writing does leave something to be desired.

While the case details are fascinating, Adelstein leaves a LOT to the imagination. The narrative will suddenly skip over 2-5 years with no warning, and we are often given cases without personal context. The writing is also clipped and abrupt, which I suppose makes sense for a newspaper reporter. Often huge periods of time are skipped over (Adelstein goes from single to married for years in a chapter: it’s a little confusing, and I wish we had more personal backstory).

Overall I did really enjoy this despite the writing flaws. It reads like fiction (so smooth & quick), but you learn a LOT while reading it. I also enjoyed Jake as a protagonist: most reviews mention what a terrible person he is, but I think that is totally missing the point. The book clearly lays out how Japan expects its reporters to behave in a terrible matter: it’s either lie and cheat and be a dick, or get fired. Adelstein HAD to act the way he did, and his contribution to journalism was incredibly important. I feel like simplifying this book to “author is kind of a jerk” misses the entire point. It’s not Adelstein who is awful: it’s the entire system.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 128/200

Goal Books: 121

Impulse Reads: 7

June 2017 Wrapup: Part II

21 Jul

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 109/200

Goal Books: 102

Impulse Reads: 7

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

June 2017 Wrapup: Part I

17 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

Who is the third who walks beside you?

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Ararat, by Christopher Golden. Finished June 14th.

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 99/200

Goal Books: 93

Impulse Reads: 6

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

Reading Wrapup: February 2017 Part I

1 Mar

Every month I insist to myself that I am totally going to be on top of getting my wrapup up in a timely fashion. And every month that somehow doesn’t happen. Obviously, I have only myself to blame… I was much more timely last year, when my reading was on track and I didn’t feel pangs of guilt when looking at my challenge. Yes, after my end-of-January revelation I am doing much better at hitting goals, but I am still 3 books behind! Nothing a spur of the moment 24 hour self-imposed readathon can’t fix, right? Because that might be in the stars for March.

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 A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven L. Peck. Finished February 1st. What a way to start out this month. A Short Stay in Hell is my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year, and definitely has the potential to be an all-time favorite. It’s about a Mormon man who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only it’s not the one he was promised. Turns out a different religion got it right, so all the non-believers are doomed to hell. Oh, but it’s not an eternal hell! No, everyone has a way to escape.

Our protagonist is thrown into the Library of Babel (yes, the famous one from the story). A place where anything that could ever be written has been written. And not just actual books that make sense: any combination of words that is possible is contained here. All our protagonist has to do is find the book that tells his life story and he’s free to leave hell.

That’s just the setup, and this is a short novel so I am not going to discuss the events of the plot at all because I don’t want to ruin anything. It’s bizarre and existential, filled with dread and horror but also moments of pure hope and human intimacy. There’s something so compelling and horrifying about the setting and mood that I can’t quite put into words. If you enjoy weird fiction, postmodern literature, existential dread, or just excellent writing and storytelling I really can’t recommend this enough!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami. Finished February 2nd. Murakami is one of my favorite authors, but I have mixed opinions on his short fiction. I loved most of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman but The Elephant Vanishes just didn’t do it for me.

There were, of course, some stories here that I found very effective… but the two I liked the most were also later included in his books, so I’d already read them. The title story is also a good one, and really perfectly captures that sense of unreal that’s never quite explained in his works. I think every story in here has an open end, so if you want closure… Murakami is not your guy. I can’t say I hated or even disliked any of the stories here, but I find that only a few of them have stuck with me after reading, and I’d struggle to recall what some of them are about based on the title. I did really enjoy the few stories that I can remember in detail, so I can’t bring myself to rate it lower than 3.5.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shogun, by James Clavell. Finished February 3rd. When I was in AP Literature in high school, we were assigned Dracula. However, I’d already read Dracula–3 times! I talked to my (amazing) teacher about it, and he said he’d give me a different book to read for the paper. The next day he handed me a copy of Shogun, and said it was one of his favorite books of all time. Looking back, I realize that’s a lot of trust to place in a high school student: not only did he give me a massive book twice as long as the required reading, but he trusted me with one of his favorite pieces of literature. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that with a teenager!

Shogun dazzled me. I devoured it in only a few days, and was totally swept away in Clavell’s vision of Japan. And it also sparked something inside of me: a desire to read more about Japan, both fiction and nonfiction. As you probably realize if you read my blog frequently, I read a lot of Japanese literature, and Shogun is the reason why. It changed me so significantly as a reader that I really can’t imagine what my reading life would look like today if I’d never picked it up.

It’s been years since I last re-read this book, and 2017 seemed as good a time as any to both dive back into it and continue on with the rest of the series (which, shock, I’ve never even thought of reading!). And, thankfully, Shogun holds up over the years. It’s a tale of adventure, honor, love, tragedy, and human triumph that feels so epic in scope it might as well be fantasy.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. Finished February 5th. I really wanted to like this more than I did. The concept is so interesting: Six Wakes is basically an Agatha Christie novel in space. Six people wake up on a spaceship freshly cloned. Their previous incarnations have been murdered, and they are the only people awake on the ship. So they have to solve their own murders… knowing that it’s more than likely that one of them is a killer. Oh, and they all have criminal backgrounds, but none of them know what crimes the others have committed in the past. Plus they’re missing memories of the last 20 years of their lives.

The cast is diverse and entertaining. We get chapters from each of their perspectives, as well as their backstories. In Christie-fashion it seems like they all have means, motive, and opportunity. It’s a traditional whodunnit with a scifi twist. And the science fiction elements aren’t just set dressing: cloning in particular is vital to the plot, and there’s a lot of political drama as well. I found the discussions about the ethics of cloning and clones’ rights to be the best part of the books, and I wish there had been a little more focus on that.

I was really enjoying this until about the 60% mark, when things started to fall apart. Then again, this has mostly very positive reviews, so I think most people will not have my issues. In short: everything is too neat. It comes together so cleanly, and the reader is never given the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Every reveal is handed to us on a silver platter. There will be a backstory scene that hints as to motive, and then we get a character discussing what it means in length. I like a bit of a challenge in my mystery novels, and this flips from a moody mystery to a fast-paced scifi thriller about halfway through. I think it just tried to do too many things: murder mystery, character study, political and ethical discussions, intense action scenes… you need at least another 100 pages to execute all those things successfully.

If I went into this expecting a bit of a fluffy fast ride, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I was expecting more of a horror/mystery vibe (which admittedly is what the first few chapters serve up). If you don’t want deep, meaningful reveals and are okay with everything wrapped up in a big neat bow, this would probably be very enjoyable. It’s not a bad book… just a flawed one that left me feeling cold.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Drawing of The Three, by Stephen King. Finished February 7th. This is the second book in the Dark Tower series, and if the character names weren’t the same I don’t know if I would ever guess they were in the same world. The Drawing of The Three is so drastically different in every way: mood, tone, writing style, plot, world… obviously there’s nothing specific I can talk about without spoilers, but it just goes off in a totally different direction.

Thankfully, that change works like a charm! While The Gunslinger is a desolate feeling novel with more stories than action, TDoTT is action-packed and rapid-fire paced. We bounce around a lot in the narrative, and King really keeps you on your toes. While reading this I still had no idea what was going on in the overarching plot (and lemme tell you, you don’t get a good hint until book 4) but I loved every second of it. I’m just here for whatever crazy rollercoaster ride King has planned for his Constant Reader.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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A Perfect Crime, by A Yi. Finished February 7th. This is the story of a teenage boy who hates his life and decides to kill somebody. That’s… that’s pretty much it. He plans a murder, commits a murder, goes on the run, etc. It’s exactly what it says on the box. And, like much Asian crime fiction, this is whydunnit rather than a whodunnit–because obviously we know who did it and how it was done because our protagonist is the criminal. The core “mystery” of the novel is why he committed the crime, because he’s very vague about his intentions. We’re in his head, but it’s clear that his narration is intentionally misleading (so there is an element of the unreliable narrator).

I found something in this book severely lacking. I think there was just no soul to it. Sure, we’re in the head of a sociopath, but the narration is as bland as his personality. There’s no connection between reader and protagonist. It’s definitely possible to make a murderer relateable (or at least entertaining), but I think the goal here was to create an almost alien protagonist that was impossible to identify with. In which case… success, I guess? But it doesn’t make for a very engaging read.

The writing was decent and it was paced well, so I don’t want to knock it down below 3 stars. And I didn’t hate reading it… but I didn’t enjoy it either. It was an entirely neutral reading experience. I do think the final “why I did it” reveal was well done, but it also lacked any element of surprise. While our narrator is trying to hide his motives for the “big reveal” any intuitive reader will guess why long before he decides to tell us. So there’s no wow moment, just another “that was well written but I don’t care at all” type of scene.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Kingdom, by Fuminori Nakamura. Finished February 8th. I really love Asian crime fiction, so I was very disappointed to read 2 bland books in a row from the genre. I didn’t love A Perfect Crime, and I actually had very similar issues with this novel. Which is funny, since I read them back-to-back.

The plot here is definitely very engaging. Our main character Yurika works as a fake prostitute: she picks specific Johns, then drugs them and takes incriminating photos/video for blackmail. Her boss never gives her any details, so she is completely in the dark about why these people are targeted… or what her employer is doing with the photos she produces. It’s a pretty interesting twist on the traditional mystery genre: there’s definitely a mystery, but the criminal activity itself is part of the mystery rather than the reason for it.

But like with A Perfect Crime, I found our narrator totally bland. Yurika is a criminal so she should be pretty interesting, but her personality is so very blah. I felt like I knew nothing about her after reading the entire book. Even when you find out about her past, she never seems like a fleshed-out character. She’s just the vehicle for the story. And we don’t even get any real answers! So basically it’s an unsatisfying mystery with a boring main character. At one point, our villain says, “this was all meaningless” and I was like yeah dude, it totally was.

Why 3.5 stars then? Because the writing was very good. Especially the weird, almost nonsensical speeches our villain gives: they often revolve around obscure religious details, and they’re kind of fascinating. I really wish we had been in his head the whole time! I think a book of him hunting & manipulating our heroine would have been way more interesting. While I found this book to be disappointing, I would definitely read another book by Nakamura (and indeed, I have another queued up on my Kindle!).

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle. Finished February 10th. It kind of kills me to give this book less than 5 stars. I was anticipating it so much, I loved Wolf in White Van, and for like 75% this was hands-down the best book I’ve read this year. But alas, it didn’t follow through until the end.

Let’s start with the good: the writing. WiWV is a well-written book, but this manages to amp that up to 11. There’s a lot more finesse here. Which is good, because it’s a very rambling book. We flit from character to character, shifting through time and sometimes taking very random-seeming detours. But because of the wonderful writing, I was totally along for the ride. 4-paragraph description of a farmhouse that ends with philosophical musings about what it means to be a farmhouse? Yes please. Description of a cornfield that ends with all the things said cornfield has heard inside of it (this one gets dark)? Why not! Random details about recording on VCR tape? Sign me up! Really, this book could have been almost entirely strange descriptions and I would have been happy.

I think the flaw here is that it’s both too plot driven but at the same time not plot-heavy enough. The core concept, of videos at a late-90′s movie store showing up with weird, creepy home movies cut into them, is great. And for the first half or so we’re really centered around Jeremy the cashier as he tries to unravel the mystery. It’s compelling, and all of the asides the narration wanders into fit well. That long, rambling description of a farmhouse I mentioned before? Turns out the actual building is on one of the tapes! It all seems to come together neatly. But about 70% of the way in we go in a totally different direction. And it’s not one I was very happy about. I was so invested in the plot that this felt like a betrayal. The plot is totally lost, and it really only feels loosely connected. Plus I found the ending lackluster. There was a definite answer, but it didn’t live up to the promise of the premise. Honestly, I would rather have had it be more open-ended. It felt like I was eating an amazing cake, and when I got to the center it was suddenly a steak & potatoes dinner. Steak is great… if you’re in the mood for it and don’t think you are eating cake when you take a bite.

Of course I still gave this 4 stars, even if the ending was incredibly disappointing. This is because of the writing, of course, and also the fantastic atmosphere. This book is so creepy, so unsettling and spine-tingling. Even when nothing much was happening I found myself very nervous. If you liked Wolf in White Van I would still definitely recommend giving this a shot. I hope that Darnielle’s next book combines the tight plot of WiWV with the next-level writing of UH: they might just combine to make a perfect novel.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey*. Finished February 13th. It was almost Valentine’s Day, the day of love, when I read this! And what better way to celebrate that than by reading a Shakespearean tragedy? It’s a perfect fit. Especially if you are a fan of The Tempest. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play, and man is it a good time to be a fan of it. First Hag-Seed and now this? What a time to be alive.

This is kind of a prequel to The Tempest. The majority of it takes place before the events of the play, and we follow both Miranda and Caliban from their first meeting as children to their last moments on the island. And it is, in many ways, a doomed love story. We know that Miranda is beautiful and pure and her father wants her wed to royalty, and we know that Caliban is bent and misshapen and painted as a villain. It can’t have a happy ending. And yet you root for them so hard!

As you’d expect from Jacqueline Carey, the writing is lush and descriptive. The fantasy elements of TT are really brought to the forefront, so this reads like historical fantasy/romance more than a straight retelling of the original work. She’s really brought the unnamed island to life, along with its small group of inhabitants. It is, to be trite, quite magical.

I’ve noticed some comments about the liberties she took with the characters, but let’s be real: Prospero is totally an asshole in the play. Sure, he got dethroned and abandoned on an island, but he literally takes a human (and a fairy!) as prisoner just so they can do shit for him, and he treats his daughter like a piece on a chessboard. Does Miranda WANT to marry Ferdinand? Prospero doesn’t care. He’s just looking out for himself. So while the version of him portrayed here is perhaps more maniacal and evil than in the play, it’s not far off the beaten track. Caliban, too, is not as bad as Prospero would have you think in the play: I mean, he grew up as a wild boy and then was forced into slavery. Poor kid. So I feel like while this is a romanticized view of him, it’s certainly one I can get behind.

I was so transported by Miranda & Caliban’s friendship-turning-to-love that I really wanted more from this book. It was beautiful and bittersweet, don’t get me wrong, but I think their adult section is rushed… as is the last 80%, which is when we finally get to the events of The Tempest. I think Carey does best in epically long books, and this certainly could have been 500+ pages. The rushed nature of the last half is really the only “flaw” (and I did dock a full star for it) but I totally adored this. Not quite as good a retelling as Hag-Seed, but given the different genres they were aiming for it feels almost unfair to compare them.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 21/200

Goal Books: 18

Impulse Reads: 3

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

Reading Wrapup: January 2017

13 Feb

My reading got off to a rough start this year. I read less books in January of 2017 than I had in years! It was back in early 2015 that I had such a slow reading month… and back then, it was probably just my reading speed at the time. It was really a combination of things: winter blues, picking up some real chunkers (that I didn’t even finish in January!), and generally feeling like I wasn’t hitting my goals. I couldn’t settle on any one book, I was reading 5 at a time… it was a mess.

I decided in February to combat this by tracking my books not just by numbers and statistics, but by how meaningful they are for my challenges. And I realized that between my TBR, getting through ARCs and owned books, series challenges, and Read Harder, I was doing great! It made me feel so much better about my slow reading, and I’m almost back on track numbers wise. So for this year, I’ll be counting books by whether or not they fit a challenge at the end of these wrapups (unlike 2016, where I detailed each challenge individually).

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Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Finished January 6th. Watership Down is one of those books I read over and over again as a kid and young teen. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I have immensely fond memories of it. I wanted to start 2017′s reading off on a good note (plus, let’s be honest, I needed a re-read for the Read Harder challenge) and the timing just seemed perfect. There’s that BBC adaptation coming out this year, and it also felt like a fitting homage to the late Richard Adams to start my year off with him. I was a bit hesitant that it wouldn’t live up to my memories, though.

I shouldn’t have been! It’s a classic for a reason, and I definitely had a different experience reading it now as an adult. All of those folktales the rabbits tell to each other? SO much foreshadowing packed in there. As a kid I thought they were just cute/creepy stories, but it’s amazing how much meaning is shoved into those few pages. It felt so familiar to read but also fresh and new because I was picking up on all these nuances I’d missed previously.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera. Finished January 7th. This slim volume is absolutely packed with amazing elements. It’s a noir-inspired novel (novella?) about a go-between for two rival gangs. There are elements of Romeo & Juliet, and it’s set in Mexico during what seems to be a plague. It’s a violent, almost apocalyptic tale about family, grief, and loyalty.

The writing is fantastic. There are no quotation marks for speech, so you get sucked into the world immediately. It’s a brutal book, but also a hilarious one: our narrator is quite funny, and comes up with amazing nicknames for all the characters. It’s very clever, because the author can skip physical descriptions but you can instantly picture the person. For example, one of his neighbors is Three Times Blonde. You can picture that woman in your head immediately, right? It’s kind of brilliant.

Yet for some reason, all these fantastic elements added up to a “just okay” book for me. It’s really a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” because I have no idea why I didn’t love this. I think the length was perfect, the writing was amazing, the ideas were so cleverly executed, and it had moments of really deep contemplation. Why didn’t I adore it?! No clue, really. If it sounds like something you’re interested in I really would recommend this, I just didn’t find it entirely engaging.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra. Finished January 9th. I love poetry, and I tend to be drawn to the weirder, quirkier side of the genre. Do most reviews go “this is really weird?” Then it’s for me! And what’s stranger than this, a book of poetry formatted like a multiple-choice test.

It’s an interesting choice of format, because it allows Zambra to do a lot in a slim volume. Because each ‘poem’ is multiple choice, the reader is given different ways to read it: sometimes as few as 1, sometimes as many as 10. So the same poem means a lot of different things depending on your choice. It also stirs up some nostalgia, because I think 99% of readers will have taken one of those annoying state-sponsored tests before. So it’s a familiar format, but the content is so fresh and innovative.

Of course none of that would matter if the writing itself sucked. But obviously it doesn’t! There are actual storylines and themes, which I’ll be honest–I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was just going to be a cute format with maybe not so much substance, but these poems pack an emotional punch. Some of them are political, but many are personal… and a real punch to the gut. Highly recommended for anyone who likes poetry–I also think this might be a good jumping-in point if you want to read poetry, because it’s really interactive and easily keeps your attention.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Six Four, by Hideo Yokohama*. Finished January 10th. This is the slowest of slow-burn mystery novels. In a way, it’s barely even about a mystery. Sure, we focus in on the Six Four kidnapping, a 14-year-old case that has never been solved. But our protagonist, Mikami, is not a detective: he works in Administrative Affairs dealing with the press. As such, there’s a lot about media relations and the day-to-day tedium of his work. Oh, and Mikami also has a missing child who has been classified as a runaway, and he worked on the Six Four case when it happened.

There are a lot of overlapping threads here, but for most of the book the central mystery is on the backburner. 80% of the chapters are about his job, and how much he misses being a detective. I’m going to be brutally honest: I think this book should have been 300 pages shorter. The middle is a real struggle to get through. I absolutely did not care about Mikami’s job and whether or not they were going to release the name of a pregnant woman whose crime is totally irrelevant to our actual mystery. It could have been covered in 2 chapters, instead we get 400 pages of waffling over it and all the ensuing drama.

I almost gave up on this book several times. It felt like a real slog for the first 450 or so pages: just chapter after chapter of police drivel about things I didn’t care about. His missing daughter is barely mentioned. Politics seem more important than solving the case. And almost every character has a name that starts with M, which gets hella confusing! Thankfully, there is a reason for that last part (and it’s really cool).

So far I have just been complaining, but I did give this book a decent score. That’s because the ending is totally amazing. About 80% of the way in a really big event happens and the book picks up tremendously. I was amazed at how so many of the threads came together: it was artfully done. It was also a really satisfying ending, one where you’re shocked but it doesn’t feel like the author did it just for the shock factor. It’s so carefully crafted. But still… this book is way too long and tedious, I feel like most readers won’t have the dedication to tough out the beginning/middle for the amazing end. Worth it if you’re into really slow-burn crime fiction and are willing to make the journey.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shelter, by Jung Yun. Finished January 10th. I have seen Shelter described as many things: a crime novel, a mystery, even as a thriller. I think those descriptions do a disservice to the book, though. Sure, it centers around a crime, but there is very little mystery (we find out what happened & who did it very early on) and zero thriller elements. This is, at its core, a family drama about trauma, grief, loyalty, and honor. It centers around our very flawed protagonist Kyung, who had a rough childhood and is very distanced from his parents. One day he finds his mother bloody and naked in his backyard, and is drawn back into their tangled life.

No one in this book is particularly likeable, even the victims. They all make bad (but realistic) decisions: like Kyung and his wife Gillian, who are almost half a million in debt on their house but go on small vacations they can’t afford every year anyway. Kyung in particular seems hell-bent on driving his life into the ground, and reading through his eyes is a frustrating experience. You just want to slap him and stop him from making a series of increasingly terrible decisions. But as in life, you just have to watch the trainwreck go by.

This book deals with some heavy topics (if you are sensitive to rape/domestic abuse I’d be cautious about reading this), but it handles them artfully and with sensitivity. And for a novel with no real mystery or plot drive (we’re basically just dealing with the aftermath of an attack) it’s such a page turner. I do think some of the turns it took near the end were a bit unrealistic/unexplained so I docked a star for that, but it’s a wonderful and sobering read.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Gunslinger, by Stephen King. Finished January 10th. For years I’ve wanted to read the Dark Tower series. I mean, I love Stephen King and have read about a third of his books (considering how many he has, this is an accomplishment), but why have I never touched this series? It’s hella intimidating, that’s why! 8 (7?) books growing larger and larger in length and everyone talks about how weird and complicated the world is.

Well, that’s true. It’s a very strange, very surreal world. And I’ll be honest, after this first book (and the next few haha) I have nooooo idea what the greater plot is or how the world functions. What even is the Tower? Who knows! But in a surprising twist, I don’t mind feeling like this. King is an amazing storyteller, and he lays the main plot of The Gunslinger out perfectly. Even when you have no clue why things are happening, you know exactly what is happening. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think a lot of fantasy authors that go for “big complicated world we throw the reader into” fall flat on their faces. The Gunslinger is complex and confusing, but at the same time the main plot is simple and easy to digest. Weird, right? And I have a feeling things are just going to keep getting weirder…

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Finished January 12th. Like everyone else who has read this book, once I finished it I immediately wanted to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Thankfully, about 2 hours later I realized it was a terrible idea because I’m kind of fond of my toenails and I enjoy having more than one pair of underwear.

This is the story of a very flawed woman who does something truly insane to find herself. A lot of the complaints about Wild seem to be about Cheryl herself: so if you don’t like flawed protagonists, people who make stupid mistakes and consistently do the wrong thing, this is not for you. If you want a morally straight heroine to root for? Not for you. This is, of course, strengthened by the fact that Cheryl is real. The mistakes, the drugs, the sex, it’s all real. This is a real woman who made some insane decisions, and the reader is just along for the ride. But if you want adventure, that sense of wide-eyed wonder, the cleanliness of a fresh start? It’s a wonderful book.

I don’t usually enjoy memoirs because let’s be honest: the writing is often very middle-of-the-road. Thankfully, Wild is immersive and beautifully written. Cheryl Strayed’s descriptions of the trail are breathtaking, and she is very frank and honest about her life decisions. Some of the scenes here (especially the horse-shooting one) will stick with me for a very long time. I was so involved in the story I didn’t want to do anything but read this book!

It’s certainly not a perfect memoir: there was a little too much off-the-trail content and I do wish it was a little longer, but it was absolutely one of the best I’ve ever read in the genre. If you like survival-themed stories and don’t usually read nonfiction, I think this is a great jumping-in point for the genre.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

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The Twilight Wife, by A.J. Banner. Finished January 14th. This is a stupid book and I feel stupid for reading the whole thing. Have you read Before I Go to Sleep? Then you’ve read this book too. The plot is a weak copy-cat of a book I didn’t even like to start with!

Actually, this book does one thing better than BIGtS: the atmosphere is really great. Our main character is a marine biologist and it takes place on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of foggy, rainy beach scenes and some interesting tidbits about marine life. It was moody and dreary and evocative.

Everything else? Terrible. Plot: woman with amnesia has a husband she ~doesn’t trust~ oooh original! Oh, and it’s both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, which… is impossible. I mean, it’s a bit more believable than the “I only remember 24 hours” of BIGtS, but it’s just so been there done that. Suspicious lack of memories of her husband? Romantic memories of a man who isn’t her husband? Strange doctor visits? A suspicious therapist? The ability to recall memories at a convenient point in the plot? False suspense based on constant memory loss? Friends who won’t be truthful? Yeah… you’ve probably read this book before.

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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Five Stories High, edited by Jonathan Oliver. Finished January 16th. This year, I’m trying to stop all of the impulse-reading I do. Sticking only to my owned but not read/tbr books. Because usually impulse reads are shit (see: The Twilight Wife). But this… this was an amazing impulse read. When I read the synopsis I knew it was basically meant for me. 5 novellas by 5 authors about a house reminiscent of House of Leaves? Yes please.

I really loved this book. It’s a representation of the best that modern weird fiction can do. There’s a sense of unease that isn’t just from the individual stories: it’s truly the cohesive whole that makes this great. Because the stories don’t all fit together. They all take place in Irongrove Lodge, yes, but the timelines and layout of the house directly contradict each other. Yet we have in-between sections cataloguing the history of the house and our narrator assures us they are all true. Somehow, this house is in different places and different times in different shapes. As I said, very HoL!

Not all of the stories worked for me, which is the only reason this didn’t get 5 stars. I am absolutely obsessed with 3 of them (“Maggots,” “Gnaw,” & “Skin Deep”), and I enjoyed the bizarro-style “The Best Story I Could Manage Under The Circumstances.” But I felt like “Priest’s Hole” wasn’t as strong either thematically or writing-wise to stand up to the other 4. It was honestly pretty forgettable, while the other stories are so memorable (though in different ways). But really, that’s my only complaint! And “Priest’s Hole” isn’t a bad story by any means, it’s just not quite on the level of the others.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder. Finished January 18th. This book was a pleasant surprise. I think I was expecting more shock-horror based on the summary (which I’m not a huge fan of), but I’d seen so many positive reviews (and I can’t resist thrillers set in Japan) so I decided to give it a go. Well, friends, this is not at all shock-horror, so if a book about Nanking freaks you out don’t fear: there’s no gratuitous violence. In fact, there’s little violence at all… though when it does happen, it’s very effective.

This is a dual-narrative thriller/horror about a young woman obsessed with a video shot during the Rape of Nanking. The other timeline follows the past of man who has the video, but doesn’t want to give it up. While the violence in Nanking is obviously the theme that ties these two together, there’s a lot going on: hostess bars, a possibly haunted and decaying mansion in Tokyo, the yakuza, and a potential immortality potion. Our main character has a strange and traumatic past, there’s a psychotic murderous nurse… good stuff all around. It may seem like a lot to shove into a book just over 300 pages long, but it works so effectively. Mo Hayder is a very skilled storyteller: the themes in both narratives fit together perfectly, and the pacing was fantastic.

My main complaint probably seems very strange, and possibly callous: I was expecting the final reveal of what’s on the tape/what happened to be WAY worse than it was. This is potentially because I’ve read a lot about real-world tragedies, so I was kind of expecting it to be the most horrible thing that had ever happened in human history or some nonsense like that. I mean, it is terrible (and based on something that actually happened in Nanking) and shocking but… maybe I’m just immune to how terrible humans are. I spent the whole book kind of tensing up in preparation for the ending, but I think there were scenes in the “main” present-day narrative that were far worse? Or at least more effective horror: it’s definitely a scary book.

If you like psychological thrillers but are tired of the endless copy-paste “woman in danger” narrative that is tossed around in today’s publishing world, this might be a book for you. It’s very fresh-feeling. Or if you like wartime historical fiction, books set in China/Japan, slow creeping horror… really, it’s a novel with broad appeal.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Black Feathers, edited by Ellen Datlow*. Finished January 25th. From a young age, I’ve been obsessed with corvids, especially crows and blue jays. I am especially fond of fictional birds and stories that revolve around them, so I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the cover. Creepy crows, plague masks, and edited by the always-wonderful Ellen Datlow? Yes please.

As you would expect in a horror collection about birds, this is a slow and moody read. The stories really get under your skin: even when there are no wow-horror moments, they are all very unsettling and unnerving. You just feel uneasy reading them. Don’t come into this expecting the horror to be spoon-fed to you: most stories have very open endings, and there are very few actual ‘explanations’ for the strange events and creatures we encounter. It’s a style I really love, but I don’t think it will be for everyone. If you want answers and monsters shoved into the light, look elsewhere.

The stories I loved the most were all by authors I know and adore already: Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, Jeffrey Ford, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn. It’s a great whose-who of modern weird fiction. There were, of course, stories I didn’t love: this will be true in almost any collection, though! I’m sure the ones I would cut out of the collection are ones another reader will adore. And I think there’s a little something for every type of horror reader here: historical horror, weird fiction, gothic fantasy, etc. I do recommend reading them spaced out (1-2 a day) because the theme can make them feel a bit same-y if you speed read through it.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Silence, by Shūsaku Endō. Finished January 27th. This is a classic piece of Japanese fiction that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. I’ve owned a copy for probably 10 years, but for some reason I never picked it up. Even though everything about it seems like something I’d love: Japanese literature set during one of my favorite time periods and featuring Jesuit priests. Yet I was intimidated: it’s that “classics” tag, I think. I view classics as these huge, imposing works that I have to love or else. Which is stupid, because then I just end up making them too big in my head and end up never reading them or finding them disappointing.

And, kind of sadly, Silence didn’t totally live up to my expectations. I still enjoyed it, but I think taking 6+ days to read it (I was doing about a chapter a day) made the reading experience suffer. Because this is a slow book: it’s slim, but there’s little action and the majority is discussions between the very small cast. Or traveling across Japan all alone. Of course, the core of the book is in these slow, sad moments. It’s about religion, obviously, but it also touches on other themes like our purpose in life and losing a sense of hope and optimism. So it’s both slow and very depressing. I like to inhale books like that in one or two sittings, so maybe it’s my own fault that I didn’t love this.

There were many things I did love, of course. Certain moments felt so true and real and raw. Some of the revelations were touching. And I don’t think you have to be at all religious to enjoy this (I’m certainly not!): though it’s a core theme, nothing is ever preachy, and it’s as much about culture clash and persecution as it is about any specific religious concept.

I think the first section and the ending parts are the strongest. The middle drags a little and many of the scenes feel very same-y. I wanted a little more character development from our side people, and maybe a little less introspection from the main priest.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 12/200

Goal Books: 9

Impulse Reads: 3

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

Favorite Books of 2016: Standalones

30 Jan

Picking my favorite books of the year is always a difficult task. Narrowing down 250+ books to just a handful? I keep a running shelf of my favorite books of the year on Goodreads, but it was sitting at 47 for 2016 so even that wasn’t entirely helpful. I went into this with no set number in mind, and ended up with 13 books. The mix is surprising: there’s one book each from the 3 prize longlists I read through (Man Booker, Man Booker International, and National Book Award), 2 collections of poetry, and a very interesting mix of genres. Some of my favorite authors made the cut, but most of them were new-to-me reads. I certainly could have added more books to the list since 13 was an arbitrary number, but I think this list really captures how diverse and exciting my reading year was.

[...]

December Reading Wrapup: Part II

4 Jan

In terms of raw numbers, the first half of December was much better than the second in terms of reading. The holidays are always a rough time for hobbies: there’s so much traveling, so many things to do, so much cooking… and no time for my usual before-bed reading. I got a little bit done, but not as much as I had hoped. Though I wrapped up almost all of my challenges on time, so that’s something to be happy about!

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik*. Finished December 16th. There are a few things that will get me to pick up a book no matter the reviews or author. If it has survival elements or spooky woods (and The River at Night has both), I generally don’t even bother to look up information on it. I just read that sucker. This has led me astray many times: according to my shelves, I’ve read 22 unsuccessful spooky woods books and only 10 I actually enjoyed. Thankfully, this is the latter category!

The premise is a wonderful combination of The Descent and The Ritual (which are both about as good as it gets when it comes to survival horror). Four women have been friends for decades, but they only see each other once a year on epic vacations. Beach getaways, skydiving, that sort of thing. This year they’re going white water rafting in an uninhabited part of Maine. No, none of them have ever rafted before, but these girls are desperate for adventure. Or at least their leader, Pia, is.

Most of the first half of the novel is spent setting up the characters. Sure, things happen (the adventure starts!) but it’s mostly building up all 4 women as complex and realistic figures. Their interactions, histories, and personalities feel very fleshed out and realistic. They all have obvious flaws (the divorcee, the adventure addict, the recovered alcoholic, the abused wife) but none fall into trope territory. They feel like real, average humans. Like women you went to school with or talk to at a book club. It’s a nice writing trick: they’re complex enough to hold your interest, but not over-the-top enough to take you out of the mood.

And the mood is fantastic! While this is not technically a horror novel, it has a very moody atmosphere and moments of extreme tension. After all, you know from the blurb (and tone) that the trip does not go well. This is a survival novel, after all. And there’s a lot of surviving going on. There are also some old-fashioned creepy-people-in-the-woods element as well. Stranded in an unexplored forest with potentially Deliverance-level crazies? It makes for some excellent horror moments.

Though the build to the meat of the plot is slow, it never feels like a chore getting there. The pacing is great, and you are carried along the river of these women’s relationship at the exact pace the author intends. Sure, there are some unrealistic elements in play towards the end, but that’s almost always true in survival stories (because if they were realistic, 99% of the time they’d end in “and then they all died of exposure”). But this is an immersive piece of horror masquerading as literary fiction. If you like survival horror, I’d definitely give it a shot.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Breaking Wild, by Diane Les Becquets. Finished December 16th. After reading The River at Night I immediately wanted more survival-themed books. Maybe I should have resisted that impulse, because it’s no surprise that Breaking Wild suffered from the comparison. Then again, based on other reviews I might feel just as neutral if I’d waited.

Breaking Wild has a lot of elements I love, aside from survival. There’s a hint of grit lit (without the over-the-top sexually violent tones that plague that genre), strong female characters, and that Gone Girl “is she really who she says she is?” element to the missing woman Amy Raye. Then again, that last one might be a little too on-the-nose for me (I mean, she has the same name–Amy. Kind of trite). We also have lots of animal-based scenes, both friend and foe. Dogs and coyotes and cougars and bears and elk, oh my!

But I felt a huge distance in the narrative. Even when we are with Amy on her survival journey, watching her on the brink of death, I didn’t feel that emotional pull I want. I like being close to characters, getting in their skin and feeling their pain along with them. And I don’t mind the “unlikeable” type that Amy Raye obviously falls into: as long as I understand a character, there’s the potential to like them. But with Amy? Even after her full backstory reveal I didn’t “get” her. And the woman looking for her, Pru, felt like an unnecessary add-in at times. Her home life and backstory was a bit dull next to the excitement and shine of Amy. That might have been an intentional contrast, but that doesn’t make it a good story decision.

There’s one thing this book does amazingly well: build tension. We have alternating chapters from Amy (missing woman) and Pru (looking for missing woman), but the timelines don’t sync up. Amy’s is at a much slower pace: it takes half a dozen chapters to even get to when she goes missing. Pru is way in the future by that point, and desperately looking for Amy. And while Pru’s chapters are in the 1st person, Amy’s are in the 3rd. These combine to create a big sense of unease, because we have no clue if Amy survived or not. And her chances seem quite grim as the book goes on. It’s cleverly executed and is a nice twist to the missing woman genre.

There are definitely highs and lows here. I loved the tone and the pacing, didn’t love the characters or side plots (I don’t care about Pru’s love life or kid, author. I want to know what happens with the cougar!!). I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not a book I will think back fondly on. If you don’t mind distanced narratives, though, and like survival thrillers, this might be right up your alley.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Bodies of Water, by V. H. Leslie. Finished December 17th. This is one of those books I finished and immediately had almost no opinion on: I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I feel decidedly lukewarm on pretty much every aspect. Which is odd, because the themes (intense female friendship, bizarre antiquated cures for madness, mythology/magical realism elements, alternating past-and-present storylines, cats!!) are things I almost always love or at least can easily get involved with.

But Bodies of Water was decidedly bland. The writing was decent and had some sparks of beauty, but mostly came across as just adequate. The characters are quite flat. They have interesting backgrounds, but everything we see from their perspective makes them seem dreadfully dull. They also act in a way that drives the plot forward but makes no real-world sense. If you moved into a brand-new apartment and the ceiling started leaking, would you 1) visit your upstairs neighbor to ~investigate~ and then forget about it or 2) call the fucking super to fix it asap because it’s DRIPPING ALL OVER YOUR BED. Our girl Kirsten takes #1 because yeah, that’s logical. Their motivations don’t line up with their actions at all, and it’s a consistent issue.

I think one of the main problems was the length. It’s so short but covers two stories with deep backgrounds. There’s a LOT going on, and each story could have easily been 100+ pages. It wouldn’t fix the other issues but it would make it easier to get invested. With this novella format, by the time I finally gave a damn about the plots it was over. Something interesting happened (there’s honestly only one real ‘event’ in the book) and 10 pages later it’s the end of the book? The pacing is quite poor.

I know this was going for a traditional Gothic atmosphere, and it had a great base to work with. The plot sounds so interesting on paper, and issues of mental illness and sexuality are just begging to play out on a weird Gothic water therapy stage. Yet this was just okay in almost every way. Super forgettable.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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In Pinelight, by Thomas Rayfield. Finished December 17th. This is, without a hint of exaggeration, one of the best pieces of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Yet it has 4, count em FOUR, reviews on Goodreads! I only stumbled upon it because the spine looked intriguing while I was at the library. I am a constant whore for books that take place in spooky woods, and how spooky does that cover look? Very spooky. But misleading, because there’s no horror here and very little woods. But quite a few pine trees, thus the name.

This is a book uniquely told. The plot may seem been-there-done-that: it’s an old man telling his life story to an unnamed interviewer. His life took place entirely in a small rural town and one of the main themes is past vs present, new vs old, progress vs tradition. No new ground there, but it’s dealt with in a very interesting way. The old man’s story is told in stream-of-consciousness. And not in a neat, easy to digest format. It includes all the mess of human speech: repetition, mistakes, grammatical errors and memory flaws. He’s definitely an unreliable narrator, though it is unclear if it’s because of age or intentional deception. At first it’s hard to get more than a paragraph into it without feeling a bit mentally exhausted. But once you get into the meat of the story, the narrative flows like water. It’s so intimate, like you are right in the room with our narrator. Or even better, right in his head. The interviewer actually doesn’t get any lines, so you kind of have to guess from the context what the questions are.

While at first this seems like a simple life story with no drama, the themes and characters get more and more complex and entangled as it goes on. His wife, sister, daughter, and best friend feature prominently, but it’s not told in sequential order. You’ll hear about his wife’s death, and then go back to when he first bought his horses (another important set of characters), then go all the way back to his childhood before snapping back to another memory of his wife. You’re in the stream of his life, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. If you told me before I read this that I’d be captivated by the life of a guy who drove a horse-and-cart delivery I’d probably have laughed in your face, but In Pinelight is pure magic.

There are some big questions lurking in the background (what happened to his missing sister, what was going on at the weird medical institute in town, who is the interviewer, why is he being questioned, what secret was his friend hiding) that peek up occasionally but generally lurk in the background. They act as ties that bind everything together, but this is in no way a mystery. The joy of reading it is in the telling, not in the answers or cohesion. And while we do get answers (in a way–it’s left up to the reader to put together the pieces), they’re not at all what makes this book shine. It’s the carefully crafted narrative that make it so amazing. If you like literary fiction, please give this a shot. It’s criminally underrated.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Some Will Not Sleep, by Adam Nevill. Finished December 19th. I have a fraught relationship with Adam Nevill. You know how Stephen King often can’t write a good ending? Nevill is like that, only it’s the entire second half of his books. When I say that The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels, what I mean is “the first half of The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels and I generally pretend the second half doesn’t exist.” Same for Last Days. I felt more positive about diving into a collection of shorts because hey, they aren’t long enough to have a different first and second half, right?

Well, that’s true. But somehow I ended up with the same problem of only liking 50% of the content! Except it was whole stories I liked or hated this time, which is an improvement I guess? Some of them I absolutely adored. “The Original Occupant” is basically a prequel to The Ritual, and takes place in that amazingly creepy forest. “Mother’s Milk” is gross-out body horror at its best. “Yellow Teeth” was so unsettling. “To Forget and be Forgotten” was possibly my favorite, and had me checking behind the shower curtain late at night. “The Ancestors” is a great take on Japanese horror.

But about half of the others were huge flops for me. “Pig Thing” was overly short and predictable. “Doll Hands” seemed to be bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. “What God Hath Wrought?” had potential but ended up being overly long and about 80% exposition. “The Age of Entitlement” was just dull. “Florrie” was boring and uneventful.

I did enjoy the end section, which had the history of all the stories (both the writing of them and the ideas themselves). Very Stephen King. But at the end of the day, I’m just so confused by Nevill. I can’t believe the same author wrote all of these stories, much like I can’t believe the same author wrote the first half and second half of The Ritual.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Scent of Winter, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished December 20th. MY HEART

“It happens to me sometimes. Something comes on me that’s more animal than human. I wish there was a word for it. The only word that comes close is ‘bloodlust.’ I’d felt it that night in the woods, the first time with you.”
“When you chased me and ran me down.”
“I wasn’t chasing you, Kingsley. I was hunting you.”

This may seem sacrilegious to other Original Sinners fans, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Kingsley. I don’t hate him, but I just don’t like him as much as the other two members of the Unholy Trinity. The books that focus on him tend to be my least favorites. I mean, I still enjoy him, but I never considered myself a real fan. Until this novella. It tugged on my heartstrings, and for the first time I felt totally sold on Soren/Kingsley. The rawness of their relationship here is so authentic and bittersweet.

“Why would I think I could fall in love with a wolf and never get bitten?”

This is probably my favorite of the Christmas novellas. And while at first it doesn’t seem overtly Christmas-themed, it’s perfectly seasonal!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Innocents, by Cathy Coote. Finished December 21st. I have this morbid fascination with all those “it’s like Lolita!” type of novels. Lamb, The End of Alice, Tampa, et cetera. This already backfired on me once this year with All The Ugly & Wonderful Things (which romanticizes pedophilia, why) so I was a little hesitant to pick this up. The premise is a play on all those “Lolita was a seductress!” morons (I almost apologized for that but if you think Lo was anything but a victim please get out immediately). Our 16-year-old heroine, who remains unnamed, is… kind of a sociopath. And by “kind of” I mean “she fantasizes about beating and torturing her classmates.”

One day she decides that seducing her teacher is a great idea. The plot summary makes it sound like she is the hunter and he is the hunted, and indeed that seems like the direction it’s going in. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The title, Innocents, could apply to both of them. The teacher thinks his student is innocent, and she thinks he is innocent. There is a very strange predator/prey dynamic here where they both think they are “in charge” of the relationship and manipulating the other one.

There is no question that our heroine is very messed up. She is no innocent, abused girl… but at the same time, she is very young and unable to understand adult relationships. The things about herself that she plays up (childish appearance, carefree demeanor, sexual reluctance, innocence and naivete) are not the things a mentally well adult man are interested in that, but she is totally blind to how creepy he is. She thinks she is totally in control and so clever, but she’s set a trap for a pedophile… and nabbed one. The question becomes, which of them will get hurt first? And how badly?

This is a dark, twisty book. You should have a strong stomach if you’re going into it, and a taste for moral ambiguity. It’s certainly not as upsetting as some of the other books in this “genre” (especially because it’s set in Australia, where 16 is the age of consent… if it’s not with a teacher) but there are many stomach-churning scenes. I hope this is not Coote’s last book, because I’d love to see what she does next.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling. Finished December 25th. Sometimes you just have to go where your heart takes you. Towards the end of the month, I just really felt like reading Harry Potter. I knew I had one book to get through before the year ended but hey… sometimes you need comfort food, but in book form. Which is what this is. Not really a lot I could possibly say that’d be new: it’s one of my favorite in the series, and I loved it.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks. Finished December 31st. It seemed fitting to have this be my last book of the year. I started the Culture series in January of 2016, and have devoured the 10 books in it over the course of 2016. Sadly, Banks passed away a few years ago so this is the last Culture book we’ll ever get. And since it’s an open world (no books follow the same characters or plot), it had pretty much endless potential.

This is very much the swan song of the Culture world. It’s about a society at the end of its life-cycle: they are done with reality, and about to go post-physical into the Sublime. The Hydrogen Sonata seems like a goodbye letter, both to the Culture world and (tragically) to life. One of the main themes is the life-tasks people in this society give themselves. It can be anything (playing a particularly difficult piece of music, traveling to a far-away place, covering your body in a specific set of tattoos), but the goal is to accomplish a difficult or obscure task before death. Since the civilization is about to leave the Real, many people are rushing to finish their life-tasks. Like oh, you know… writing a book series. Yeah, it’s a little too close to home.

While this wasn’t the most compelling book in the series or the most emotional, it was beautifully crafted. It felt much more somber than anything else in the Culture world, and a little forlorn. It was also a rough read emotionally, not necessarily because of the content (though it’s quite sad) but because of the real-world parallels to Banks’ life. Plus, you know, last book of such a terrible and tragic year.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

268/175 Books

28/28 Series Books

70/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

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

December Reading Wrapup: Part I

3 Jan

I find the last month of the year to be the most difficult in terms of reading. I’m already looking ahead to my 2017 goals, or looking back on my favorite books of the year. By mid-December I kind of think of the year as “over” already. But despite that, I still had a pretty good reading month! I finished off my series challenge and got quite a few off my TBR read.

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A Gambler’s Anatomy, by Jonathan Lethem*. Finished December 1st. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite authors, but for some reason I only gravitate towards his weirder, lesser-known books like As She Climbed across the Table, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape. Though let’s be honest, I don’t think you could classify any of his books as normal. I haven’t read any of his “big” works like Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, etc–I guess I will eventually, but I have no real drive to. Which is weird, because the books I’ve read of his I adore!

I think A Gambler’s Anatomy falls rather uncomfortably between his odd, quirky books and his more mainstream ones. There are a few elements of magical realism (our main character is psychic, for example) but they don’t add much to the book either in terms of plot or metaphor. It would be basically the exact same book if the mind-reading element was removed. Which is odd–why was it included? It adds an extra layer to the final chapter but that’s about it. I think it would have been a much more interesting book if 1) the magical realism was just removed or 2) it was amped up and more integral to the plot/characters.

My main issues with the book are all the elements that seem neither here nor there. A lot of plot points seem randomly jumbled together, and there’s not enough of any one to make a cohesive whole. It’s hard to even pinpoint what the book is about (and not in a “so many interesting elements!”) kind of way. Is it about gambling? Yes and no. Is it about backgammon? Yes and no. Is it about severe illness? Yes and no. Is it about communist revolutions? Yes and no. Is it about the negative effects of capitalism? Yes and no. Is it about addiction? Yes and no. All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but somehow putting it all in the same plot dilutes all of the oomph.

The writing is, of course, beautiful and it is a compelling read. Even when I wasn’t very interested in what was going on I wanted to keep going, which is an impressive feat. And all of the side characters were great! Our main character? Not so much. He’s supposed to be stoic and boring and his perspective comes off as… stoic and boring. I really dislike “boring, blank-slate” narrators that kind of serve as a widow to the action more than a direct player in it. So while there are lots of redeeming features here, and it was far from a bad book, nothing drew me in. A disappointment, to say the least, though I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. Finished December 2nd. Other than my love affair with Tana French, I find myself continually disappointed by Western crime fiction. I’m just never that interested in whodunnits, so often I feel that any side plots or forced character “development” are just standing in the way of getting the reader to the solution. So it’s no surprise that I adore Eastern crime fiction: in almost all the ones I’ve read (Malice, The Investigation, Confessions) you find out who the killer is fairly early on, and it’s more about the characters and motives. The Devotion of Suspect X takes this to new heights: it’s not a whodunnit, because it starts from the POV of the killers. It’s not even a whydunnit, because the murder takes place very early on and the motives are crystal clear. It is the rarest of things in crime fiction: a howdunnit.

Yasuko is being stalked by her ex-husband. When he goes after her teenage daughter, she kills him in a fit of fear and protectiveness. Her neighbor, the unassuming math teacher Ishigami, helps them cover it up. But it cuts from the murder to days later, when Yasuko comes under suspicion. The mystery here is how Ishigami covered it up. Every angle of the murder is examined, and he seems to have covered it all. But how? It seems like the perfect crime.

Ingeniously, because the book starts out from Yasuko’s POV you are 100% on her side (and thus, on the side of the criminals). I was dying to know how Ishigami managed the coverup, but I wanted even more for them both to get off scott free and for the cops to remain in the dark. This is a riveting novel, a real page-turner but without the fake “cliffanger every chapter” that so many books in the genre rely on. This is my second Higashino book, and I doubt it will be my last. If only more of his work was translated!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Inheritance, by Robin Hobb. Finished December 3rd. This is, technically, the last Realm of the Elderlings book I have to read. I say technically because it’s a collection of short stories, and only the last section is set in that world. The other half is by Robin Hobb’s other pen name, and take place more in the real world (though they have many elements of magical realism and fantasy in them).

I was kind of expecting to skim through the first half in an effort to get to Hobb’s section, but I found them surprisingly enjoyable. I don’t know if it’s a writing style I would seek out on its own, but the stories were quite memorable. A few fell flat, but for the most part-success! But, of course, I came for the Hobb and that’s where this book shined for me.

There are only 3 Hobb stories because as you’d suspect, they are very long. They’re all wonderful, though the first (which is about the settling of the Rainwilds) and the last (which has a cat perspective) were particularly amazing. I don’t think I will ever get enough of this series, so let’s hope that the new one coming out in spring isn’t the last!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Into The Forest, by Jean Hegland. Finished December 4th. What a mixed bag of a book this was. I love survival stories and I love post-apocalyptic fiction so theoretically, I should have loved this. And I will freely admit that those aspects were fantastic. There’s a large amount of day-to-day survival stuff: growing a garden, canning and drying food for winter, figuring out how to hunt, etc. Given my love for survival classics like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson I am a total sucker for “here’s 20 pages that list all the different plants here and what they do!” type of things, which this book has in droves. And the apocalypse itself is very interesting: it’s not one big event, but the culmination of many. Climate change, unstable currency, political strife, a failing economy… sounds eerily familiar.

If the novel had stuck with the survival aspects as the main focus and given us more character development between sisters Nell and Eva, it would have easily been 4 stars. I was so involved for the first 100 pages or so, even though a few of the elements (the forced romance for Nell, the constant flashbacks to her parents) were almost too young-adult-y for my taste. But then, sigh, it takes a very sharp nosedive.

For some reason, the main message of this book seems to be that men are bad and women are victims. I hate hate HATE when fiction frames sexual interaction with men as only negative. If it’s consensual, watch out, you’ll get pregnant and be a single mom! And then, of course, we have to threaten the girls with rape because an apocalypse and having your parents die and almost starving to death just isn’t spooky enough. Sigh. It’s so unfair to both genders. Not all men are evil, obviously, and the “it’s the apocalypse so men revert to being horrible rapists” thing is truly baffling as a trope. And women are not victims! A girl can insist on birth control. A girl can consent to sex and not have any negative consequences, emotional or physical. A girl can, gasp, enjoy sex without somehow getting in trouble for it.

Weird 60′s feminist themes aside, this book really suffers in the last 100 pages or so. There are some truly baffling scenes that serve no purpose besides making the reader uncomfortable (sudden incest like woah) and the book seems to go from reality to magical realism very quickly and suddenly. Things that aren’t physically possible happen with no discussion. And tonally it’s weird. I think the end is meant to be read as inspiring or empowering which is… weird, because it seems more like the girls went totally insane. But rah rah women living together in the forest female power?

If you’d like to read a book about survival in the forest and a (kind of) apocalypse, I’d really recommend Our Endless Numbered Days. It deals with many of the same themes in a far more mature and coherent way (and manages to be much darker without the “men are out to get us!” bullshit).

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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World War Z, by Max Brooks. Finished December 6th. I read this years ago and loved it, and while I’ve heard many people raving about the audiobook I was never really interested. Audiobooks just aren’t my thing. But then I heard that it was what everyone wanted from the movie (an abomination we shall not speak of), plus I needed to read an award-winning audiobook for the Read Harder challenge. So WWZ audiobook it was!

This is just amazing. So immersive, and it really feels like the way the book is meant to be “read.” It is really more like a radio play than a regular audiobook. Fully voice acted, with a consistent narrator. Definitely get the full edition though: many of my favorite stories were left out of the original release.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund. Finished December 9th. This is a dark, dark book. Before you consider reading it, I’d add heavy trigger warnings for child abuse, rape, and incest. If any of these are upsetting topics for you I’d definitely proceed with caution. While none of the violence is gratuitous and most of it happens either in memory or off-screen, a lot of the details are hard to get through even if you have a strong stomach. Though this does work against the book in some ways: by the time you get to the end and the final reveal of the horrors the murderer has created, it seems almost blase. I feel like this is a danger with any long, dark book: eventually the reader is immune to the shocks. But that doesn’t negate how grim and effective 90% of it is.

The Crow Girl neatly toes the line between police procedural and psychological thriller. We have a ton of POVs: everything from the cops working on the case to the killer. Quite a few seem unrelated and really only come together at the end, and there’s a ton of misdirection and potentially unreliable narrators. It’s one of those “who am I supposed to trust?” type of novels, which I always enjoy. Every time I was sure I knew what was going on another twist and turn was revealed. It’s not a wham-twist type of novel like Gone Girl: sure, there’s a lot going on, but it’s hard to say that there is “one big reveal.” It’s more a series of smaller (but still effective) surprises.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the discussions of mental health. It’s both my favorite and least-favorite thing about The Crow Girl. I loved how complex all the characters were, and how intensely it looks at trauma, memory, and mental health. There are some wonderful moments of insight and really interesting discussions.

However, every mentally ill character in the book (and there are quite a few) is either an abuser or a victim. It’s absolutely a myth that the mentally ill are more likely to commit violent crimes: in fact, there’s no proven link between mental illness and criminal behavior. However, the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a crime. For all its interesting discussions, The Crow Girl still uses mental illness as a plot point. It’s supposed to be a revealing look at the cycle of abuse but it kind of comes off as “wow mentally ill people sure are crazy, look at the stuff they do!” It’s a sore subject for me and I didn’t appreciate how black and white the issue was. You also really need to suspend belief for some of the bigger twists, or know nothing about mental illness.

To end on a positive note, this is an incredibly compulsive read. The chapters are quite short (2-5 pages) and the POV/time period changes constantly, making it feel insanely fast paced even though it takes place over the course of a few months. I never felt bored by the length or wanted things to happen faster. In fact, I think it could have been a bit longer: the end is slightly rushed!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Márquez. Finished December 10th. This is my first Marquez, and I think it was a poor choice on my part. I picked it out because I saw it hanging out at the library, and let’s be honest… it’s really short. I don’t read a ton of physical books (almost all of my reading is done late at night on my Kindle, with the lights off), so when I pick one up from the library I don’t want it to be a chunker.

But this book is about age and the path our lives take: it’s an old man hitting 90 reflecting on his life. I just can’t connect with the themes, which is obviously on me and not the book. The writing is beautiful and I think the plot fits the themes perfectly, but I just felt really distanced. It’s hard for me to rate, and I’d love to go back to it in a few decades when the “I’m old and I feel like I’ve wasted my life” is something that I can connect with.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay*. Finished December 10th. I came into this book with low expectations. I know Roxane Gay only from her nonfiction work, so I was expecting a collection of stories with interesting ideas and feminist themes, but perhaps not the most elegant writing. And I was pleasantly very wrong: this book absolutely blew me away.

It is, as the title states, a book about difficult women. Women who strike out on their own path and refuse to follow traditional gender roles. Women who do anything it takes to survive. Women in bad situations, or women in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s easy to classify them all as ‘difficult’ but it’s also a bit depressing to realize that a women can be difficult for something as simple as not listening to a man. As you’d expect from Gay, these stories have a strong feminist vibe and sell the message very well. It never feels forced or preachy: in fact, it’s a depressingly realistic realization that all women are ‘difficult women.’

The writing here is lush and varied. We go from stories totally grounded in reality to hints of magical realism to full-out fantasy to a terrifying dystopian future. The mood changes: we get more upbeat love-themed tales, heartbreaking life stories, little slice of life pieces that are nearly flash fiction, epic-in-scope fantasy… I was wowed by how easily she shifted genre, mood, and tone while still giving them all a cohesive vibe.

Every story felt like it belonged here. Some were so depressing I almost hated them because of how they made me feel, others so short and brief they don’t seem to fit at first. There are stories that end at the worst possible moment, ones that start after the action. And yet they mesh together perfectly by the end. Difficult women are not just difficult in the way they live their lives, but in how their stories are told. They’re not easy to digest: some are challenging thematically, some emotionally. One made me cry. But they all touched me in different ways, and for once I feel like I’ve read a short story collection where I wouldn’t remove a single one

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones. Finished December 11th. Earlier this year I read Stephen Graham Jones’ Demon Theory, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite books of 2016. I really wanted to read more of him but he has a LOT of books out. An intimidating amount, to be honest, and I didn’t know where to start. Mongrels is actually a brand-new release and seems to be getting a lot of hype, plus it’s a modern werewolf tale which is usually something I really enjoy. So it seemed like as good a place as any to dive into his body of work!

Mongrels is about a young boy who is convinced his family is full of werewolves. His mother died in childbirth, and he lives with his aunt and uncle. They are a family of vagabonds, moving from place to place and picking up whatever odd jobs are available along the way. So while this is, on the surface, a story about monsters, it’s much more a book about humanity. It’s about how we all have something monstrous inside of us, and how it can shape our lives in ways we never expected.

Mongrels deals with poverty and classism/racism in America as much as it deals with howling at the moon and eating people. Like all good monster novels, the fantastic elements serve as a metaphor for real-world issues… though it also tackles these themes head-on in a more literal sense. It’s a very fast-paced book but it’s surprisingly deep, and cleverly skirts the line between adult fiction and YA. It’s totally, completely different from Demon Theory and I’m now even more intrigued to read more of Jones’ books.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Rules for Werewolves, by Kirk Lynn. Finished December 13th. I had two werewolf books on my TBR and thought to myself, “why not read them in a row?!” So here we are, with a very wolfish December. Rules for Werewolves is compared to Sharp Teeth in the blurb and that happens to be one of my favorite books so how can I resist?

RfW is told almost entirely in dialogue, but with no speech tags. So there are no descriptions of the action, or even clear ways to know who is talking at any point in time. It reads very much like poetry (thus the Sharp Teeth comparison) and obviously can be intensely confusing at times. The plot itself is simple enough: a group of homeless young people are moving from abandoned house to abandoned house… oh, and their (possibly insane) leader is convinced they are werewolves.

Unlike Mongrels (and Sharp Teeth) this is not an overt “werewolf book.” It’s incredibly unclear if this is a cult-type situation or if they are actual werewolves. This is a difficult book: the plot is messy, there are so many characters it’s almost impossible to keep them straight, and most of the time the reader is a bit unclear on what is going on. But I loved it! It’s so lyrical and interesting, and raises some very interesting questions about how we live our lives. If you like challenging books and possibly-magical-realism with a dark turn, I really recommend this.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Sparks. Finished December 14th. Sometimes I let myself get swayed by hype. I read a bunch of glowing reviews, see it’s a short novel, and pick it up. Though to be honest, this has been sitting on my Kindle for about a year–back when I first read those rave reviews. Even the mid-tier ones mentioned the amazing twists of this little mystery/thriller/whatever it is. I stumbled upon it recently while trying to give some order to the 1,800+ books on my device and off we went.

Sadly, it didn’t live up to the hype. I almost want to give this 2 stars because it was such a disappointment, but the writing was clever and well-crafted. I just… I was SO BORED. The plot sounds so interesting: Lise, a woman who has lived an ordinary life and seems ordinary in every respect, goes on a self-destructive adventure into the long-hidden dark side of her personality. It’s short, witty, and to the point. But I just. Didn’t. Care.

It has a manic energy but manages to be very pedestrian at the same time. Lise acts completely insane: flitting from person to person, topic to topic, changing her personality or aims on a whim. Yet it’s not very interesting to read about because Lise is just a dull person. Even when trying her hardest to get into trouble, the height of her craziness seems to be bold miss-matched prints and stealing car keys. Ooh, scandalous.

Sure, the ending is good. But it wasn’t a twist–you see it coming from a mile away–and you don’t even get any insight into why she chooses that path. Crazy woman does a crazy thing, the book. I prefer more depth and meat to my stories, but maybe I just missed something because this has generally great reviews.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood*. Finished December 14th. Until now, I have not been wowed by the Hogarth Shakespeare line. The ones I have read are, admittedly, exactly as advertised: retellings of Shakespearean stories. But I have always wanted more from these books: more attention to detail, more commentary on society, more meta narratives. Thankfully, Hag-Seed is what I’ve been searching for all along. Which is particularly fitting since The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play!

Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Hag-Seed is a play within a play. The main character, Felix, is putting on The Tempest in a prison, but his actual life mirrors the play. He was deposed from a position of power, is essentially in exile, and is using his in-prison play to get revenge on those who wronged him. His daughter is even named Miranda! So for most characters you have both the in-book counterparts and their in-prison-play counterparts. Felix is, of course, both the in-book Prospero along with playing him in his own play. I’m making this sound way more confusing than it is probably, but basically the book has a play in it and both mirror The Tempest both literally and thematically.

Much like how TT is aware that it is a play, HS seems to be aware that it is a book. Felix’s inner monologue often comes off as a speech to an audience, and many of the book allusions come off as very wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the reader. There’s not a lot of overt 4th-wall breaking, but it’s clear that we are a layer of the book: there’s Felix, then his play, then the audience in the book, and then finally, the reader. Or perhaps we’re the “top” layer of the pile. The question is, are we being played by Felix too or are we in on his shenanigans? This is a book that I already want to re-read because I know there are probably dozens of important things I missed.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Good As Gone, by Amy Gentry. Finished December 15th. I keep picking up these popular thrillers expecting something amazing and getting, surprise surprise, canned mediocrity. If this book had any other premise I would have skipped it: I’ve really trained myself not to pick up those “thriller of the month everyone’s bookclub pick IT’S THE NEXT GONE GIRL” type of things. But I am borderline obsessed with the documentary The Imposter (go watch it, seriously) and this plot seems ripped right from that with the genders reversed.

When she is 13 years old, Julie is kidnapped right out of her bedroom. There are no leads, there’s no evidence, and the case is basically abandoned. She returns many years later and while her parents are thrilled to see her, her mother (Anna) becomes suspicious. Is it really her daughter who has come back, or an imposter?

It’s a really fast read, with chapters that alternate between Anna in the present day and “possibly Julie”‘s past. So you’re going both forward in time and back, which is a nice aspect. It’s smoothy written for the most part, though nothing really stands out and there are some clunky sentences. The pacing is great: very tight, chapter breaks at just the right moments, not a lot of down time or unnecessary content. Every conversation seems packed with meaning, every scene full of clues. If you’re a thriller junkie I think this is probably a great read.

However, I found it really lacking substance. The characters were flat, and the mystery felt very thin (especially because many details were pulled from The Imposter and JonBenet’s case, making it feel overly familiar). The last quarter of the book saved this from being terrible: the reveals are great, and while not totally unexpected they did catch me by surprise.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

259/175 Books

27/28 Series Books

68/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

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

November Reading Wrapup: Part II

13 Dec

As I mentioned previously, November was a pretty meh reading month for me. Sure, I got a decent amount of books finished off, but a lot of them were just so-so (or outright negative reading experiences). In fact, I only loved a handful of books this month… and almost all of them were in the first half of November. Towards the end of the month things did pick up but man, I really think this is the worst reading month I had all year!

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The Merciless, by Danielle Vega. Finished November 15th. This book is all fluff and no substance, and reads more like a movie script than a novel. I actually do think it will make a great movie, like a slasher version of Mean Girls. I mean, that’s basically what this is. Girl moves into new town, is taken in by the hot popular girls, participates in the ostracization of the weird loner, falls in love with handsome boy. Only this time the mean girls are a psychotic Christian cult and the loner girl may or may not be skinning cats behind the bleachers.

It’s definitely an odd book. It’s hard to place who it was written for: given the high gore level (tame compared to some of the stuff I read, but very high for YA) I assumed it was more adult-minded… like My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is a book about teens and exorcism and weird violence but has themes that resonate with many readers and writing that’s clearly aimed at an older audience. But so much about this book is juvenile: there’s little to no characterization, the writing is painfully repetitive and simple, the dialogue is stiff, the relationships seem forced. Signs that you’re reading a YA novel, right? But the content is definitely NOT for young teens.

You really have to suspend belief for this book to be halfway effective. Can you imagine, in this day and age, the popular girl group at a public school being crazy devout Christians and baptizing people in bathrooms? No. Somehow I can accept exorcisms and people possibly being possessed by the devil but the idea that a group of teens would be like, “yes, this exorcism sounds like a GREAT IDEA” while also being super hot and popular and appearing totally sane? Nah.

I think the core ideas are good. It’s a very cinematic book, and had potential. But there were a ton of issues! Sofia, our main girl, knows the main girls all of like 4 days before the main events happen. The opening section should have taken place over weeks or months so we feel like she trusts them and they trust her. And why was there a random relationship crammed in there that had nothing to do with the plot? Because teen girls love a good romance? I was a teen girl and let me tell you, if it’s a book about blood and guts I didn’t want to read about making out in between the gore.

The ending definitely redeems it a bit, and while I was not invested at all I’m almost tempted to read the sequel. It’s honestly pretty badly written but was still enjoyable, in that “page-turner thriller every chapter ends on a cliffhanger” bubblegum sort of way. It’s also incredibly short (just over an hour’s read for me) so it’s not a huge time investment. I think readers who like YA would appreciate this more.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb. Finished November 21st. I initially meant to start this trilogy in December. For the first time, I’m reading a Hobb series while it’s in publication, and we aren’t getting the last book until March. So basically, I wanted to end the year on it so it wouldn’t feel like such a long wait. But this was just chilling on my Kindle and I felt inexplicably drawn to it. I’m a heavy mood reader, so off I went back to the Six Duchies! Side note: why is Fitz white on every single cover? Because in the book world, he’s clearly… not. But that’s a topic for another post.

This is the third trilogy featuring Fitz, and the fifth overall in the Elderlings series. I read all of them this year and I became a passionate fan very quickly. There’s just something about Hobb’s writing, world, and characters… even in slow moments (which, to be honest, is 85% of this book at least) it’s so compelling and comfortable feeling. It’s like being with family! The same kind of warm fuzzies I get from Harry Potter & Dresden Files. Which is basically the highest compliment.

But this was not my favorite of her books. Sure, it was a great read, but it was like that slow middle section of the last Farseer book… for 600 pages. Very slow-paced, little happens, and it seems to be mostly a setup book. There are moments of strong tragedy that are like a shock to the system after all that calm slice-of-life stuff, and I think the dark tone of the ending is really setting the stage for the next two books.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. Finished November 23rd. Aickman is one of the godfathers of modern horror, and while you often see story collections influenced by Poe, Ligotti, and Lovecraft (or even modern authors like Laird Barron!), it’s rare to read straight Aickman-inspired fiction, which is what drew me to this collection.

The mood of this collection is so dreary and unsettling, as you’d expect. The stories are inspired more in terms of tone and pacing than style and setting, which I enjoy: I don’t want to read Aickman fanfiction, but stories that feel like they belong in his world. Which these definitely do! But that’s also kind of a downside and what kept this from a higher rating even though the stories were all high quality. Aickman stories tend to never really explain their horror… or really give any sort of definitive conclusion. And all of these stories follow that path. Lots of buildup, lots of spooks, little emotional payoff. It’s not exactly a frustrating experience but it is like literary blue balls. I mean, it’s totally perfect for what it is, but you need to really be in the mood for some unexplainable fiction.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Witch’s Market, by Mingmei Yip. Finished November 25th. This is a strange little book that’s hard to describe. It’s about a woman doing anthropology fieldwork about witches on the Canary Islands, and she has a history of witchcraft in her own family. Sounds fascinating, right? And all of those elements, the Chinese folklore and witch myths, are great. SO many tidbits and pieces of history.

But the writing style just doesn’t match up with the content, which is a problem I’ve rarely encountered. It’s written like chick-lit or a fluffy romance. Very simplistic, with a focus on mundane details and (of course) the looks of everyone around our heroine. It’s not bad writing, it’s just really solidly mediocre. The premise is literary fiction, the writing is not. It’s so strange!

I think most people wouldn’t really enjoy this book. If you want chick-lit, the premise is way too esoteric (and the book actually turns into a murder mystery with ghosts, no joke). If you want literary fiction, it’s unbearably fluffy. But I have a degree in anthropology and a lifelong obsession with mythology, so I really enjoyed all of the information presented here, both real and made-up. I don’t think I would ever recommend this to anyone, but I did enjoy reading it.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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H.P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries, by S. T. Joshi. Finished November 26th. This is an interesting mix of coffee table book and biography. As such, it doesn’t give you a intensely detailed look into Lovecraft’s life and works, but has tons of interesting facts along with fascinating reproduced documents. Everything from the astronomy journal he printed as a child to a handful of letters he wrote to his will and death certificate. And the real illustration of Cthulhu! Most of his stories are also discussed, with insights into how and why they were written. Though obviously, huge spoilers if you haven’t read all of his stories.

While I loved 99% of the book, I found the last chapter (which discusses Lovecraft’s impact on the literary scene) a bit lacking. For example, Joshi states that Stephen King is kind of the anti-Lovecraft (in terms of writing style) and really only has one Lovecraftian story. Anyone who knows King knows that Randall Flagg is literally Nyarlathotep, and there are dozens of Lovecraft references peppered throughout his books and stories. So… that was kind of weird. But very worth reading if you’re a Lovecraft fan.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb. Finished November 27th. This was a big improvement over the first book! Hoenstly there’s not a lot more action, but it feels like more happens. There’s a lot more meaningful dialogue between characters, and it’s a lot less exposition-focused than Fools’ Assassin.

The main improvement is that, of course, our two main characters are finally together again! They were apart for 90% of FA and you spend a long time just waiting for them to come together. And, like Malta in the Liveship books, I went from hating a character from the first book (Shun) to growing rather fond of her… though I have mixed feelings about what happened to her character.

I’ve never had to wait for a Hobb book so the 4 months between now and the finale are going to be absolute agony.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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American Hunger, by Eli Saslow. Finished November 29th. I am a serious food stockpiler. I have enough food in my apartment to last my husband and I a month, probably 2, maybe 3 if we really stretched (in case the zombie apocalypse happens, we are ready!). Boxes of pasta, bags of rice and beans, tomato sauces and tuna cans, mac n cheese, pasta- and rice-a-roni, a freezer full of dumplings, chicken thighs, and sausage, tons of imported ramen… just a LOT of food. And the thing is, this is not insanely expensive. It’s not something I spend a lot of time or money on. We’re on a budget, and our food one is often tight, but I like to feel secure about our eating future. But for so many people in America, cupboards stocked with cheap food is literally an impossible dream.

This is kind of a soul-crushing series of articles. I know there’s poverty in America, and like most “middle class” people I deal with periods where things are very tight, often uncomfortably so. But I’ve never stopped and thought about the families who literally can’t feed their children. The ones who rely on school meals and when summer break hits the panic sets in. The families who can only afford/have access to cheap crap so they have obese kids who are starving and suffering from malnutrition. The mothers who have to chose between milk and cereal because they can’t afford them both. This book is about those people, the ones we try not to think about, the millions of suffering Americans who have it rougher than I’d imagined.

I think it’s a very important read and, thankfully, it is wonderfully written. The tone is compelling, the information and facts presented seamlessly within the narrative of these families. I was so intrigued by this that I immediately read another book on the subject, and have quite a few more in the queue. Highly recommended.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. Finished November 30th. For some reason, after the soul-crushing American Hunger I thought to myself, “let’s read more depressing books about poverty!” And boy is this one a doozy. It’s about the section of America that literally lives on $2 a day–not $2 for food, $2 for every human necessity. It’s something that should be impossible in a 1st world country, yet here we are. After reading this book (and living through the election) I just… America kind of sucks.

This is a great, informative book, but the writing wasn’t nearly as good as American Hunger. I think this actually suffered in my mind because I read them back-to-back. The style here is very to-the-point, and while it follows 8 families below the $2 a day poverty line, you only get a surface level understanding of their lives. I mean, you know their circumstances intimately by the end, but I never knew them as people. For example, one of them is a woman who, in her late 20′s, got into a relationship with a 16 year old boy who ended up being physically abusive. But doesn’t that kind of…. make her a predator? 28-year-old women should not date teens. You get the impression that she is perhaps a little slow, but we don’t get enough information (especially emotional details) to really understand how she ended up in that situation.

I don’t really expect amazing narration from nonfiction, so I can’t dock it too many points for that. Everything else? Fantastic. So much research and information is presented to the reader, but so much of it stuck with me just because of the absolute shock factor. Along with American Hunger, this really changed my perspective on poverty in America.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Springtime, by Michelle de Kretser. Finished November 30th. I was drawn to this slim little novella by the cover. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover, and this (along with the ‘A Ghost Story’ subtitle) was impossible to resist. I mean, where can I buy that dress? Because I want it. And maybe the dog too.

This is a hard book to describe. It is a ghost story… kind of. Much of the character’s inner dialogue focuses on how important small details are, and how misleading a story can seem. And this is referenced, of course, directly in the plot itself. It’s an incredibly tricky little book that on the surface appears quite simple. I think it would benefit from a re-read… and it’s one of those books I honestly wish I read in a classroom. I feel like you need some meaty discussion to really understand all the moving parts.

Unfortunately, while the complicated narrative is super interesting, almost nothing else is. The plot seems quite mundane (even with a ghost) and the characters rather dull. I wanted more from this than what I got.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

246/175 Books

27/28 Series Books

66/50 TBR Books

26/15 Different Countries