Tag Archives: Julie Buntin

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.

30688013

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.

31752345

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.

30267890

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?

30763882

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.

19256975

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.

29906980

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.

30201327

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.

30341480

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.

marlena2.indd

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.

8889080

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!

30199417

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.

13456414

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.

30197853

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.

23444482

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.

34084

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.

Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part II

4 May

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

29229956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

24490481

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

30199414

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

30365013

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

5093

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

30079724

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

23282006

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

12326627

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 71/200

Goal Books: 65

Impulse Reads: 6