Tag Archives: Kai Ashante Wilson

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.

Reading Wrapup: Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon April 2017

4 May

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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