Tag Archives: magical realism

Favorite Books of 2017

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2017 Wrapup: Part II

13 Jun

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 90/200

Goal Books: 84

Impulse Reads: 6

Top 5 Wednesday: Summer Reads

17 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2017 Wrapup: Part I

16 May

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 80/200

Goal Books: 74

Impulse Reads: 6

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

Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part I

24 Apr

Once again I am late with a wrapup. Are you surprised? Because I’m not. And I plan on doing 3 this month (Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, which I will be doing a week early, really does deserve its own). I swear I really do try to keep up with it. Yet here we are, again! So let’s just dive into the first half of April. Which was an…. okay 2 weeks of reading? Could have been better, but I am still on track with my reading goals. Kind of.

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Judas, by Amoz Oz. MBI shortlisted. Finished April 1st. This was one of the few Man Booker International nominated books that I’d actually heard about before the longlist announcement. To be honest, I hadn’t planned on reading it, because the synopsis (student in Jerusalem becomes caretaker & companion of cranky old man) screamed “cozy and heartwarming to me” which is not really my genre.

Thankfully, Judas is nothing like what I imagined. Shmuel, or main character, is indeed an (ex) student who is having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. He can’t afford his schooling anymore, his friends have essentially abandoned him, and his girlfriend ran off with another man. Lost and adrift, he answers an ad that provides room & board in exchange for spending his evenings with Gershom, the cantankerous old man from the blurb. Atalia, a woman in her 40′s, is the only other occupant in the house… and really, the only other character. There are a few others who pop in and out, or who we see in flashbacks, but there are really only 3 pieces on this chess board.

This is a deeply emotional and philosophical book. Most of it is the internal dialogue of Shmuel’s struggle to find meaning in his life. As the name of the book implies, he was working on his thesis about Judas when he left university, so we get a lot of the history of Judas & Jesus’ relationship and views on him through the ages. While it’s a religious theme, I would not classify this as a religious book. It has theology as a central theme, yes, but it’s not about religious principles. It’ about history, and how time can shift and change our perceptions of things. The idea of Judas as both traitor and savior is played with a lot, and Shmuel finds a lot of parallels in his own life.

Of course there is not a whole lot of plot. If you want your books fast-paced, this is probably not for you. It’s slow and character-driven, and relies a lot on the reader being interested in both the characters and the historical aspects discussed. But I was so in love with all of these. It’s an endearing and intelligent novel, and one I am very happy to have read.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King. Finished April 3rd. I had heard from a lot of people that the Dark Tower series starts going downhill after Wizard & Glass, so I was a bit hesitant when I picked this up. But I shouldn’t have been, because this is my second favorite so far (with The Waste Lands being #1 in my heart).

I feel like the books are all so different tonally, it’s really hard to say that one is objectively better than the others. The Gunslinger is a weird mix of Western and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Drawing of the Three adds in urban fantasy, The Waste Lands is more of an adventure-fantasy across a scifi landscape, Wizard & Glass is epic fantasy, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a fairytale, and Wolves of the Calla is like a Western movie (quite intentionally, because it has many parallels to The Magnificent Seven) with like robots and stuff. Wolves and Waste Lands are probably the most similar both in tone and in the fact that they both have all 4 (5? does Oy count? HE DOES) main characters in action together, so it makes sense that I love them so much. Hopefully the final 2 books follow in these footsteps!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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First Love, by Gwendoline Riley. Bailey’s shortlisted. Finished April 4th. Is this the most contentious book on the Bailey’s list? I would say yes, especially after it got shortlisted over what people think are more deserving titles. And yes, I’m heartbroken that The Lonely Hearts Hotel didn’t make it on, but it’s the winner in my heart. *sob*

First Love is definitely a strange little book. It’s about Neve, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her much older husband. We jump around in time a lot, starting with present-day Neve and moving back and forth through her past. It is, essentially, the story of how she got to her current situation. It focuses a lot on her relationship with her eccentric and overbearing mother, along with how she met Edwyn (her husband).

The prose is sparse and, at times, very strange. It’s not overly descriptive but it’s not exactly straightforward either. About halfway through the book you get the feeling that Neve is not… entirely honest with the reader. There are a few times where she recounts an event, and when another character contradicts her she will say “well actually, maybe it didn’t happen like that…” It’s a classic unreliable narrator, though I don’t think Riley pushed it far enough. I was never really certain why Neve was unreliable. What did it add to the plot, other than some character depth? Because there are no big twists, no moments when you realize Neve has a “big lie” or anything like that. She’s just a bit deceptive.

I did enjoy this book, and I thought the scenes of Neve’s emotional and verbal abuse were particularly well done. You really hurt for her, and feel that panic rising up when Edwyn starts going after her. But it’s one of those books where I was left wondering, “why did the author write this? What is the point of this novel? What was it trying to convey?”

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Traitor’s Niche, by Ismail Kadare. MBI longlisted. Finished April 6th. This is probably the Man Booker International novel I was most excited about when the longlist was announced. Surreal historical fiction about the Ottoman empire, and a niche where they literally display the severed heads of traitors? Sign me the hell up!

This is, indeed, a very strange book. It’s historical-fiction-meets-magical-realism, and Kadare pulls it off beautifully. It starts out normally–or as normally as a book about severed heads can be, I guess. We follow the caretaker of the heads, who has to make sure that they remain in good condition while on display and also keeps people from defacing the niche. It’s weird, but still kind of grounded in reality. As we skip from character to character it grows increasingly strange.

We then move to Albania, where the Empire is attempting to quell an uprising. Here we learn about the Empire’s method of culture suppression, which is a series of tasks that aim to completely eradicate the base culture of a conquered nation. This is, of course, a metaphor for things that happen in real life, but it’s also where the magical realism really kicks in. Because they do mean literally destroying a culture: they have ways to eradicate a language, a society, a series of rituals, etc. It gets very strange and dark, but it’s told to us in such a matter-of-fact way. In fact, the whole book has a “so these are the facts” kind of tone. It does create a layer of separation, but I think that was entirely intentional. It’s still a choice I have a bit of trouble with, and it’s why this wasn’t rated higher.

This is such a densely layered book that I think it would benefit greatly from a re-read. It does a lot of interesting things that it’s hard to appreciate on a first read-through. For example, we flit between quite a few characters, but rarely get the resolution to plotlines in the section that they’re brought up in. We start with the man who guards the heads, and the conclusion to his plotline is mentioned in brief passing in the last chapter. If you’re not careful, you can miss some very important elements as they’re mentioned in only a sentence or two.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 7th. What I need in my life is another prize list, right? Well,I had been planning on reading the Hugo novel nominees but all of them but one are sequels of some sort, some of them the 3rd or 4th book in a series. I’m just not down for that much commitment, guys. What if I hate the first book and never even get to the nominated one? I quickly decided to read the list of nominated novellas instead, because 1) there were only 6 of them 2) I had already read (and loved) 2 and 3) 2 others were on my TBR, leaving only 2 “strays” that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. This one was already on my TBR, because I adore Victor LaValle.

I also adore Lovecraft, aside from you know the intense racism and xenophobia. The Ballad of Black Tom is based on what is probably Lovecraft’s most egregiously racist story, The Horror at Red Hook. Which I actually re-read before tackling this, even though I had planned on skipping it as I re-read all of Lovecraft’s work (an in-progress project I hope to finish by the end of the year). I really, really recommend doing this if you read Black Tom, because it adds a lovely layer of context. This is, after all, a response piece: it’s Red Hook told from the perspective of the “bad guy.”

Some (okay, let’s be honest, many) Lovecraftian retellings fail to capture the spirit of the original work. There’s no sense of wonder and horror, no sense that the bad guys are definitely going to win and hope is pointless, no sense of cosmic dread. But, as I expected from LaValle, all of that is perfectly captured here. It’s eerie, unsettling, and tense. And not just because of the cults: our main character is a black man in 1930′s New York, so there’s that racism/cosmic horror mashup going on. I enjoyed that in Lovecraft Country, but I think it’s better executed here. If you can believe it, Black Tom actually pushes the Lovecraftian elements further than the original piece, while adding in a nice dose of real-world horror.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 8th. Like Black Tom, this is a retelling (or sequel?) to a Lovecraft story. This tackles, as you may guess from the name, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. And like Black Tom, it is also about some of the implicit biases in Lovecraft’s works. This time, it’s tackling the complete lack of female characters in his works.

Vellitt Boe is a former adventurer who now works as a professor in a women’s college. One day her star pupil goes missing, carried off to a dream world by a mysterious stranger. The twist here is that Vellitt lives in the dream world of Lovecraft’s imagining, and the world her student goes to is the waking one. For various reasons which I won’t get in to, Vellitt has to go after her student and resume her old, adventurous life. All of the Dream-Quest elements you’d expect are here: ghouls and ghasts and nightgaunts and, of course, cats!! So many cats. Still no answer on what the hell is up with the evil cats from Saturn though, sigh.

I really enjoyed this, but I do think reading Black Tom and Vellitt Boe back to back was a bit of a mistake because they suffer a bit in comparison. I just loved Black Tom so much and this novella didn’t have quite the emotional impact. And I read the original Dream-Quest before this as a refresher, and they are VERY similar since, well, they traverse the same terrain (literally). It does deal with elements of sexism and feminism, but I wanted a bit more of that than what we ended up with. By far the most interesting part (to me) was the whole waking world versus dream world, and I think the ending handled that so beautifully and in a really unexpected way that mirrored Kadath‘s end perfectly. What makes a home a home? How do you deal with wanderlust? Is it worth traveling when you don’t even know what it is you seek? I wish this had been explored a tiny bit more, but overall a very solid novella that I loved.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb*.  Finished April 14th. Will my heart ever recover from this book? Probably not, let’s be honest.

Since this is the 16th book in a series (17th, if you count The Inheritance), there is almost nothing I can say about the plot without spoilers. Heck, I can’t even discuss what characters are and aren’t alive at this point! Though I will say this: if you have been reading just the Fitz books and skipped the middle series (Liveship Traders and Rain Wilds), you need to go back and read them before tackling this! All of the threads from Hobb’s narratives come together at last, and we get characters from every trilogy here. Sure, you could read it on its own, but you would lose all the emotional impact of the story.

Since I can’t talk specifics, I’ll just discuss what I love about the series in general. The world is, of course, amazing. It’s a nuanced, subtle fantasy word. While there are many kinds of magic (and dragons!) it is never over the top and we don’t get wizard battles or any of that. The magic is completely woven into the story. The world itself feels deep and full of history. Even after 17 books, I don’t feel like I fully know all the nooks and crannies, and much of its backstory is still a secret to the reader. Hey Hobb, if you want to write a history of this world textbook-style, I would gladly read it!

But of course, the characters are where Realm of the Elderlings really shines. I have never encountered a fantasy with such deep, nuanced characters before. Everyone feels completely fleshed out and real. In fact, I think that’s why the Rain Wilds isn’t quite as popular: still good characters, but they aren’t quite as deep as what you’d expect from Hobb. And I have to say, I realized in this book that it’s not just the characters themselves that make these books strong, it’s their relationships to each other. Each connected character has a complex relationship. It’s never black and white: we never have just friends or just foes, there are no simple father/son bonds, no trite love stories. Literally every single character interaction is fraught with history and depth. Fitz and the Fool are obviously the main stars here and I can’t even begin to describe the layers of their relationship!

If you like character-driven fantasy, interesting Medieval settings, complex worlds and magic, and (of course) dragons, I really recommend going and starting with the very first book in this series, Assassin’s Apprentice. And prepare for a journey of extreme emotion, I’ve cried more times than I’d like to admit reading these.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

So, that was the first half of April! 5 award books, 2 series books. The award lists have kind of taken over my reading life and I’ve fallen a bit behind on the number of TBR books I’d like to tackle this year, but that’s okay! I’m trying to be a bit looser with specific goals this year. As long as a book falls into one of the very generous categories I’ve constructed (on my TBR, on my Kindle, physically owned but not read, a series book, a Read Harder challenge book, or a prize book) it’s a “good” decision. And only 4 haven’t met that criteria so far, so I will focus on the positive!

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 56/200

Goal Books: 52

Impulse Reads: 4

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

Reading Wrapup: March 2017 Part II

20 Apr

March started out as an excellent book month for me, and definitely finished off strong. Almost half of my year’s reading so far was this month, to put it in perspective. Crazy, right? I’m glad my insane slumpy-ness of January and February is behind me. It is thanks to, as I’ve mentioned already, a few prize longlists. I started out the second half of March with the Bailey’s and Man Booker International. But after a few books I really needed a break: I can’t read nothing but literary fiction or I get really burnt out. So I took a break to read some ARCs and a few fluffy thrillers, along with continuing my Dark Tower readthrough. I no longer absolutely need the prize lists to motivate my reading, which is a great feeling!

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Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough. Finished March 16th. After reading a good chunk of the Bailey’s longlist in March, I needed a quick break before diving into the Man Booker. And there’s nothing that screams “brain candy” to me more than a fast-paced thriller. It’s fluffy, it’s light, it’s enjoyable… but it probably won’t stay with you for long. However, I do think Behind Her Eyes is a lot more successful than the “domestic thrillers” we’ve been getting recently.

Behind Her Eyes features two female protagonists: Louise, who kisses her boss David in a bar and Adele, David’s wife. Louise struggles to balance a friendship with Adele and a professional/maybe-more relationship with David while keeping them both a secret from each other. But this is a thriller, so obviously we’ve got secrets and intrigue and potential crime and all sorts of mischief. The best part of this book is by far the ending: it’s truly shocking, and indeed a twist you “won’t see coming.” I am pretty good at guessing twists early on but BHE makes this nearly impossible.

While the first 90% of this is a pretty cut-and-paste thriller, the characters are much stronger than what we usually get. Louise in particular is great: she is a good person who makes bad decisions, like most of us are. Usually we get “pure of heart heroine” and “villainous to the core bad girl” but everyone here is complex and deep. If you’re looking for a good, fast read that won’t make you think too hard and doesn’t have an incredibly obvious twist or paper cutout characters, this might just be the book for you.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar, David Grossman. Finished March 17th. MBI longlisted. I am ashamed to say that this is my first Grossman book. I actually do own one more (Lion’s Honey) but I obviously haven’t read it. I know this is much different than his previous works, so perhaps it’s not the best place to start because I absolutely adored it but now I know his other books are not nearly as strange or irreverent.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar is a slim volume that takes place over a mere 2 hours. As the joke-themed name implies, the entire books is a comedy routine. Dovaleh is an aging comedian who performs a very special night of stand-up for his audience (which includes us, the readers). However, this is not a funny book or a comedy in any way…. except for perhaps a comedy of errors.

Dovaleh’s “act” is very personal. He talks a lot about his own history growing up in Israel, and it turns out that several of his childhood acquaintances are in the audience. What part do they have to play in Dov’s story, and what is his goal in telling it to us? Those are the driving questions of the book, but it’s about the journey and not the destination. The final “reveal” is heartbreaking but not at all unexpected.

Dov’s narrative is very stream-of-consciousness. He switches from sweet personal anecdotes to vulgar jokes to insulting the audience directly. It’s certainly a crass book, and you can feel the rawness seeping off of Dov. The trick in the narrative is that you want the end of the book to come as much as you want it to never be over. There is so much stress and tension in the narrative that, like the worn-down audience, you want Dov to just be done and tell his story. But you also know that it is going to be tragic and there was a part of me that absolutely did not want that peek into his past. It’s amazing because Dov’s narrative is so rough but it’s an incredibly polished story despite (or because?) of this. It really reads like you are watching some fancy sleight of hand trick: Grossman keeps his cards hidden until the very last page, and you never really figure out how he pulled it off.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo. Finished March 17th. Bailey’s shortlisted. This is a book I fully expected to hate. When I saw it on the Bailey’s longlist, I had no intention to even pick it up (I had the same feelings about The Woman Next Door, but that hasn’t changed at all). But I saw so many people I respect saying they were excited to pick it up, that it was the first book on the longlist they were going to read, etc. And here we are now, with me having read this book… and not hating it!

I was expecting this to be a standard family drama about a husband & wife who can’t get pregnant. It definitely starts out that way, but it’s more about interpersonal relationships and family. In Nigeria, which is a society I don’t know a ton about. Honestly, if this book was set in the US/Britain/any other country I read about frequently, I don’t know if I would have finished it. I absolutely adore learning about other cultures, whether it’s in nonfiction or fiction format (thus why I studied cultural anthropology in college, haha).

For example, very early on (so this is not a spoiler, it’s like page 30) Yejide’s husband Akin takes a second wife. Definitely not the direction I thought the story was going! While infertility sets the story in motion, it never feels like a tedious or overdone plot point. There’s a lot going on here, but not too much: I felt like it was perfect in terms of both length and story tightness.

While it’s a rather tragic story and hard to call an “enjoyable read” I did have a good time reading it. Though I did not feel particularly connected to the main characters oddly enough: Yejide and Akin are sympathetic at first, but the events are a bit over the top and their reactions a bit too extreme for them to ever feel like people I really knew. But I did really enjoy the ride, even if I found the ending events to be ridiculously unrealistic… almost laughably so. Actually, a lot of the things that happen in this book don’t really make sense. It’s honestly kind of like a thriller in that way, and if you can accept the bizarre logic of Stay With Me it’s a great read.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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War and Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans. Finished March 19th. MBI longlisted. This book suffers from what I now think of as ‘Gustav Sonata syndrome.’ It is split into three parts, and while the first really worked for me… it was the only section that really worked for me. Which is unfortunate, because like The Gustav Sonata I was enthralled by that first section.

War and Turpentine is a weird fact/fiction mashup. It’s unclear how much of this is true: our main character (who for all intents and purposes is the author) was given his grandfather’s memoirs after he died, and took 30 years to finally read them. It’s marketed both as a memoir and fiction, so what is real? It was a nagging question at the back of my mind, but I think the lesson here is that we all see reality in a different way. What version of a story is the real version, and does it matter? For example: Hertmans’ great grandfather spent months in England painting a mural. No one in his family was ever able to find the mural, or even proof that he had worked somewhere painting it. Except for one time, when his grandfather stumbled upon it and found himself painted as one of the characters. Yet he was never able to find it again. It sounds like the kind of dreamy story you would find in a novel, yet it is based on fact-right?

The first section interweaves his grandfather’s early life in poverty and Hertmans’ own memories of childhood. The two are superimposed, and we even get scenes with Hertmans’ son that link the generations together. I thought this part was beautifully done. It spins back from past to present effortlessly, and there is such a sense of deep history. It’s clear that the life you live will have a lasting impact on your children, and your children’s children, no matter how you try to keep it from them.

But after that, things fell apart. The second section is just from the memoir, with no narration from Hertmans. And it’s about WWI. Let me tell you, I hate war books (with a few notable exceptions like All Quiet On The Western Front). I find books that take place during European or (early) American wars so dull and lifeless. It’s just not a genre that interests me, and I avoid war fiction at all costs. And this is like 100 pages of life in the trenches. The funny thing is, the best parts of the story were already relayed to us in the first section, so it wasn’t just reading a war story: it was reading a war story when we already knew the key pieces.

The third goes back to the structure of the first, but focuses on his grandfather’s after-war life and his relationship with his wife. For some reason, the magic was kind of lost on me here. I didn’t find it as compelling as the childhood sections, and I didn’t care very much about the love story. It was sad and moving, yes, but the middle section had really put a damper on how invested I was. This was a book with a lot of potential, and while I did overall enjoy it, it’s sad to see a book that started out as 5 stars fall down so hard.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Mare, Mary Gaitskill. Finished March 20th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is a book that I read purely because it was on the Bailey’s longlist, and it’s also one of the easiest for me to get. Still hunting through my libraries and bookstores for copies of Midwinter and The Dark Circle, sigh. But The Mare is not a book I would ever pick up on my own: it’s about 11-year-old Velvet, a Dominican girl from NYC who is signed up for the Fresh Air program. Basically, she spends 2 weeks during the summer with a wealthy couple as a sort of exchange program. The couple who Velvet stays with, Ginger and Paul, are unable to have children and are also both recovered alcoholics.

Sounds kind of trite and sappy, no? Well, it’s certainly a book that tugs on your heartstrings. The bond between Velvet and Ginger is so real and raw that I definitely got emotional about it quite a few times, especially in the first half of the novel. Ginger’s longing for her own child becomes a longing for Velvet, and it gets all mixed up with her addictive tendencies. Velvet comes from a horrible background and doesn’t know how to deal with so much extra attention without upsetting her unstable and abusive mother. It’s a recipe for tragedy.

While family, race, addiction, loyalty, and love are all major themes here the horses really take center stage. I’ve never been a horse person but Gaitskill’s simple yet effective writing made me want to bound on over to a stable and start learning to ride. Velvet forms a connection with horses in general but one abused horse in particular, and their stories really mirror each other. Velvet feels like she’s found a kindred spirit and I think the titular mare is really the first thing she ever truly connects with.

But I only gave this three stars (maybe 3.5 if I’m feeling generous), so something obviously goes a little wrong. I though that The Mare gets a little repetitive after the halfway mark: Velvet gets in trouble at school, Ginger tries to help, Ginger makes it worse, Velvet gets mad and pushes away, Velvet comes back up to see the horses, Velvet & Ginger reconnect, rinse and repeat. It happens 4 or 5 times in that exact pattern. I wish there was more of how Paul & Ginger played out their addictive behavior in the present day (they both have side plots focused on this, but I wish there was more detail & depth). It’s both too long (too much repetitive Velvet content) and too short (there were several side plots I felt like never got fully off the ground).

It also had an ending that left me incredibly unsatisfied. At almost 450 pages, this is a decent length novel and you get invested in the situation and how it’s going to play out. It builds up to…. nothing much, and the end kind of fizzles out. There’s no conclusion, no resolution. Perhaps that was intentional because life doesn’t have a resolution, but I didn’t want a happy ending. I just wanted an ending.

I think the writing style will also be divisive, because it is quite simplistic at times. There’s no flowery language, even in the lengthy description of the horses. Sentences are short & sweet. Usually I favor the more dense writing, but I feel like it fit the story perfectly here.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King. Finished March 21st. While this is the last Dark Tower book that King wrote, I’m reading them in chronological order instead of publication. After all, this is meant to fill in some gaps between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla, so why not read it as it is intended? And I am very glad I did so, because this does add a lot of worldbuilding and backstory even if it doesn’t drive the plot forward.

Like Wizard & Glass, this is mostly a flashback. Or rather it’s a story told in a flashback: we get another small snippet of Roland’s past, but the bulk of the novel is a folktale that Roland tells a character within his own memory. And, of course, it’s bookended by chapters with Eddie/Susannah/Jake/Oy. While I am not at all sure how the folktale section will link into the greater narrative, it did a really amazing job of fleshing out the world of the Dark Tower. Not as tightly knit as the rest of the books in the series so far, but a worthy read.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Fire Child, S.K. Tremayne*. Finished March 23rd. I feel like every book with even a hint of mystery is marketed as a thriller nowadays. Let’s be clear: this is not a thriller. It’s a gothic mystery that is very much in the vein of Rebecca. In fact, there are many (intentional) parallels between the two. In The Fire Child, the young and naive Rachel marries the much older and widowed David who owns a huge estate (shades of Manderley, if it was desolate and creepy). His previous wife, Nina, died on the property and her specter haunts the halls (metaphorically and, perhaps, literally?).

Sounds like Rebecca, no? But after the setup, the plots diverge strongly. The main source of anxiety for Rachel is not Nina, but David’s child Jamie. Jamie seems to be the golden stepson until Rachel moves in, and then he starts acting very strange. Predicting the future, talking to his dead mother, claiming to see ghosts. This book veers into horror very early on.

There is also a very heavy element of the unreliable narrator. We get chapters from both David and Rachel, and neither of them is totally open with the reader. They both have secrets, and their versions of events don’t exactly add up. I think this element is quite overplayed in modern fiction, but it was executed so well here. The reader is constantly guessing what was real and who they could trust, and it managed to be quite a twisty read without a ton of big overplayed ~twists~.

Like in Tremayne’s previous book The Ice Twins, atmosphere is king here. Carnhallow, the manor, is so eerie and desolate. You also learn quite a bit about the history of mining on Cornwall, something I knew nothing about. Picturing those miners in the pitch black, slowly dying as they worked in the tunnels under this luxurious mansion? Yeah, it’s incredibly unsettling. Add in a creepy child and a possibly unstable narrator, and it’s a recipe for classic gothic horror with a few twists from the modern mystery genre.

I’ve only been mentioning positives, so why 3 stars? The ending, guys. It’s just… a pile of disappointment. The final reveal actually fit the narrative quite well, but all the events after it? It’s very melodramatic and I found myself rolling my eyes at how the David-Rachel tensions played out. It was enough to knock a full point off of what was otherwise a 4-star book (and I think a great ending would have seriously made this a 4.5 for me). However, I enjoyed the first 95% of this (and the Ice Twin) so much that I will definitely read whatever Tremayne comes out with next. I do wonder if it will continue the elemental theme–maybe The Sky Sisters or The Lightning Orphan?

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Ill Will, Dan Chaon*. Finished March 24th. I think having the label ‘thriller’ slapped on this novel does it kind of a disservice. This is a character-driven, literary mystery. I suppose it has some trendy thriller elements, like a dual narrative and past/present mysteries, but this is far more experimental and interesting than any thriller I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around Dustin, whose parents were killed decades ago in a murderous rampage that his foster brother Rusty went to jail for. In the present day, Rusty is let out on DNA evidence, and Dustin reacts to this by spiraling into an obsession with a (potential) serial killer in his area. Dustin is a therapist, and this obsession comes from one of his clients. We get narratives from the past and present crimes, and both fit their era so well. Rusty’s “did he/didn’t he” crime is fueled by Satanic Panic, and the present “serial killer” is based on am internet conspiracy. Reminded me heavily of the Smiley Face Killer, right down to the method of murder.

We bounce back and forth between a number of narrators and time periods, but Dustin is at the center of it all. The narration even mimics his unusual verbal tics: he has a habit of just dropping a conversation mid-sentence and moving on to the next idea in his head, which happens frequently mid-paragraph in the book. At first I thought there was actually an error with my copy of the novel because it was so jarring, but it’s quickly apparent that it’s an intentional choice that both puts the reader in Dustin’s headspace but also really keeps you on your toes. There are dozens of little stylistic choices in the writing that make this book sparkle and shine.

While the two mysteries are interesting this book is about people, not crime. Dustin’s relationship with his family, past and present, is really the main plot. Truth, memory, and identity sit at the core of this, and those are themes I am always eager to read about. And Ill Will explores them beautifully. If you want a fast-paced thriller with constant twists and turns, this is probably not the book for you. The narrative is challenging, and things do not come together neatly. It’s more grounded in reality, yet at times incredibly surreal and strange. Ill Will took me on an emotional journey, and the second I finished it I wanted to pick up everything Chaon has ever written.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Goddesses, by Swan Huntley*. Finished March 26th. I feel like recently I have read a lot of sophomore books from authors where I enjoyed their debut work a lot. But, for various reasons, the second work of theirs never seems to quite live up. Universal Harvester, Swimming Lessons, The Fire Child… all books I just didn’t love quite as much as the author’s first. And, sadly, The Goddesses falls into that category. I really enjoyed Huntley’s first book, We Could Be Beautiful: it was kind of amazingly fun given the themes and content. I was hoping for more of the same here. I do wonder if it’s because authors have a lot of time to perfect and hone their first work while shopping it around, but there’s such a push to get out a second novel in 1-2 years that the sophomore work is much more rushed.

Anyway, onto the actual book in question! Nancy, our protagonist, could not be any more different from WCBB‘s Catherine. Nancy is an overweight, overworked mother of twin boys. Her husband has an affair, and they decide to move to Hawaii for a ‘fresh start.’ While there, Nancy becomes friends with her eccentric yoga teacher Ana and things kind of spiral out of control.

I do love stories about destructive female friendships, and that aspect of the book was great. Nancy and Ana have an instant connection, but the reader can tell that something is not quite right from the very beginning. Nancy is alone and vulnerable, and Ana clearly has more to her than meets the eye. Nancy’s increasingly bad decisions do make sense because Huntley takes the time to make us really know her: like in WCBB, the first-person narration is wonderfully done. Nancy is a complex, deep character. By the end of the book you really feel that you know and sympathize with her, even if she isn’t the best person in the world. Then again, who is?

My main problem here is similar to the one I had with WCBB. There’s a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing that shit is eventually going to go down with Ana, and I felt like the character-driven parts of the book were much better than the ~what’s going to happen~ mystery elements. It went a little off the rails at the end: this is a domestic drama, and the action gets much bigger than what I expected at the climax. It almost didn’t fit the tone of the book, and I was quite disappointed at how quickly and neatly things are resolved. There’s basically this slow but huge buildup to a big event, and when it finally happens there’s like 30 pages where we get a neat wrapped-in-a-bow ending. That doesn’t mean that it has a good ending in terms of how things wrap up for the characters, but it felt very neat and this is a messy book. Messy in a good way: we’re in the middle of the mess Nancy has made of her life, and the clean conclusion was such a tonal shift.

Though the setting (Hawaii vs NYC) and main characters (image-obsessed single woman vs dowdy middle class mom) couldn’t be more different, this is indeed very similar to WCBB in a lot of ways. There’s snarky humor, a lot of character-driven drama, great first person narration, a backburner mystery, flawed characters, and a focus on the mundane details of life. If you like one, you will probably like the other, but this just isn’t as strong as Huntley’s first novel. I wasn’t as compelled by Nancy’s story, and I think the ending needed quite a bit of editing before this went to press.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Explosion Chronicles, Yan Lianke. Finished March 28th. This is a very difficult book to review. I think it did exactly what it set out to: this is a satire of modern China with heavy magical realism elements that add to the farcical and absurd nature of the society portrayed. I am particularly grateful for both the translator’s and author’s notes, which add a ton of really important context both culturally and linguistically. It would have been a very different experience going into this blind.

It will come as a surprise to no one that the magical realism (or mythorealism as they’re called here) elements were my favorite aspect of the novel. Much of them are nature based, with plants and animals reacting to the emotions/actions of the characters. If someone cries, flowers might bloom as their tears fall, or the grass beneath them might wilt away. It’s interesting to have the environment quite literally reflect the plot. But mythorealism is used in a lot of ways: there are moments of absolute hilarity (like when the entire city is transformed into Vietnam during the war to make the visiting American soldier comfortable), but others are beautiful and moving (for example, when the city is covered in literal shards of moonlight).

The story focuses on four brothers in the city of Explosion, who each have a part in raising the city from a provincial town to a megalopolis. The ideas of family values, tradition, and ethics breaking down in the face of rampant capitalist corruption take center stage: none of the brothers seem able to resist the allures of money, except for the youngest (who, surprisingly, also seems least important to the plot). The city’s rise to fame starts with stealing from passing trains, and it’s pretty much downhill from there. As the city’s star rises, the townspeople seem to forget everything that they used to value. It could be a heavy-handed message, but the satirical tone and constant bizarre magical elements keep it from seeming that way.

My main problem was with the tone. It’s very stiff and formal, and the reader is deliberately kept at arm’s length. And the characters are exceptionally one-sided. I think both of these choices are conscious decisions, but they did not make for the most enjoyable read. Usually the language is lush in a book with so much mythorealism, but here it seems almost… stilted. I do not think it is bad writing, but it’s simply not my preference. I do appreciate what Lianke accomplished here, even if not every element was to my taste.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

I realize now that almost all the books I read in the second half of March were in the 3-3.5 star range. Usually that is a recipe for disaster: when I read a lot of “just okay” books in a row, I often tend to get in a slump. But even if I didn’t love all these books, I found (most of them) intellectually stimulation. They are books that I will be thinking about for a while.

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 49/200

Goal Books: 45

Impulse Reads: 4

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

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 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 I

13 Dec

November was, at least for the first half, an absolutely atrocious reading month for me. I got almost nothing done, I couldn’t stick with any book I picked up. I’m sure everyone in America understands why: those post-election blues. I didn’t want to do anything but lay in bed and sigh heavily for a few days, so actually reading words? Difficult. Thankfully, like many people I’ve seen, I dived back into a comforting old favorite and was able to get out of my mini-slump fairy easily. Still a terrible month, though (for reading and, you know, humanity in general).

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Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis. Finished November 2nd. As you can probably guess, this was spillover from my October horror reading binge. I think the name of this collection is a bit misleading–it is a Lovecraft-inspired collection (kind of… more on that in a bit) but it is NOT a mythos collection. There is much Lovecraftian inspiration here, but little of it is from his cosmic horror stories. I find it strange that some reviews say that there’s almost no Lovecraft here, because many of the connections are crystal clear (“The Night is a Sea” – “The Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Black Azalea” – “The Colour out of Space,” “End of the Season” – “Shadow over Innsmouth” to name a few).

The main theme here is more so fall horror than Lovecraftian horror. Sure, many of the stories have Lovecraftian themes, but many of them do not. Quite a few feel more Stephen King-esque, or even like they belong in the world of Laird Barron (especially “Cul-De-Sac Virus” and “DST (Fall Back)”) than like Lovecraft stories. Then again, both King and Barron are heavily Lovecraft-inspired… so in a roundabout way you could probably argue that most stories here are indeed Lovecraftian.

Funnily enough, the most heavily Lovecraft story (“Trick… or the Other Thing”) was my least favorite. In fact, I rarely like to call out stories in a collection, but it was BAD. It’s about Nyarlathotep as an agent of vengeance for a spurned love affair. The hell?? Does that sound like the Nyarlathotep we know and love? No. It was kind of a joke of a story and I didn’t even finish it, which is very rare for me. And on the flip side, my favorite story (John Langan’s “Anchor”) was also not very Lovecraftian. It felt very much like a Langan story and not like anything else–as it should, in my opinion.

This is definitely a mixed bag of a collection. There are lots of gems (other than the ones I have mentioned so far, I really liked “Grave Goods” and of course Laird Barron’s contribution), a few middle-of-the-road stories, one that made absolutely no sense, and one absolute stinker. Definitely not the best horror collection I’ve ever read, but it really invokes the fall spirit and was a perfect seasonal read. Well worth dipping into if you like new weird-style horror and Lovecraftian stories a bit off the beaten path.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Goldenhand, by Garth Nix. Finished November 4th. I have very mixed feelings about this book, though they are mostly positive. The Sabriel trilogy is one of my favorite series and it just feels so cozy and nostalgic to be back in this world with such familiar characters. It also has my favorite magic system: the Charter/Free Magic dynamic and the role of necromancers is just endlessly fascinating. I’d definitely read a book that takes place entirely in the river Death.

We tie up a lot of loose ends from Abhorsen here: Chlorr, of course, but also the lingering magic in Nick. Plus following up with what happened to Mogget and the Dog! Mogget is my all-time favorite literary character so that’s what I was looking forward to most. Sadly he has a very small role and doesn’t appear until the end but still, it’s Mogget!!

But it wasn’t without flaws. The pacing just seems… off. It takes over 70% of the book for all of our main characters to connect, and I really thought there was way too much plot for the remaining 100~ pages. But the climax is SO rushed! Everything happened way too fast and there wasn’t enough character development. I also felt the Lirael/Nick romance seemed very rushed and super strange by the end.

This was an enjoyable book, and I loved coming back to this world, but I think the plot would have been better served in a duology. Hopefully this isn’t the last book we get in the Old Kingdom.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*. Finished November 5th. There was so much hype around this book that I was hesitant to pick it up. It’s getting compared to a lot of big-deal books, like The Golem and the Jinn. Thankfully, it definitely lived up to the hype for me and dare I say… surpassed it? I was so smitten with this novel.

The Bear and the Nightingale is part historical fiction, part fairytale. It takes place in snowy Russia and revolves around a young girl whose mother dies in childbirth. Her grandmother was, apparently, a witch, and it seems like Vasilisa might have inherited some of her powers. But this is a time when women were essentially property: how can she reconcile her magical future with a world that won’t give her any agency?

While this is certainly heavy on the magical realism, the fantasy serves as a backdrop to some very intense cultural questions. TB&tN addresses sexism, women’s agency, classism, religious mania, and many other important issues. It never feels heavy-handed or preachy: every part fits together seamlessly, from the possibly insane pastor who comes to Vasilisa’s village to the suitors her father foists upon her. And the fantastical elements, which I don’t want to spoil by discussing in-depth, add another layer of richness.

This is a book to read slowly and savor. There are so many layers to the story, and the characters are richly drawn. I can already tell that this is a book I will read again in the future: in fact, once you know the end, it’s hard to resist the temptation of turning right back to the beginning.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling. Finished November 12th. Does this need explaining? Post-election, I didn’t want to read anything that didn’t feel like a warm blanket. And what’s more soul-warming than Harry Potter? Though the themes of muggle-racism and government corruption were perhaps a bit too on-the-nose given our current situation.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Surface Detail, by Iain M. Banks. Finished November 13th. This was definitely one of my favorite Culture novels (probably #3 for me, behind Look to Windward and Excession). It’s also probably the darkest–while Inversions covers some dark topics, this book is literally about hell. Well, it’s literally about a virtual hell, but there are quite a few scenes set in ‘Hell’ that are difficult to read. It’s amazing how these books bounce from genre to genre while still consistently feeling like science fiction, because much of this book is straight horror.

I have noticed a trend in Culture books: there is always an amazing core idea, and so many plot threads that never *quite* come together. This really isn’t a negative for me, because I love the ideas Iain Banks tackles and the worlds he builds so much. But it can be quite frustrating: for example, there’s an entire character here who has basically nothing to do with the plot but gets tons of POV chapters. Why is she in the book? Sure, you get a glimpse at a cool aspect of the Culture we didn’t see before. And to be honest, I think the Culture books are WAY more focused on “look at this cool thing!” than “please admire my well-crafted plot.” Some of the earlier ones (Player of Games and Use of Weapons especially) are quite tightly crafted but the farther you get into them the more they seem to…. unravel, in terms of cohesiveness.

He’s also not that great at characters, except for the various AI Minds and drones and ships which are consistently amazing. It’s funny, there are quite a few negative aspects of these books and I can’t really describe why I love them so much. I usually hate thin characterization and messy plots. But here? All is forgiven. There is something mesmerizing about the Culture world.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Beauty, by Alia Whiteley. Finished November 14th. I was very much looking forward to this book but it let me down hard–I really liked Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives and was hoping for more like that. The idea here is so cool: all the women in the world contract a strange fungus-based illness and die. After their death, mushrooms start growing on their graves and eventually turn into weird sentient mushroom-women. I HATE mushrooms really passionately (are you a plant? an animal?! make up your damn mind!) so this was particularly horrifying for me.

But overall this novella was all shock and no substance. It’s obviously supposed to be an allegory for gender relations, roles, and expectations but it seems very heavy-handed. Maybe I’m missing something because this has great reviews, but I found the messages trite. Yes indeed, rape culture and forced motherhood and toxic masculinity are bad things, I don’t need a book to tell me that. Not only that, but the delivery is just… strange. This is not magical realism or fantasy, it’s horror. Really extreme body horror. Which is actually a genre I love, but I feel like all of the gross-out moments were included just to make the reader uncomfortable. So we can look at our own ideas of gender, I’m sure, and ~deconstruct~ why we find these scenes so upsetting. But let’s be honest, they’re upsetting because they are gross as hell and overly violent for no reason. It doesn’t really serve the plot, no that there’s much of one. Super disappointed by this and I kind of wish I hadn’t read it.

LipstickRating1And1Half

 

 

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A House at the Bottom of a Lake, by Josh Malerman. Finished November 15th. I read Bird Box in 2014 and it was one of my favorites of the year. A dark, atmospheric piece of literary apocalyptic horror, it shone bright against the cookie-cutter books we usually get in the genre. Of course I’ve been eagerly awaiting Josh Malerman’s next book which isn’t until 2017, but we have this little novella to tide us over until then!

I feel like I’ve been harping on novellas lately. It’s just a format I’m hard to please in. I want a small cast of well-developed characters. A plot that fits the length but feels meaty, like it has life outside of the ~100 pages it’s contained in. But not a plot so big it feels unfinished, or one so small it seems like a stretched-out short story. I want a cool, inventive world that feels alive. This is a lot to ask for, and most authors just don’t deliver on most of these. Thankfully, A House at the Bottom of a Lake is everything I want in a novella and more.

The story centers around Amelia and James, two teens on their first date who discover a secret lake and a house at the bottom of it. They become infatuated with the house and each other, and spend the summer exploring. There are really only those two characters and the plot centers entirely around the house and their relationship. Tightly woven, but at the same time the mystery is expansive.

Like with Bird Box, the atmosphere is what really makes this shine. To James and Amelia, the house is whimsical and magical. They have the time of their life in it, and you can feel that rush of teenage excitement. But at the same time it is so ominous. The house feels oppressive and menacing. It’s a neat writing trick: you see exactly why James and Amelia are enchanted with the house, but the reader feels nothing but terror and apprehension the entire time. All of their sweet romance is tinted with darkness. The more James and Amelia fall for each other, the more nervous the reader gets. It’s just such impressive writing!

I docked half a star because I wasn’t crazy about the ending–it felt unfinished and clashed a bit with the rest of the tone. But that’s really my only complaint!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

237/175 Books

25/35 Series Books

66/50 TBR Books

24/15 Different Countries

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

September Reading Wrapup: National Book Award

19 Oct

I never used to care at all about book awards. But last year two of my favorite reads came from the Man Booker shortlist, and I had an absolute blast reading the longlist this year. So when the longlist for the National Book Award popped up I just had to read them all. Or at least attempt to: I had tried What Belongs To You earlier this year and dnf’d it, and I also struggled so much through the first few chapters of The Portable Veblen (too cutesy, not enough substance) that I didn’t finish it. But other than those two, neither of which made the shortlist, I powered through the whole thing! Just kidding, I didn’t read New of the World because it wasn’t out when I started reading the list, and by the time I finished I just didn’t care about it enough to start. So… 7 out of 10. Good enough!

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Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet. Finished September 16th. I have no idea what I read. I should have realized this book would be a big pile of wtf when I saw it was written by Lydia Millet, who wrote Mermaids in Paradise: a comedic tale of ecological destruction with the most “what the hell” ending I’ve ever encountered. I’m convinced that Millet’s books are all going through identity crises.

So what exactly is Sweet Lamb of Heaven? It has thriller elements (woman running from a psycho ex), it has supernatural horror elements (main character hearing a voice stemming from her infant child), it has mystery elements (a general sense of “what the hell is going on”), it has quirky slice-of-life elements (her life in the Maine hotel). Yet it is not a thriller, a horror novel, a mystery, or a quirky slice of life book. I’m… I’m not really sure WHAT it is. More importantly, I don’t think the book knows what it is. I did originally rate this 3 stars but after thinking about it, it’s just such a hot mess that I can’t in good faith keep that rating. Even if it was an interesting read.

Basically, this is a book where you have no idea what is going on or how you are supposed to feel about anything. Our narrator has elements of being unreliable: she’ll spend a whole chapter talking about something like it’s still going on, then a chapter later will say “but all that ended years ago” and you’re like… ??? what? Time shifts, events are glossed over, it’s a real sense of unease. But I don’t think it’s executed well–I love books that keep you on your toes mentally, but Sweet Lamb just felt intentional obtuse and confusing. No bueno.

There were elements I liked, though. Millet’s writing is slow-paced but compulsively readable. And there are lots of odd, almost random scientific discussions that I adored. Animal language! Pando! Orcas! These are all areas of study I’m very interested in so I loved seeing them pop up in the story. Even if, you know, it didn’t 100% make sense. But whatever, I’ll take a random paragraph about orca language in literally any book for any reason.

It was actually going well enough until the end, confusion aside. The last chapter was just really, really bad. Nothing made sense, plot points came out of nowhere, it was incredibly rushed and felt like a different novel. I went from “this is weird but enjoyable” to “no why I don’t want this at all.” I don’t think it’s a bad book, but I don’t think it’s a good book either. Is it even a book? Did I just read blank pages and hallucinate the whole thing? Who knows. Certainly not Lydia Millet.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Miss Jane, by Brad Watson. Finished September 20th. I love reading through the longlist of book awards because 9 times out of 10 I’m picking up a book I probably wouldn’t have been interested in otherwise. And while there are always some flops, there are winners too: like this book, which (aside from the beautiful cover) seemed not at all appealing to me. How wrong I was!

This is a slow, character-driven piece of historical fiction that centers on Jane, a little disabled girl. The novel follows her life from birth to death, though the majority of it focuses on her childhood and early teen years. That’s probably my only criticism: events at the end felt very rushed. I really wanted this to be a 600 page chunker so I could spend days and days with these characters. It’s a very short novel, just over 200 pages, and I do think it suffers just a little bit because of the length. But that’s literally the only negative.

It’s such a beautiful book. Jane has a rare disability (a genital malformation that makes her permanently incontinent and also unable to conceive a child) and the vast majority of the book is about her dealing with her situation. From realizing as a child that there’s something different about her, to fighting her disability as a teen, to finally accepting it as an adult. I have several disabled family members so of course this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and Brad Watson handled it so deftly and with so much compassion. Jane is a complex, dynamic character who is not defined by her disability, but this is not some “rah rah learn to overcome your problems!” type of narrative. It’s about Jane accepting that her disability is part of her: it doesn’t define her, but it’s certainly part of the overall definition of who she is.

Of course there are other plot threads and characters. We follow the doctor who diagnosed her, my personal favorite character, along with Jane’s dysfunctional family. A bitter mother, and alcoholic father, an older sister who just wants to leave. Issues of sexism and racism are deftly woven into the narrative. This is a book that hits some heavy topics, but it’s really just a book about life. About dealing with the hand you’re dealt and finding happiness anywhere you can.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson. Finished September 21st. I wanted to like this book more than I did. It has so many elements I enjoy: set in NYC, coming-of-age, intense female friendship. And while I liked it, there was nothing I particularly loved. It was a pleasant but unassuming read.

I think a large chunk of that is because of how short it is. I’m not sure what is up with this current “super crazy short” novel trend: the majority of the books on both the Man Booker and National Book Award longlists are under 300 pages. Many are under 250, and this one is under 200. There’s a way to make a short novel work (for example, I thought Hot Milk was the perfect length) but overall I tend to find lengthy books more enjoyable.

There’s just a lot to cover here and not enough pages to bring the emotional impact. We follow our main character August, but there are SO many side stories: her mother’s mental illness, her father’s conversion to Islam and how it affects her family, the lives of August’s 3 very close friends, and snippets of her current life as an anthropologist. The last was definitely my favorite part, and one I wanted a lot more of. I am an absolute sucker for cultural anthropology in novels and it seems so on-trend now which makes me very happy.

I felt like, aside from August, no one was very fleshed out. I wanted to feel the tight relationship between her friends, but the pace was so rapid-fire I had trouble even keeping track of who was who. Compare this to A Little Life, a book about four friends who are so amazingly separate and distinct. Considering some of the struggles these girls go through, I felt like 200 pages was incredibly insufficient. I wanted so, so much more of them.

I also wasn’t a fan of the writing style. It’s very repetitive. For example:

“The government owns the pecan trees now. What had once been my family’s has been taken. By the government.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a writing style like that, but it’s never something I enjoy. I don’t like repetition and stripped-down, simple sentences. It’s meant to feel colloquial and casual but I always have problems with it, like in My Name Is Lucy Barton. It’s just not for me.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder. Finished September 23rd. I expected to like this book, but was honestly surprised by how much I loved it. My favorite on the NBA longlist, and I can’t imagine another book knocking it off that spot (though Miss Jane is close). What first drew me to The Throwback Special was that it’s about football: I love football pretty passionately, so whenever it pops up in serious literature I am all over it.

You don’t really need to know anything about football, or even like it, to appreciate this book… but I think it definitely helps. There are many scenes discussing the Theismann-LT play that may read as a little dry if you’re not a fan. And there are also clever elements that can easily be missed if you don’t follow football (their lottery mimicking the NFL draft, for example). I usually have a pretty strong aversion to “manly men discussing being men” type of books, which this definitely is, and I loved it despite that. I mean I kind of hated All That Man Is from the Man Booker list and I think The Throwback Special could definitely go into “boring man stuff” territory but it veers so hard in the opposite direction.

This is a quiet book that is absolutely stuffed with brilliant observations on human nature and life. I have entire pages highlighted because of how meaningful and beautiful I found the passages. They just rang so true to the universal human experience–sometimes a book just strikes right at the heart of things, and The Throwback Special does this with incredible finesse.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Finished September 26th. When I was a kid, I thought the underground railroad was not a metaphor but a literal, physical railroad under the ground like a subway that saved slaves. It was all very exciting and I thought American history was super cool. Then a teacher told me that it was not, in fact, literal. Much sorrow was had that day. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out there was a book that took that concept and ran with it!

I’ve read one of Whitehead’s book in the past, Zone One, and I feel like there’s a huge emotional element missing in his writing. The Underground Railroad is a book that deals with a very heavy topic, slavery, and some scenes are incredibly hard to read. There’s a lot of brutality and it’s based on history, which makes it that much more powerful. But while you cringe and sympathies with the characters, I never felt like I knew them or their motivations.

This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, though given the content perhaps “enjoy” is too strong of a word. It’s beautifully written, moving, and impactful… but I wanted more of all those elements. I wanted more emotion, more gut-punching sadness (what can I say, I’m a book masochist).

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett. Finished September 27th. This is a hard book to rate. I can’t say I enjoyed it–the reading experience was tense in a not-so-pleasant way, and it filled me with anxiety. Most reviews start off with trigger warnings for depression and mental illness, and of course I ignored them because let’s be honest: just from the description and first chapter, it’s very clear the direction this book is going to go. There’s little surprise when the wham moments come (one of the few negative things I can say about Imagine Me Gone), and in fact the entire plot seems laid out neatly in the first 5 pages.

But. But. There is this sense of unease and dread suffusing every chapter, and if you suffer from anxiety and depression yourself I think certain chapters (aka any of Michael’s) will be hard to get through. His pulsing, roving anxiety is so aptly described that it’s hard to keep your own reigned in. Whenever Michael stuffed a bill in the drawer of his desk without opening it or got increasingly obsessed with some trivial detail of his day I felt my own heart beat a little faster: in sympathy, yes, but also because I related to his situation in a way that made me very uncomfortable. This is a harsh look at what mental illness does to both the sufferer but also to an entire family. It’s raw and, at times, almost unbearable. Even though you know what’s coming, the tension doesn’t let up: in fact, I think knowing the ending makes it just that much harder to get through.

This could have been a 5-star read for me, but I felt a little let down (and upset) by the ending. I think certain characters acted in incredibly stupid ways. I also felt the last few chapters were kind of lackluster: for a book that takes such a hard look a tragedy, all the time-jumping felt a bit flat and detached.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Association of Small Bombs, by  Karan Mahajan Finished September 29th. While the subject matter of this book is quite heavy, it left basically no impression on me. I don’t really feel one way or another about it. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it either.

If anything, I found it boring. I flew through the first half and then suddenly found myself dreading picking it up again. I really had to push myself to finish it. I’m pretty sure I will struggle to remember a single detail in only a few weeks. Just super forgettable.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

My obvious favorites were Miss Jane and The Throwback Special, though sadly only one of them made it to the shortlist/finalists.

Reading Challenge Goals

212/175 Books

24/35 Series Books

57/50 TBR Books

22/15 Different Countries