Tag Archives: Man Booker International

June 2017 Wrapup: Part I

17 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

Who is the third who walks beside you?

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Ararat, by Christopher Golden. Finished June 14th.

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 99/200

Goal Books: 93

Impulse Reads: 6

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

Reading Wrapup: Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon April 2017

4 May

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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]

On Literary Prizes & Reading Longlists

24 Mar

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Two years ago, I impulsively decided to read the Man Booker shortlist. The reasons why are still a bit fuzzy, to be honest. I think I just saw a lot of people talking about it and wanted to be “in on the discussion.” It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made in my reading life: one of the novels on it (A Little Life) is a top-ten book of mine now, and I absolutely fell in love with two others (Satin Island & The Fishermen). I read 5 out of the 6 in total, and of course the one book I skipped is the one that won, and I wasn’t crazy about the other two I picked up (A Spool of Blue Thread & The Year of the Runaways). So while I didn’t love every book I read for it, reading the shortlist was overall a very positive and motivating experience.

For 2016 I was planning to read the whole longlist, but ended up getting involved in two other prizes as well: the Man Booker International and the National Book Award. I read about a third of MBI, all but one of the NBA books, and the entire Man Booker longlist. And for each of them, I ended up reading a book on my year end favorites (Man Tiger, The Throwback Special, Hot Milk). Obviously I plan on doing that again this year, with another prize thrown into the mix (Bailey’s).

That sums up my short history with literary prizes, but what I’d like to discuss is what I find so appealing about them. I have found that most people who read prize lists tend to focus purely on literary fiction, while my reading is all over the place (to put it nicely). Some of the books on them are ones I would read anyway–two on the Bailey’s longlist were on my TBR and I’d already read another 2, for example–but generally the majority of them are not books I would pick up on my own. And I don’t tend to give them higher ratings overall. In fact, most of my Bailey’s reads are in the 3-3.5 star range, with only a few breaking through to 4-5. So why do it? Why devote so much time and effort to reading 40+ books a year just because they are on a prize list?

1. The sense of community. There is a pretty substantial group of bloggers/vloggers who read through these lists, and quite a few of my Goodreads friends do as well. Even if you are not engaging in direct conversation with people about them, there are so many reviews and discussions out there about whatever group of books is on a longlist. You can read prediction posts, watch videos of people discussing the selections, go on message boards and try to guess the winner. I engage in a lot of literary discussion both online and in real life, but nothing comes close to this because we’re all reading the same books when it comes to prizes. If you talk to someone about books in general, chances are slim that you will have a large overlap. If you’re talking about a prize list, there’s a pool of 10-20 books you will both have opinions are.

2. The motivation. The main difference between casually reading a book and reading a nominated book is the time frame. You know going into a longlist that there are dates in the future for the shortlist & the award ceremony, which means if you want to read them while it’s relevant… you need to hurry up! I know many readers hate pressure, but I thrive under it. Before going into the Bailey’s longlist in early March, I was 5 books behind schedule for my reading challenge. I am now 2 books ahead, in about half a month. I found myself devoting more time to reading, and focusing more on the books I was tackling. Each book had a sudden sense of importance: I wanted to know what made it worthy of the longlist, so perhaps more thought went into my reading than usual. Each book comes with the question of “what makes me a Bailey’s book” or “what makes me a Man Booker book.” It’s like a timed puzzle that I very much want to solve.

3. Knowing that I will find at least one amazing book. I have yet to read a longlist that didn’t end up helping me find a new favorite book, and that still holds true in 2017: I have no doubt that both Fever Dream and The Lonely Hearts Hotel will end up on my year-end favorites. I look over all the beautiful covers and wonder, “which one of you will be my new book love?” Of course I pick up every book I read hoping to love it, but my history with prize lists has taught me that I am absolutely guaranteed a winner.

4. Keeping up to date with fiction. Every book on the longlists I read is, at the very most, a year old. Of course I have a massive backlog of books I want to read, so perhaps this isn’t a fully positive aspect, but I love reading what’s on the cutting edge of fiction. I want to know what book trends are happening right now, what styles and topics are popular. For example, there are two book on the Bailey’s that focus on horses. And last year, longlists were dominated by discussions on race relations. Books with a cultural anthropology slant also seem to be trendy right now, with one nominated in 2015 and one in 2016 for the Booker. This is not exactly vital information, but I love having my finger on the pulse of modern fiction.

So, lovely readers, what is your opinion on reading longlists? Are there any prizes you follow, and would you recommend them to me?