Tag Archives: Mystery

Favorite Books of 2017

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2017 Reading Wrapup: Part II

5 Aug

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 128/200

Goal Books: 121

Impulse Reads: 7

July 2017 Wrapup: Part I

23 Jul

Time for my only-slightly-late July part I wrapup! This month has been so brutally hot and I just don’t feel like I have the brain strength for anything too serious, so there were a lot of fluffy reads this month. Sometimes I feel guilty when I don’t read any “serious literature” for a while but that is silly, right? Reading should be fun, and if I want to read trashy YA I should be okay with that. My relationship with guilt and reading is a work in progress, but I am really trying!

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Rawblood, by Catroina Ward. Finished July 3rd. This book was probably the biggest surprise for me this year. It’s been on my TBR for quite a while, but I only had a vague idea of what it was about (“Gothic haunted house” basically) and I will admit I mostly added it because of the cool cover(s) and title. But man, this blew me away.

The setup for this seems like a classic Gothic novel. We have a huge, creepy house (Rawblood) and the family that lives there seems to be cursed. They all die young, and seem to suffer from some sort of genetic madness. Been there done that, right? But Rawblood takes off in strange, wild directions. The storytelling itself is incredibly layered: we have a core main character Iris, who seems to be the last of her line, but the narrative is non-linear and follows a ton of different characters. Each section raises a question that is answered in the next, which is clever because we flip back and forth in time pretty rapidly. We’ll go from Iris as a child to 50 years in the past to 25 years in the past to Iris a year after we met her. Through these narratives the true story of Rawblood and its history are unveiled and the conclusion is truly shocking.

I loved basically everything about this. The writing was great, it felt very Victorian without coming across as trying too hard or old-fashioned. The plot was absolutely riveting and such a cool twist on the Woman in White/haunted family tropes. The characters were great: some of them are only with the reader for 20 or so pages, but they are all memorable and interesting. Really a near-perfect Gothic tale.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier*. Finished July 4th. So far there have been 5 releases in the Hogarth Shakespeare line, and this is the 3rd that I have read. I really enjoyed my first two (Vinegar Girl, which is a Taming of the Shrew retelling; and Hag-Seed, a Tempest retelling). This is a take on Othello, only the characters are middle schoolers in the 70′s and it takes place over a very short time period.

This is one of those novels that manages to be about children without falling into annoying young adult tropes. It’s a dark book, obviously, especially since it focuses on the racism that Othello (Osei here) experiences. Having to read about such a young kid being taunted and tormented for his race was pretty rough at times, especially since it is very clear the other children are just mimicking the behavior of authority figures.

While the setting is totally new, this is probably the most true-to-the-play Hogarth I’ve read so far. The plot is near-identical, which is not a criticism but after the breakneck weirdness of Hag-Seed it was a sharp change of pace. It also doesn’t push the story as far as I thought it could: Othello has a violent end, and it is softened quite a bit here. I get why the decision was made (this is about kids, after all), but I do think it would have been more impactful and interesting to stick a little closer to the traditional ending.

While this is my least-favorite Hogarth book so far, I still really enjoyed it (which just goes to show how quality this project is!). The characters were very well fleshed out for such a short read, and I found them all to be quite relateable, even the “bad” ones. Even though I knew where the story was going I found myself riveted: New Boy is a real page-turner.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer. Finished July 4th. This was such a hyped book that I was almost afraid to pick it up. Every review is about how it ripped their heart to shreds and they cried for ages. I love books that hurt the reader, but I tend to get nervous when everyone else feels that way. Like, “what if I don’t think this is sad? What if I’m some sort of horrible emotionless monster?!” Sometimes I get a bit dramatic about books, it’s true.

I should not have been nervous, because this book is SO SAD. It’s about a schizophrenic man whose disabled brother died as a child in front of him and the impact that had on his life. Considering that my family has a long history of mental illness AND I also have a disabled brother, some of The Shock of the Fall was almost too close to home. It just hurt my soul, guys, and I loved it.

This wasn’t quite A Little Life level of heartbreak, but it was so effectively bleak and emotional. Your heart aches for everyone in the story: poor Matt locked away in a mental institution, his parents who never quite get over their grief, doomed and unbearably sweet Simon. The narrative just builds up this intense sense of nostalgia and grief: Matt’s storytelling flits from childish and repetitive to heartbreakingly self-aware. It’s just a really tragic story.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Lady Midnight, by Cassandra Clare. Finished July 8th. I realize that I have probably never talked about a Cassie Clare book on this blog. I have a love-hate relationship with her: I love to hate her books. They’re just… they’re really trashy and kind of stupid but I love them?? Especially because I read them with my mom and we trash them together. Mother-daughter bonding at its finest!

I have read 3.5 out of the 6 Mortal Instruments books and all 3 of the Infernal Devices. And while the world is great, there are always huge issues. Like Clare’s constant, incessant description of peoples’ eye color and the fact that all her books are exactly the same. In many ways, Lady Midnight is an improvement for her. But in others, it’s… the exact same book once again. Sure, she gender-swapped her two “main” roles so we now have a sassy lead girl (Emma) instead of a sassy lead guy (Jace/Will), and the boy (Julian) is relegated to love interest (Clary/Tessa). The plot is basically the same too: there’s sexual tension between the two leads that is ~forbidden~ for some reason, there’s ancient magic afoot, a “surprise” villain reveal, the grownups are literally never around and/or they’re incompetent, the tension between Shadowhunters and Downworlders is on full display… I could go on.

But, as I said, this is better than her previous books! The characters are a lot more tolerable, and we have a bona fide autistic character who is done so well. There’s a love triangle, but it seems like it might end the way I always want them to (everyone should just bone). And it seems like it’s setting up for a pretty epic trilogy. I mean, it’s still 3 stars because her writing is not good let’s be honest, but I genuinely enjoyed this.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone. Finished July 9th. This was a novel with a lot of potential that just didn’t quite become what I wanted it to. The premise is just so fascinating: a woman named Leda drowns after a swan capsizes her boat, and her husband goes on a journey to discover her past. It’s a fun play on the Leda & the Swan myth, plus I love the whole “family secrets, person isn’t who you thought they were” trope.

The writing here is beautiful, very lyrical and poetic. But there is SUCH a distance between the reader and the main character. It made it hard to care about anything that was happening, because it was like watching a play in a football stadium. I had to squint to see the characters’ emotions. It kind of reads like a drunk guy trying to re-create an event when he clearly doesn’t actually know what happened. Characters would do things that made no sense to me, and we’d never get any explanation.

I don’t mind distanced narratives. I don’t mind character motives that you have to suss out for yourself. I don’t mind oblivious narrators. But all 3 of these things together in a less-than-compelling narrative? It doesn’t make for an engaging read. I did absolutely adore the reading and it wasn’t a bad book, but I just wanted so much more from it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Lord of Shadows, by Cassandra Clare. Finished July 11th. So I picked up Lord of Shadows basically right after finishing Lady Midnight. And it was even better than the first one! It starts out with some tropes I REALLY hate (like ~just kidding the enemy you killed in the first book was alive whole time~), but in a shocking twist Clare didn’t follow her usual formula and mixed things up in an unexpected way. I was like, “yes Cassie yes spread those wings.”

We get a bunch of things here I’ve wanted the entire time I’ve been reading this series, like a better explanation of the magic system and finally a trip into Faerie. I still do think Clare is holding back a bit in terms of rough things happening to her characters, but this was such a fun romp. I am getting quite attached to the characters (aside from our leads, Emma and Julian, who I find kind of boring: but this is normal with her stuff, side characters are always better) and am honestly excited for the final book in the trilogy.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Red, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished July 14th. I almost squealed when I heard that this book was really coming out. It has been mentioned before quite a few times in Reisz’ Original Sinners series because the main character, Nora, wrote it. Yes, a book in a book that is now a real book! What more could I want?

While I really miss the OS gang and how dark Reisz got with them, this was a really nice replacement. And not just because I can pretend Nora wrote it: this book is weird and really out there. It’s romance/erotica with some verrry strange and fringe elements, so if you’re sensitive to like basically any weird fetish this probably isn’t for you. The premise is that a gallery owner, Mona, is going out of business but a man offers to save the gallery if she agrees to spend 1 night a month with him for a full year. Mona is a girl who likes to live dangerously so she says “hell yeah that sounds safe sane and consensual!”

Mona has to re-create famous erotic paintings with her patron, which is such an unusual and interesting concept. Things get very weird very fast: the first one is pretty normal (“Olympia”), but the second (“The Slave Market”) almost had me questioning what I was reading. And it just descends into some pretty surreal things from there. Like giant Minotaurs and human sacrifices and ghosts. So be warned, if you open up this book you’re in for a wild ride.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Final Girls, by Riley Sager. Finished July 15th. This is a book that had so much potential. The idea of a real life Final Girls club is just awesome: as a big horror movie fan, I found this concept instantly appealing. However, it’s really being marketed as this intense action romp where the Final Girls are hunted down one by one, and it is decidedly not that. By the way, if someone wants to write a book where that is the actual plot, I am behind you 100%.

First of all, there are only 3 Final Girls in this book, which is… not a lot. Certainly not enough for a bloody horror adventure. The focus is almost entirely on our main girl, Quincy, who conveniently has amnesia about her own Final Girl experience. Throughout the noel there are snippets of what happened that night, but 90% of it is teenagers getting drunk and squabbling with each other and agonizing over losing their virginity. So, like the setup to a horror movie, only it’s almost all of the content instead of the opening 20 minutes. Sadly, these kind-of-boring snippets are the most action-packed of the novel, because most of it is just Quincy like hanging out with another girl.

Lisa, one of the Final Girls, has died, and the two remaining ones come together to deal with their loss. Quincey and Sam form a weird sisterhood based on trauma, and while this part was quite slow I actually enjoyed it. I’m a sucker for toxic female friendships and this one was great. Shoplifting, vigilantism in Central Park, drugs, lies, and secrets. Of course the book starts off as being one thing (horror movie), switches to this female friendship section, and then takes a hard right into over-the-top drama in the last 15%. There are basically 5 characters here so no matter who the final ‘big bad’ is, it’s not going to be a surprise. I mean, not many options. And the actual conclusion was just ridiculous. Like, too ridiculous for even a cheesy horror movie (unless it was straight to video!).

The writing was fine and I found the characters engaging so I can’t really give this lower than 2.5 stars, but this was a huge disappointment.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 117/200

Goal Books: 110

Impulse Reads: 7

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

June 2017 Wrapup: Part II

21 Jul

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 109/200

Goal Books: 102

Impulse Reads: 7

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

June 2017 Wrapup: Part I

17 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

Who is the third who walks beside you?

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Ararat, by Christopher Golden. Finished June 14th.

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 99/200

Goal Books: 93

Impulse Reads: 6

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

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: 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]

Reading Wrapup: March 2017 Part I, Bailey’s Longlist

21 Mar

Guys! After almost 3 straight months of being behind on my reading I have finally caught up. In fact, as of today I am 2 books ahead. And it’s all thanks to the Bailey’s longlist. Last year I went through 3 different prize longlists and read as much of them as I could (or as much as I had access to), and I found it to be a really fun and motivating experience. So when the Bailey’s longlist came out on International Women’s Day, I decided it’d be my first prize of the year. But the Man Booker International was slated for a mere week after, so I had to really hop to it! And so I have. By the end of March I should have 11 out of the 16 read, though admittedly I did read two of them (D0 Not Say We Have Nothing and Hag-Seed) last year.

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Fever Dream, by Samantha Schweblin. Finished March 1st. Fever Dream is the absolute perfect name for this novella. It feels like you are in this surreal other world where nothing quite makes sense or fits together. If you read I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (or saw Get Out), the vibe is similar. Fever Dream feels like a funhouse mirror version of reality.

There is not much I can say about the plot without spoiling anything, and I think it’s best to go into this knowing as little as possible. It starts out with a woman (Amanda) in a hospital bed trying to figure out how she got there. She tells her story to a very creepy child (David) who is not her son. Why is she in the hospital? What happened to her daughter? And why is David asking her about worms?

The story is told in a very immersive fashion. The narration is very stream-of-consciousness with no quotation marks for dialogue. There are also no chapter breaks of any sort–it’s only 150 pages, which really sets it up as a one-sitting read. I think if you read this, it HAS to be done in one sitting to get the full effect. It’s a very immersive story but stepping away from it would really lose the flow and mood.

Amanda is obviously an unreliable narrator, because she is quite ill and can barely recall what happened to her. Her story is bizarre but cohesive, so the reader is left wondering how much of it is true and how much is a literal fever dream. There are elements of magical realism here, but you can never quite be sure if they happened or are just part of her imagination. Is it a coping mechanism? Or is her version of reality the truth? It’s a really thought-provoking read and exactly the type of bizarre and dark story I love. A favorite of the year so far.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Wizard & Glass, by Stephen King. Finished March 1st. Each of the books in this series are so drastically different. The first was a bizarre apocalyptic fantasy, the second managed to be both stranger but more understandable, and the third combined the elements of the first two in a perfect way while adding in a hero’s journey element. Wizard & Glass goes in the opposite direction: over 80% of it is a flashback into Roland’s past.

I know this is a divisive entry in the series: people either love it or hate it. Personally, I loved it! While the tone is very different (it’s a fairytale-like fantasy Western), I was riveted by Roland’s tale. Stephen King is, above all else, a storyteller, and that truly shines here. There are so many insights both into Roland’s character and into the plot in general. This may be hard to believe if you haven’t read the series, but this is the book where we finally learn what’s even up with the Dark Tower! It’s a driving plot force in the first three, yes, but there’s zero explanation about it until now.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund. Finished March 3rd. Another slow family drama tinged with tragedy. That seems to be my go-to this winter, though I honestly have no idea why. I mean, I picked this book up because it had Wolves in the title and I saw a bunch of my Goodreads friends adding it. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it up. I thought “oh, wolves, I like wolves!” Please note that there are no actual wolves in this book. Well, there is a dead stuffed one, so there are no living wolves.

History of Wolves is about Linda, a teenage girl in a small town with a screwy family dynamic. She grew up on a commune and now lives alone in a run-down shack with her parents. Neither of them seems particularly invested in her: her mother, in particular, treats her like a little adult. Linda has basically no idea how to act around other humans and is kind of ostracized at school. One year, a rich family moves across the lake and she ends up babysitting their kid.

There are two major plots here. The first, about the kid she is babysitting, is fantastic. We know from the first page that Paul (the young boy) dies at some point, so there is a definite sense of mystery. The reveal is slow, almost painfully so, and while this is certainly not a thriller it really ramps up the tension. Paul is a charming and precocious little kid, and it’s painful to spend so much time getting to know him when you know what is going to happen.

The second plot I thought was much less successful. Linda had a teacher who may or may not have been a pedophile and a classmate (Lily) who he may or may not have abused. Linda becomes obsessed with Lily and basically stalks her. I was never grabbed by this part of the book, and it really felt like it was just filling out pages. I think History of Wolves would have been more successful as a novella about Linda & Paul’s relationship, if I’m being honest. Just those sections were 5 stars for me.

There’s also a third kind-of plot, following Linda as an adult. Like the Lily storyline, I didn’t particularly care about this. I think it served to show how damaged Linda is, though it’s really unclear if it’s just because of her upbringing or because of the Paul situation. I don’t think it added anything to the narrative, and I could have done without these parts as well.

Despite these complaints, I still gave it 4 stars because of how great the Paul plot was. It’s a strong, gripping story that is told in a quiet and understated way. But really, this is more like a 3.75 star read for me.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian. Finished March 5th. Have you ever read a few incredibly similar books in a row without meaning to? I read History of Wolves right before this, which has a very similar mood, and before that was Swimming Lessons which has a plot so similar it’s eerie. All three involve family secrets, small towns, tragedy, and loss. All three have a young adult/teenage female protagonists (but are decidedly not YA). And The Sleepwalker & Swimming Lessons both involve a mother who goes missing and potentially walked into the water and drowned. Kind of like The Book of Speculation! But of the 3 I recently read, I think The Sleepwalker was by far the most successful.

For some reason (cough the marketing) I thought this was one of those easy breezy psychological thrillers we get so many of. But I was really surprised by how literary this is. There is a mystery at the core–the missing mother–but it’s much slower than I expected. Which is a good thing! It focuses more on family dynamics and the effects sleepwalking have not just on the person with the condition but on the people around them. I have a sleep disorder (insomnia) so I was especially intrigued by these parts.

In another similar overlap with Swimming Lessons, in between each chapter there are short diary fragments from a sleepwalker who we assume is the mother. They add a dreamy sense of unreality to the book: most of them are describing dreams and sleep in a very evocative manner. The entire story has an almost surreal feeling, even though it is very much grounded in reality. Bohjalian can certainly write: I’ve read one of his books before (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands) and while I hated the plot I remember the language really standing out.

I didn’t realize how invested I was in this until the end. The final chapter is such a gut punch. Usually in a mystery novel, the entire plot is a vehicle to get to the reveal. Here, it’s kind of the opposite: the end is quietly delivered, and really enhances the rest of the book.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory. Finished March 8th. Philippa Gregory’s books are the Smarties of the book world. They’re pure sugar, and while people insist that they have different flavors we all know a white Smartie and a purple Smartie taste exactly the same. Yet I come back to them again and again. Sometimes you just really want a sugar rush, you know?

Basically if you’ve read one of her books you’ve read them all. They follow women in the War of the Roses/Tudor court of varying historical importance, from actual queens to people we know basically nothing about (cough The Queen’s Fool). The voices change, the timelines change, but they all feel the same. It’s comfort food in book form, plus you can convince yourself that you are ~learning about history~ while reading them. I mean, actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about the Tudors because of Gregory’s books. So indeed, I do learn.

This particular one is about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. And one of only two that made it out of marriage with him alive! Side note: why is every damn woman in this time period named Katherine, Jane, or Mary? It’s confusing is what it is. And every guy is Henry, Will, or Thomas. Dear past England, find some new names please. Thanks. It seems like Henry was about to get rid of Katherine before his death so just think, it could have been 7 wives! Potential wife number 7 was named…. wait for it… Catherine. Just why.

It’s been ages since I read one of Gregory’s books, so while everything felt familiar it wasn’t too been-there-done-that. Parr is a very interesting historical figure, because she published books and was very involved in Church scholarship. And I think she is a forgotten figure, because people tend to focus on his first 3 wives and neglect the rest. I mean, she served as regent, just like Katherine of Aragon (aka best queen)! I had no idea. I also didn’t know that Henry had a woman tortured (Anne Askew) and executed in an attempt to implicate Katherine. Ahh, history.

I don’t think this is Gregory’s best, but it is interesting and Katherine is a great narrator. I am very thankful that it ended where it did (with Henry’s death) because we all know what happened after and I reallllly didn’t want to read about Elizabeth being sexually abused by her stepfather/uncle/whatever from the POV of the woman who loved him.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Finished March 9th. Bailey’s longlisted. I feel like in the past year I have had a consistent complaint about many books I’ve read. They are often too short. Is it a trend? Have people always tried to squeeze epic stories into 300 pages? Either way, I find it frustrating. So many books could be amazing with 100-300 more pages added. Like The Power!

This book tries to both tell a story huge in scope but also focus on the small details of life. All of a sudden, women all over the world gain an electrical power that allows them to defend themselves (or attack others) with a strength that far outweighs any physical advantage men have over them. We follow 4 initial perspectives: Allie (a young girl who kills her abusive stepfather and runs away to a nunnery), Roxy (a young girl in an organized crime family), Margot (a politician), and Tunde (the only male voice, a reporter who is chronicling the events of the book).

The main weakness of the book is the shifting narrators. I found only Tunde to be consistently interesting: the rest of them are terribly uneven. Allie & Margot are great at the start, but Allie’s story becomes repetitive and tedious while Margot’s “character development” made absolutely no sense. Roxy was my least-favorite at the start but towards the end her story really picked up. They are also very uneven in length: we’ll get 10 pages from Margot and then 40 from Roxy. So obviously we get a lot more of some stories than others.

The premise is obviously fascinating and gives Alderman a lot to work with, but I don’t think it lived up to its potential. This book has a worldwide scope, but it felt like the events in every country were treated exactly the same. Women rise up, no matter the cultural background, and there’s really no difference from say…. Iran to Russia. Maybe I’m spoiled by World War Z, but I wanted a more nuanced look at how each country would deal with the events of the book. I also had SO many questions that were never touched on. Like how would this effect cinema, literature, and television? People talk about going to the movies after women gain their power but obviously their content would change, right? Would we get female-led action movies all over the place? Would men have more submissive movie roles? And what about the transgender population–I feel like this event would see a huge spike in gender dysphoria. Of course in a 300 page book it’s asking too much, but it’s one of the many reasons I wanted this to be longer than it was.

The writing is at times wonderful and nuanced (especially in Tunde’s chapters), but at other times feels a bit… YA. The voice of a young girl does not need to feel more immature than the “grown-up” chapters, but it’s definitely the case here. Especially when you look at the searing content we get from Tunde’s point of view and compare it to the toned-down violence Allie and other young characters see. This feels like a bunch of different stories mashed together in a way that doesn’t totally mesh.

I feel like I am doing nothing but complaining, because I did enjoy The Power. I think it’s a (no pun intended) powerful look at gender dynamics, and it examines the idea that violence and patriarchy are innate to human society. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Are women really the “fairer sex?” But it needed more time to explore its ideas, and perhaps a bit more finesse in how it views world politics.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Little Deaths, by Emma Flint. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is a book that has all the ingredients for something I’d love: it’s a literary mystery set in Queens that serves as a character study of a flawed but fascinating women. But somehow Emma Flint managed to take a great premise & opening chapter and dive bomb it right into the ground.

Ruth, the “protagonist,” is accused of murdering her children after they go missing. We know from the first chapter that she goes to jail, even though she seems totally innocent of the crime. Instead, it is essentially her personality that is put on trial: she drinks, she sleeps around, so obviously she must be a terrible woman who killed her children! This is based on a true case, and sadly this thing happens too often (though not just to women–look at Scott Peterson).

So all good so far, right? But then we meet our other protagonist, a reporter named Pete. Pete is… the worst. He’s so dull and he becomes utterly obsessed with Ruth in a way that’s just really trite and played out. Pete has WAY more POV chapters than Ruth, and the book really puts the focus on him. And I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t want 2 pages of his sexual fantasies about Ruth, I want to know if she murdered her damn children. I think Flint did this so we could have a “behind the scenes” perspective and get case details, but why not you know… have an actual detective who doesn’t suck at his job be the POV character? Or, better yet, go with 3rd person omniscient and flit between a lot of people.

I felt this way about the entire book. “Wow, this would be really great if it was just different!” I was basically dying for it to be over. Ruth starts out promising, but we get so little insight into her actions. And let’s face it, she is a shitty person. Though maybe that’s the point, she’s an awful human but that doesn’t make her a murdered. However, I was already well aware of this and didn’t need to be beaten over the head with it. We needed either 1) a more sympathetic Ruth or 2) more scenes in her head to make this a true character study (and thus actually interesting). Having such an unlikable character as the lead can certainly work, but we just didn’t get any depth here.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of those books I never would have read if it wasn’t on a prize longlist. So thank you, Bailey’s, for introducing this wonderful work of fiction into my life. I think the marketing is SO misleading: this is nothing like The Night Circus. Sure, it’s a magical read, but there is no actual magical realism (why is it tagged that everywhere?). And the cover makes it look rather chic-lit-y. It’s none of these things. In fact, this is an incredibly dark book. It deals with heavy topics (rape, sexual abuse, drugs, prostitution, etc) and doesn’t gloss over trauma. This is not some airy novel where a terrible event happens and the characters are fine 10 pages later. This is a book where the characters cry themselves to sleep 10 years later because they can’t get past their trauma.

Our story follows Rose and Pierrot, two orphans in 1920′s Montreal. The thing that stands out the most is definitely the language: every page of The Lonely Hearts Hotel feels surreal and dreamy. Paragraphs are packed with descriptions and metaphors, ranging from gorgeous to utterly strange. Some of them come off as quite childish, but are followed by moving speeches or brutally true observations about life. It’s an odd combination, with dark subject matter but fantastical prose. The combination works splendidly though, mostly because it mirrors the mental state of Rose & Pierrot. They both retain a childish view of the world and a sense of wonder well into adulthood, and it really feels like the writing is how they would describe the world.

To my surprise, they actually spend a good chunk of the book separated. It isn’t until over 50% of the way in that they finally come back together, and oddly (because this is definitely a love story) I actually enjoyed the sections of their separation better. Their relationship is wonderful, but the odd mirroring of their lives when they are apart was so deftly done. Once they get back together, it becomes a bit more predictable (for a time, at least–the end section is definitely unexpected and wonderfully so). I was actually rooting more for them when they weren’t together, if that makes sense? It added a sense of conflict to even the most mundane scenes. We’d have Pierrot hanging in a club, but the reader knew that Rose had been there only the night before. My heart just ached for them.

If you want to be absolutely swept away in a story, this is the book for you.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. Finished March 12th. Bailey’s longlisted. Ah, The Essex Serpent. I loved and hated this book, which is unfortunate because I came into it with insanely high expectations. A lot of people whose opinion I respect rated it one of their faves of 2016, and then it got longlisted for Bailey’s. So I really did expect it to be a 5-star all-time-great for me.

Most of my feelings are pretty positive. The story is cleverly done, because the ‘Essex Serpent’ doesn’t serve as a driving plot force but it does function as a way to reveal things about the characters. A small town in Essex is convinced that they are being tormented by a great beast, and everyone reacts differently. Some are afraid, some are annoyed, some are horrified, some are amazed, some are enraptured. It’s an event that really illuminates the intricacies of the cast in an amazingly creative way. It’s a perfect example of how ‘show don’t tell’ should function.

Speaking of the cast, it is (for the most part) fantastic. It’s not an insanely long book but it has a large cast and many interweaving plots that I think are handled masterfully. The characters complement each other, and even when the plots don’t directly overlap it’s clear that they serve an important purpose for the narrative.

So what were my issues? Well, I hated Cora. Yes, the main character, the ~complex and interesting~ woman that we are so obviously supposed to love. I did not love her. I found her immature, childish, pretentious, and selfish. Her relationship with her son (who as a side note is most definitely autistic and very well done) was just painful to read. And while I think some of her later actions are supposed to go along with the ~free spirit living against the gender norm doing what she loves~ bohemian vibe there was a point where I wanted to shove her off a cliff. She does something truly unforgivable, something totally against the morals she is supposed to have, and the reader is supposed to be all “aww how romantic!” Don’t get me wrong: I do not need my protagonist to be likeable. I love characters that are complex and objectively ‘bad people.’ But Cora is framed as being a really good and likeable person in the narrative and I hate being told how to feel when I read.

The Essex Serpent also relies on one of my least-favorite tropes, and I knocked it to 3.5 stars just for this. Almost every single male-female friendship in the book ends up being romantic on at least one end. It plays into the idea that men and women are “never just friends” and there is always sexual tension. The only male characters who don’t engage in this behavior are either old, uneducated, or fat and thus “off the market”/”undesirable” (which is another problem all together, let me tell you). Married men are not exempt from this (unless, of course, you are married AND fat because then you’re obviously sexless right? Eyeroll). Let’s take Martha, Cora’s companion, for example. She has 4 male friends who she regularly interacts with. One of them is the previously mentioned married fat guy. Of the others, 2 are in love with her and she sleeps with the 3rd. If an eligible man and an eligible woman in this book start talking, you can bet love is on the horizon. It’s trite and annoying and I really resent it.

So yeah, two huge negatives but many more positives. The writing is beautiful, the setting is moody and atmospheric, the plot is great, (most of) the characters are great… but it’s really hard for me to get over my issues and say it was a book I loved.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremaine. Finished March 13th. Bailey’s longlisted. This was 1/3rd of an amazing novel. It is, for reasons I cannot fathom, split into 3 very distinct sections. The first is amazing: it is a slow, quiet tale of two boys forming an unlikely friendship in the wake of WWII. Gustav comes from poverty, and Anton is Jewish and very wealthy. They meet in kindergarten and form an instant friendship. While ’6 year old boys hang out together’ might not sound like the most compelling plot, it’s really fantastic. Their friendship is complex and interesting, their lives are dark but hopeful, and the overall mood is so wonderfully melancholy.

I was so absorbed by this section that I practically got whiplash when we got 30% of the way in and suddenly we’re following Gustav’s parents. His mother, Emilie, is kind of a horrible person. This reveal is done in an interesting way in the childhood section: the first line of the book is about how much he loves her, and slowly he realizes that his childish ideal of the perfect mother is all wrong. But here we’re kind of beat over the head with “look at how bad she is!” She’s stupid, she’s lazy, she’s ignorant, she’s spoiled, she’s a brat. She blames other people for her own problems. She’s a terrible mother. I did like Gustav’ father (well, more ‘felt pity for’ than ‘liked’) but this section was a drag because I honestly didn’t care about their past and I feel like this was a poor delivery of the story. Why not have Gustav-as-a-kid discover a store of letters and deliver the tale that way? Would have been more compelling.

Then the third section, where Anton and Gustav are suddenly 40 years in the future. Yes, you read that right, we spend all this time getting involved in only a few months of their lives and then skip 30+ years ahead. A lot of character development obviously went on in those years and we miss all of it, so their actions seem a bit manic and disjointed in this section. Most of my reactions were ‘Anton is doing what now’ instead of the obvious sympathy card Tremaine was going for. Because the last 40 pages or so are very A Little Life (except, you know, without all the character development or emotional investment). Yes, this is yet another book where my final thoughts are “why was it so short.”

So there was potential here, but I don’t think it followed through. It felt like a really great cup of coffee that you have a few sips of and then accidentally leave out on a table. You feel obliged to finish it because the first sips were so good, but now it’s cold and unappetizing and you just want to make a new one.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride. Finished March 14th. Bailey’s longlisted. My thoughts on this seem to be the opposite of most reviews: I absolutely adored the writing style, but hated the plot and main character. Eily, our protagonist, is just… not interesting. Young girl goes to college, discovers drugs & sex & alcohol, gets into trouble, is tortured and troubled and makes infinitely terrible decisions. Very been-there-done-that. I didn’t feel anything for Eily: she wasn’t sympathetic to me, but I didn’t even dislike her. She was just so bland. No personality to speak of. I can’t tell you a single thing about her other than “she made really bad decisions and sure was drunk a lot.” And I spent 300+ pages in her head.

Her lover, Stephen, is where I was hooked. There are two long sections narrated by him, and I found them both riveting. Which is odd, because what I loved about Eily’s sections was the disjointed, fragmented writing, and Stephen’s sections are much smoother and less stream of consciousness. But that style would not have fit his story at all, so it was a smart decision to alter the narrative style. And, in another clever move, Eily’s narration becomes smoother the more time she spends around Stephen.

Looking back on this, I think more of the positives (writing, Stephen’s backstory) than the negatives (which for me was… everything else). I think perhaps I’ve rated it a bit harshly, and might up it a bit if I still feel so positively in a few weeks.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan. Finished March 15th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of the two Bailey’s books that was already on my TBR list. To be honest, I can’t remember why I added it. It really doesn’t seem like a book I’d enjoy, since the cover and synopsis makes it seem like a book that focuses really heavily on horse racing… which is not exactly a huge interest of mine. But, as almost every reviewer has pointed out, the marketing is very misleading.

This is not a book about horses, or even a book about horse racing. It is an epic family saga spanning 4 generations of a Southern dynasty. It is divided into a few sections, and each focuses on a different family member or employee, though the last few have quite a bit of overlap.

The themes here are what you would expect: family, loyalty, wealth, privileged, race relations, family secrets. And while these are well-trod topics, C. E. Morgan handles them so deftly and with a lot of finesse. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, though if you dislike description-heavy storytelling this is probably not the book for you. There are a lot of asides describing the countryside, house, and of course the horses.

There are moments of violence and abuse here that would be incredibly rough reads if not for the beauty of the language. Everything feels so smooth and effortless, and while this is a long read it’s quite fast and easy to get through. The characters are also quite unlikable, even the ones you feel a lot of sympathy for. They make consistently but realistically bad decisions, and there is a sense that the family dynamic is a self-perpetuating cycle. Yet there is growth and change happening to these people, even if they have to be dragged into modernity kicking and screaming. I think this is not a book for everyone: it’s not very plot driven, no one is likeable, and the topics it covers are dark and heavy. But if you like dense literary fiction or family sagas, I highly recommend this!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 39/200

Goal Books: 36

Impulse Reads: 3

Reading Wrapup: Febraury 2017 Part II

2 Mar

And here we are, with part 2! Next month I’ll be more timely, I swear.

February was an okay reading month. Not nearly as bad as January, but not quite up to my 2016 stats of 20+ books a month. This could also be because it’s a shorter month: I finished off two books on March 1st, and any other month those would have counted. So I’m trying to look on the positive: 15 books a month isn’t bad at all, and I didn’t have any impulse reads!

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Hurt People. by Cote Smith. Finished February 13th. I picked this up impulsively from the library and let’s be real, it was because of the cover. It’s also described as a dark coming of age tale, a genre I really enjoy when done right. And hey, it fulfilled a Read Harder challenge (debut novel) so it was easy to justify.

This book is so heartbreaking. It’s about two young brothers whose parents have just been through a contentious divorce. Over one summer they are basically left to their own devices while their mother goes to work, and they end up meeting a mysterious older boy at the neighborhood pool. This doesn’t sound like the most compelling summary, but trust me, it works brilliantly. Because it’s clear something really bad is going to happen (and you know what it is fairly early on), but our story is told through the eyes of the younger brother. So the reader can see all these pieces falling into place, but his innocence keeps him blind to the danger all around him.

This is a quiet story. There’s no big action scenes, and the “shocking” event at the end is one you intentionally see coming a mile away. It’s more about people and life and the struggle to just get from one day to the next, and how small actions can have huge consequences. If slow, character-driven coming of age stories (with dark elements–go into this with a strong stomach, people) are your thing, give this underrated read a shot!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Waste Lands, by Stephen King. Finished February 16th. Book 3 in the Dark Tower series, and my favorite so far. Probably will be my favorite of all of them, because I can’t imagine anything topping this. You know how I said The Gunslinger and The Drawing of The Three felt like two different books? This combines all the aspects of the previous additions to spectacular effect.

This is King at his most epic, and also his most devilish. I have a new favorite King villain (yes, Blaine has trumped even Flagg and Pennywise for me). The world is SO compelling: the more we see of it, the more I want answers. Usually with fantasy it’s the opposite, and that cloak of mystery needs to stay on or it gets dull. With this series, every piece of new information that is slowly fed to the reader just makes it better. Of course I don’t think even King knew where he was going when he wrote these, but man am I strapped in for the ride.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Good People, by Hannah Kent. Finished February 18th. I read Burial Rites in 2015 and, like everyone else, totally loved it. It’s kind of shocking to think that was her first novel. So I was highly anticipating her follow up, even if the plot didn’t sound quite as interesting. It takes place in Ireland in 1825. Nora has lost her daughter and husband in the same year, and is left alone with land to take care of and her possibly disabled grandson. She hires a maid, and ends up going to a sort of witch-woman who can talk to fairies (the “good people”) for help.

Doesn’t sound as intriguing as “the last woman executed in Iceland” but as you’d expect from Kent, it packs a punch. It’s also based on a true case, but one that is obscure. Tip: don’t look it up before reading, because I think it’s better to not know what direction the story is going in.

Like Burial Rites, the atmosphere is the star here. You can feel the poverty and despair of the characters, the chill Irish air and the growing desperation as winter gets darker and bleaker. I don’t think the plot or characters are quite as tight as BR, but it’s an amazingly fast-paced read given that most of it is literally just women in cottages sitting and talking. There is a compulsive quality to it: you’re so desperate to know what happens, and the tension gets incredibly high. It wasn’t the book I expected, but I am not at all disappointed.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marriage Games, by CD Reiss. Finished February 21st. This book pains me. I used to be a big CD Reiss fan–sure, they were almost guilty pleasure books, but she could weave a great story and her relationships were always dynamic and interesting. But ever since the last Fiona book and her attempt to do more mainstream works (ShutterGirl and Hardball) I feel like she’s lost her touch. Remember the tragedy that was Secret Sins? Shudder.

But this looked more promising. It’s not a Drazen book (which I used to love, but now I almost dread) and it’s not light and fluffy. However… I did not enjoy it. The premise sounds at least intriguing, but the hero and heroine are so obtuse and annoying. My eyes rolled so far back into my head when we found out our ~super dreamy hero~ didn’t want to do anything degrading to his wife (even if she wanted it) because it would “ruin her in his eyes.” Toxic masculinity and Madonna/whore complex like woah! But this is never addressed as being weird or anything, it’s just… how he is. And Diana? Even after her chapters she felt like a complete mystery, in a bad way. This was just a meh read but it had so much potential I might try the follow-up.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Familiar Vol 4 Hades, by Mark Z Danielewski. Finished February 21st. Ahh, what is there to say about this series? We’re only on book 4 (of 26) and it might already be my all-time favorite. Danielewski can do no wrong, at least in my eyes. Which might be because we share a love of both cats and intense spookiness.

There’s nothing I can say about the plot without spoiling things. These books are both incredibly complex but also very accessible for postmodern literature. We have 9 characters, each with only slightly overlapping stories (there are 3 who are part of a family, but the others are distant–both in theme and location, we go all over the world). Each character has a different color, font, and stylistic layout. Weird things happen. It’s spooky. It’s strange. It’s wonderful. Do you like cats? Maybe read this and be both excited and confused.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller. Finished February 28th. This month/year I am trying to read more from authors I recently found and loved. The majority of the books I read in 2016 were actually from new-to-me authors, but a lot that I’ve found in the past few years have put out new books. And I should read them! So that was a mini-goal for me in February, and I read both The Good People and this book, which is written by the same woman who did Our Endless Numbered Days. Which I ADORED.

Swimming Lessons is very, very different from Numbered Days. In fact, I wouldn’t have guessed they had the same author if I didn’t know that coming in. It’s about a family where the mother went missing over a decade ago. Our main perspective is Flora, the teenage daughter who still wants to believe that her mom is out there, though every other chapter is actually a letter the mother wrote before she went missing. These letters, tragically, are not read by her family because she hides them in books and no one ever thinks to look. By the end, you aren’t sure if she even wanted them to be found.

There are some thematic overlaps with The Book of Speculation (another book I love): a crumbling family dynamic, a house by the sea, a potentially tragic mother figure who loves to swim. But Swimming Lessons definitely takes a more mystery-driven route and focuses on “what happened.” However, I wouldn’t really recommend this if you’re just looking for a good mystery, because while it’s the driving force of the plot it also kind of takes a back seat to family interactions.

I have mixed feelings about this one. The atmosphere is great, and I adored the letter sections. But I found Flora insufferable. There’s a lot of good here, but I though Flora’s sections were kind of dull and honestly I wasn’t super intrigued by the mystery. The writing was lovely and it’s definitely a compelling book, but I came away thinking it was just okay when I really wanted to love it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 28/200

Goal Books: 25

Impulse Reads: 3