Tag Archives: science fiction

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]

May 2017 Wrapup: Part II

13 Jun

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 90/200

Goal Books: 84

Impulse Reads: 6

Top 5 Wednesday: Summer Reads

17 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Wrapup: February 2017 Part I

1 Mar

Every month I insist to myself that I am totally going to be on top of getting my wrapup up in a timely fashion. And every month that somehow doesn’t happen. Obviously, I have only myself to blame… I was much more timely last year, when my reading was on track and I didn’t feel pangs of guilt when looking at my challenge. Yes, after my end-of-January revelation I am doing much better at hitting goals, but I am still 3 books behind! Nothing a spur of the moment 24 hour self-imposed readathon can’t fix, right? Because that might be in the stars for March.

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 A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven L. Peck. Finished February 1st. What a way to start out this month. A Short Stay in Hell is my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year, and definitely has the potential to be an all-time favorite. It’s about a Mormon man who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only it’s not the one he was promised. Turns out a different religion got it right, so all the non-believers are doomed to hell. Oh, but it’s not an eternal hell! No, everyone has a way to escape.

Our protagonist is thrown into the Library of Babel (yes, the famous one from the story). A place where anything that could ever be written has been written. And not just actual books that make sense: any combination of words that is possible is contained here. All our protagonist has to do is find the book that tells his life story and he’s free to leave hell.

That’s just the setup, and this is a short novel so I am not going to discuss the events of the plot at all because I don’t want to ruin anything. It’s bizarre and existential, filled with dread and horror but also moments of pure hope and human intimacy. There’s something so compelling and horrifying about the setting and mood that I can’t quite put into words. If you enjoy weird fiction, postmodern literature, existential dread, or just excellent writing and storytelling I really can’t recommend this enough!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami. Finished February 2nd. Murakami is one of my favorite authors, but I have mixed opinions on his short fiction. I loved most of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman but The Elephant Vanishes just didn’t do it for me.

There were, of course, some stories here that I found very effective… but the two I liked the most were also later included in his books, so I’d already read them. The title story is also a good one, and really perfectly captures that sense of unreal that’s never quite explained in his works. I think every story in here has an open end, so if you want closure… Murakami is not your guy. I can’t say I hated or even disliked any of the stories here, but I find that only a few of them have stuck with me after reading, and I’d struggle to recall what some of them are about based on the title. I did really enjoy the few stories that I can remember in detail, so I can’t bring myself to rate it lower than 3.5.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shogun, by James Clavell. Finished February 3rd. When I was in AP Literature in high school, we were assigned Dracula. However, I’d already read Dracula–3 times! I talked to my (amazing) teacher about it, and he said he’d give me a different book to read for the paper. The next day he handed me a copy of Shogun, and said it was one of his favorite books of all time. Looking back, I realize that’s a lot of trust to place in a high school student: not only did he give me a massive book twice as long as the required reading, but he trusted me with one of his favorite pieces of literature. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that with a teenager!

Shogun dazzled me. I devoured it in only a few days, and was totally swept away in Clavell’s vision of Japan. And it also sparked something inside of me: a desire to read more about Japan, both fiction and nonfiction. As you probably realize if you read my blog frequently, I read a lot of Japanese literature, and Shogun is the reason why. It changed me so significantly as a reader that I really can’t imagine what my reading life would look like today if I’d never picked it up.

It’s been years since I last re-read this book, and 2017 seemed as good a time as any to both dive back into it and continue on with the rest of the series (which, shock, I’ve never even thought of reading!). And, thankfully, Shogun holds up over the years. It’s a tale of adventure, honor, love, tragedy, and human triumph that feels so epic in scope it might as well be fantasy.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. Finished February 5th. I really wanted to like this more than I did. The concept is so interesting: Six Wakes is basically an Agatha Christie novel in space. Six people wake up on a spaceship freshly cloned. Their previous incarnations have been murdered, and they are the only people awake on the ship. So they have to solve their own murders… knowing that it’s more than likely that one of them is a killer. Oh, and they all have criminal backgrounds, but none of them know what crimes the others have committed in the past. Plus they’re missing memories of the last 20 years of their lives.

The cast is diverse and entertaining. We get chapters from each of their perspectives, as well as their backstories. In Christie-fashion it seems like they all have means, motive, and opportunity. It’s a traditional whodunnit with a scifi twist. And the science fiction elements aren’t just set dressing: cloning in particular is vital to the plot, and there’s a lot of political drama as well. I found the discussions about the ethics of cloning and clones’ rights to be the best part of the books, and I wish there had been a little more focus on that.

I was really enjoying this until about the 60% mark, when things started to fall apart. Then again, this has mostly very positive reviews, so I think most people will not have my issues. In short: everything is too neat. It comes together so cleanly, and the reader is never given the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Every reveal is handed to us on a silver platter. There will be a backstory scene that hints as to motive, and then we get a character discussing what it means in length. I like a bit of a challenge in my mystery novels, and this flips from a moody mystery to a fast-paced scifi thriller about halfway through. I think it just tried to do too many things: murder mystery, character study, political and ethical discussions, intense action scenes… you need at least another 100 pages to execute all those things successfully.

If I went into this expecting a bit of a fluffy fast ride, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I was expecting more of a horror/mystery vibe (which admittedly is what the first few chapters serve up). If you don’t want deep, meaningful reveals and are okay with everything wrapped up in a big neat bow, this would probably be very enjoyable. It’s not a bad book… just a flawed one that left me feeling cold.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Drawing of The Three, by Stephen King. Finished February 7th. This is the second book in the Dark Tower series, and if the character names weren’t the same I don’t know if I would ever guess they were in the same world. The Drawing of The Three is so drastically different in every way: mood, tone, writing style, plot, world… obviously there’s nothing specific I can talk about without spoilers, but it just goes off in a totally different direction.

Thankfully, that change works like a charm! While The Gunslinger is a desolate feeling novel with more stories than action, TDoTT is action-packed and rapid-fire paced. We bounce around a lot in the narrative, and King really keeps you on your toes. While reading this I still had no idea what was going on in the overarching plot (and lemme tell you, you don’t get a good hint until book 4) but I loved every second of it. I’m just here for whatever crazy rollercoaster ride King has planned for his Constant Reader.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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A Perfect Crime, by A Yi. Finished February 7th. This is the story of a teenage boy who hates his life and decides to kill somebody. That’s… that’s pretty much it. He plans a murder, commits a murder, goes on the run, etc. It’s exactly what it says on the box. And, like much Asian crime fiction, this is whydunnit rather than a whodunnit–because obviously we know who did it and how it was done because our protagonist is the criminal. The core “mystery” of the novel is why he committed the crime, because he’s very vague about his intentions. We’re in his head, but it’s clear that his narration is intentionally misleading (so there is an element of the unreliable narrator).

I found something in this book severely lacking. I think there was just no soul to it. Sure, we’re in the head of a sociopath, but the narration is as bland as his personality. There’s no connection between reader and protagonist. It’s definitely possible to make a murderer relateable (or at least entertaining), but I think the goal here was to create an almost alien protagonist that was impossible to identify with. In which case… success, I guess? But it doesn’t make for a very engaging read.

The writing was decent and it was paced well, so I don’t want to knock it down below 3 stars. And I didn’t hate reading it… but I didn’t enjoy it either. It was an entirely neutral reading experience. I do think the final “why I did it” reveal was well done, but it also lacked any element of surprise. While our narrator is trying to hide his motives for the “big reveal” any intuitive reader will guess why long before he decides to tell us. So there’s no wow moment, just another “that was well written but I don’t care at all” type of scene.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Kingdom, by Fuminori Nakamura. Finished February 8th. I really love Asian crime fiction, so I was very disappointed to read 2 bland books in a row from the genre. I didn’t love A Perfect Crime, and I actually had very similar issues with this novel. Which is funny, since I read them back-to-back.

The plot here is definitely very engaging. Our main character Yurika works as a fake prostitute: she picks specific Johns, then drugs them and takes incriminating photos/video for blackmail. Her boss never gives her any details, so she is completely in the dark about why these people are targeted… or what her employer is doing with the photos she produces. It’s a pretty interesting twist on the traditional mystery genre: there’s definitely a mystery, but the criminal activity itself is part of the mystery rather than the reason for it.

But like with A Perfect Crime, I found our narrator totally bland. Yurika is a criminal so she should be pretty interesting, but her personality is so very blah. I felt like I knew nothing about her after reading the entire book. Even when you find out about her past, she never seems like a fleshed-out character. She’s just the vehicle for the story. And we don’t even get any real answers! So basically it’s an unsatisfying mystery with a boring main character. At one point, our villain says, “this was all meaningless” and I was like yeah dude, it totally was.

Why 3.5 stars then? Because the writing was very good. Especially the weird, almost nonsensical speeches our villain gives: they often revolve around obscure religious details, and they’re kind of fascinating. I really wish we had been in his head the whole time! I think a book of him hunting & manipulating our heroine would have been way more interesting. While I found this book to be disappointing, I would definitely read another book by Nakamura (and indeed, I have another queued up on my Kindle!).

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle. Finished February 10th. It kind of kills me to give this book less than 5 stars. I was anticipating it so much, I loved Wolf in White Van, and for like 75% this was hands-down the best book I’ve read this year. But alas, it didn’t follow through until the end.

Let’s start with the good: the writing. WiWV is a well-written book, but this manages to amp that up to 11. There’s a lot more finesse here. Which is good, because it’s a very rambling book. We flit from character to character, shifting through time and sometimes taking very random-seeming detours. But because of the wonderful writing, I was totally along for the ride. 4-paragraph description of a farmhouse that ends with philosophical musings about what it means to be a farmhouse? Yes please. Description of a cornfield that ends with all the things said cornfield has heard inside of it (this one gets dark)? Why not! Random details about recording on VCR tape? Sign me up! Really, this book could have been almost entirely strange descriptions and I would have been happy.

I think the flaw here is that it’s both too plot driven but at the same time not plot-heavy enough. The core concept, of videos at a late-90′s movie store showing up with weird, creepy home movies cut into them, is great. And for the first half or so we’re really centered around Jeremy the cashier as he tries to unravel the mystery. It’s compelling, and all of the asides the narration wanders into fit well. That long, rambling description of a farmhouse I mentioned before? Turns out the actual building is on one of the tapes! It all seems to come together neatly. But about 70% of the way in we go in a totally different direction. And it’s not one I was very happy about. I was so invested in the plot that this felt like a betrayal. The plot is totally lost, and it really only feels loosely connected. Plus I found the ending lackluster. There was a definite answer, but it didn’t live up to the promise of the premise. Honestly, I would rather have had it be more open-ended. It felt like I was eating an amazing cake, and when I got to the center it was suddenly a steak & potatoes dinner. Steak is great… if you’re in the mood for it and don’t think you are eating cake when you take a bite.

Of course I still gave this 4 stars, even if the ending was incredibly disappointing. This is because of the writing, of course, and also the fantastic atmosphere. This book is so creepy, so unsettling and spine-tingling. Even when nothing much was happening I found myself very nervous. If you liked Wolf in White Van I would still definitely recommend giving this a shot. I hope that Darnielle’s next book combines the tight plot of WiWV with the next-level writing of UH: they might just combine to make a perfect novel.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey*. Finished February 13th. It was almost Valentine’s Day, the day of love, when I read this! And what better way to celebrate that than by reading a Shakespearean tragedy? It’s a perfect fit. Especially if you are a fan of The Tempest. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play, and man is it a good time to be a fan of it. First Hag-Seed and now this? What a time to be alive.

This is kind of a prequel to The Tempest. The majority of it takes place before the events of the play, and we follow both Miranda and Caliban from their first meeting as children to their last moments on the island. And it is, in many ways, a doomed love story. We know that Miranda is beautiful and pure and her father wants her wed to royalty, and we know that Caliban is bent and misshapen and painted as a villain. It can’t have a happy ending. And yet you root for them so hard!

As you’d expect from Jacqueline Carey, the writing is lush and descriptive. The fantasy elements of TT are really brought to the forefront, so this reads like historical fantasy/romance more than a straight retelling of the original work. She’s really brought the unnamed island to life, along with its small group of inhabitants. It is, to be trite, quite magical.

I’ve noticed some comments about the liberties she took with the characters, but let’s be real: Prospero is totally an asshole in the play. Sure, he got dethroned and abandoned on an island, but he literally takes a human (and a fairy!) as prisoner just so they can do shit for him, and he treats his daughter like a piece on a chessboard. Does Miranda WANT to marry Ferdinand? Prospero doesn’t care. He’s just looking out for himself. So while the version of him portrayed here is perhaps more maniacal and evil than in the play, it’s not far off the beaten track. Caliban, too, is not as bad as Prospero would have you think in the play: I mean, he grew up as a wild boy and then was forced into slavery. Poor kid. So I feel like while this is a romanticized view of him, it’s certainly one I can get behind.

I was so transported by Miranda & Caliban’s friendship-turning-to-love that I really wanted more from this book. It was beautiful and bittersweet, don’t get me wrong, but I think their adult section is rushed… as is the last 80%, which is when we finally get to the events of The Tempest. I think Carey does best in epically long books, and this certainly could have been 500+ pages. The rushed nature of the last half is really the only “flaw” (and I did dock a full star for it) but I totally adored this. Not quite as good a retelling as Hag-Seed, but given the different genres they were aiming for it feels almost unfair to compare them.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 21/200

Goal Books: 18

Impulse Reads: 3

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

Favorite Books of 2016: Standalones

30 Jan

Picking my favorite books of the year is always a difficult task. Narrowing down 250+ books to just a handful? I keep a running shelf of my favorite books of the year on Goodreads, but it was sitting at 47 for 2016 so even that wasn’t entirely helpful. I went into this with no set number in mind, and ended up with 13 books. The mix is surprising: there’s one book each from the 3 prize longlists I read through (Man Booker, Man Booker International, and National Book Award), 2 collections of poetry, and a very interesting mix of genres. Some of my favorite authors made the cut, but most of them were new-to-me reads. I certainly could have added more books to the list since 13 was an arbitrary number, but I think this list really captures how diverse and exciting my reading year was.

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December Reading Wrapup: Part II

4 Jan

In terms of raw numbers, the first half of December was much better than the second in terms of reading. The holidays are always a rough time for hobbies: there’s so much traveling, so many things to do, so much cooking… and no time for my usual before-bed reading. I got a little bit done, but not as much as I had hoped. Though I wrapped up almost all of my challenges on time, so that’s something to be happy about!

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik*. Finished December 16th. There are a few things that will get me to pick up a book no matter the reviews or author. If it has survival elements or spooky woods (and The River at Night has both), I generally don’t even bother to look up information on it. I just read that sucker. This has led me astray many times: according to my shelves, I’ve read 22 unsuccessful spooky woods books and only 10 I actually enjoyed. Thankfully, this is the latter category!

The premise is a wonderful combination of The Descent and The Ritual (which are both about as good as it gets when it comes to survival horror). Four women have been friends for decades, but they only see each other once a year on epic vacations. Beach getaways, skydiving, that sort of thing. This year they’re going white water rafting in an uninhabited part of Maine. No, none of them have ever rafted before, but these girls are desperate for adventure. Or at least their leader, Pia, is.

Most of the first half of the novel is spent setting up the characters. Sure, things happen (the adventure starts!) but it’s mostly building up all 4 women as complex and realistic figures. Their interactions, histories, and personalities feel very fleshed out and realistic. They all have obvious flaws (the divorcee, the adventure addict, the recovered alcoholic, the abused wife) but none fall into trope territory. They feel like real, average humans. Like women you went to school with or talk to at a book club. It’s a nice writing trick: they’re complex enough to hold your interest, but not over-the-top enough to take you out of the mood.

And the mood is fantastic! While this is not technically a horror novel, it has a very moody atmosphere and moments of extreme tension. After all, you know from the blurb (and tone) that the trip does not go well. This is a survival novel, after all. And there’s a lot of surviving going on. There are also some old-fashioned creepy-people-in-the-woods element as well. Stranded in an unexplored forest with potentially Deliverance-level crazies? It makes for some excellent horror moments.

Though the build to the meat of the plot is slow, it never feels like a chore getting there. The pacing is great, and you are carried along the river of these women’s relationship at the exact pace the author intends. Sure, there are some unrealistic elements in play towards the end, but that’s almost always true in survival stories (because if they were realistic, 99% of the time they’d end in “and then they all died of exposure”). But this is an immersive piece of horror masquerading as literary fiction. If you like survival horror, I’d definitely give it a shot.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Breaking Wild, by Diane Les Becquets. Finished December 16th. After reading The River at Night I immediately wanted more survival-themed books. Maybe I should have resisted that impulse, because it’s no surprise that Breaking Wild suffered from the comparison. Then again, based on other reviews I might feel just as neutral if I’d waited.

Breaking Wild has a lot of elements I love, aside from survival. There’s a hint of grit lit (without the over-the-top sexually violent tones that plague that genre), strong female characters, and that Gone Girl “is she really who she says she is?” element to the missing woman Amy Raye. Then again, that last one might be a little too on-the-nose for me (I mean, she has the same name–Amy. Kind of trite). We also have lots of animal-based scenes, both friend and foe. Dogs and coyotes and cougars and bears and elk, oh my!

But I felt a huge distance in the narrative. Even when we are with Amy on her survival journey, watching her on the brink of death, I didn’t feel that emotional pull I want. I like being close to characters, getting in their skin and feeling their pain along with them. And I don’t mind the “unlikeable” type that Amy Raye obviously falls into: as long as I understand a character, there’s the potential to like them. But with Amy? Even after her full backstory reveal I didn’t “get” her. And the woman looking for her, Pru, felt like an unnecessary add-in at times. Her home life and backstory was a bit dull next to the excitement and shine of Amy. That might have been an intentional contrast, but that doesn’t make it a good story decision.

There’s one thing this book does amazingly well: build tension. We have alternating chapters from Amy (missing woman) and Pru (looking for missing woman), but the timelines don’t sync up. Amy’s is at a much slower pace: it takes half a dozen chapters to even get to when she goes missing. Pru is way in the future by that point, and desperately looking for Amy. And while Pru’s chapters are in the 1st person, Amy’s are in the 3rd. These combine to create a big sense of unease, because we have no clue if Amy survived or not. And her chances seem quite grim as the book goes on. It’s cleverly executed and is a nice twist to the missing woman genre.

There are definitely highs and lows here. I loved the tone and the pacing, didn’t love the characters or side plots (I don’t care about Pru’s love life or kid, author. I want to know what happens with the cougar!!). I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not a book I will think back fondly on. If you don’t mind distanced narratives, though, and like survival thrillers, this might be right up your alley.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Bodies of Water, by V. H. Leslie. Finished December 17th. This is one of those books I finished and immediately had almost no opinion on: I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I feel decidedly lukewarm on pretty much every aspect. Which is odd, because the themes (intense female friendship, bizarre antiquated cures for madness, mythology/magical realism elements, alternating past-and-present storylines, cats!!) are things I almost always love or at least can easily get involved with.

But Bodies of Water was decidedly bland. The writing was decent and had some sparks of beauty, but mostly came across as just adequate. The characters are quite flat. They have interesting backgrounds, but everything we see from their perspective makes them seem dreadfully dull. They also act in a way that drives the plot forward but makes no real-world sense. If you moved into a brand-new apartment and the ceiling started leaking, would you 1) visit your upstairs neighbor to ~investigate~ and then forget about it or 2) call the fucking super to fix it asap because it’s DRIPPING ALL OVER YOUR BED. Our girl Kirsten takes #1 because yeah, that’s logical. Their motivations don’t line up with their actions at all, and it’s a consistent issue.

I think one of the main problems was the length. It’s so short but covers two stories with deep backgrounds. There’s a LOT going on, and each story could have easily been 100+ pages. It wouldn’t fix the other issues but it would make it easier to get invested. With this novella format, by the time I finally gave a damn about the plots it was over. Something interesting happened (there’s honestly only one real ‘event’ in the book) and 10 pages later it’s the end of the book? The pacing is quite poor.

I know this was going for a traditional Gothic atmosphere, and it had a great base to work with. The plot sounds so interesting on paper, and issues of mental illness and sexuality are just begging to play out on a weird Gothic water therapy stage. Yet this was just okay in almost every way. Super forgettable.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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In Pinelight, by Thomas Rayfield. Finished December 17th. This is, without a hint of exaggeration, one of the best pieces of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Yet it has 4, count em FOUR, reviews on Goodreads! I only stumbled upon it because the spine looked intriguing while I was at the library. I am a constant whore for books that take place in spooky woods, and how spooky does that cover look? Very spooky. But misleading, because there’s no horror here and very little woods. But quite a few pine trees, thus the name.

This is a book uniquely told. The plot may seem been-there-done-that: it’s an old man telling his life story to an unnamed interviewer. His life took place entirely in a small rural town and one of the main themes is past vs present, new vs old, progress vs tradition. No new ground there, but it’s dealt with in a very interesting way. The old man’s story is told in stream-of-consciousness. And not in a neat, easy to digest format. It includes all the mess of human speech: repetition, mistakes, grammatical errors and memory flaws. He’s definitely an unreliable narrator, though it is unclear if it’s because of age or intentional deception. At first it’s hard to get more than a paragraph into it without feeling a bit mentally exhausted. But once you get into the meat of the story, the narrative flows like water. It’s so intimate, like you are right in the room with our narrator. Or even better, right in his head. The interviewer actually doesn’t get any lines, so you kind of have to guess from the context what the questions are.

While at first this seems like a simple life story with no drama, the themes and characters get more and more complex and entangled as it goes on. His wife, sister, daughter, and best friend feature prominently, but it’s not told in sequential order. You’ll hear about his wife’s death, and then go back to when he first bought his horses (another important set of characters), then go all the way back to his childhood before snapping back to another memory of his wife. You’re in the stream of his life, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. If you told me before I read this that I’d be captivated by the life of a guy who drove a horse-and-cart delivery I’d probably have laughed in your face, but In Pinelight is pure magic.

There are some big questions lurking in the background (what happened to his missing sister, what was going on at the weird medical institute in town, who is the interviewer, why is he being questioned, what secret was his friend hiding) that peek up occasionally but generally lurk in the background. They act as ties that bind everything together, but this is in no way a mystery. The joy of reading it is in the telling, not in the answers or cohesion. And while we do get answers (in a way–it’s left up to the reader to put together the pieces), they’re not at all what makes this book shine. It’s the carefully crafted narrative that make it so amazing. If you like literary fiction, please give this a shot. It’s criminally underrated.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Some Will Not Sleep, by Adam Nevill. Finished December 19th. I have a fraught relationship with Adam Nevill. You know how Stephen King often can’t write a good ending? Nevill is like that, only it’s the entire second half of his books. When I say that The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels, what I mean is “the first half of The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels and I generally pretend the second half doesn’t exist.” Same for Last Days. I felt more positive about diving into a collection of shorts because hey, they aren’t long enough to have a different first and second half, right?

Well, that’s true. But somehow I ended up with the same problem of only liking 50% of the content! Except it was whole stories I liked or hated this time, which is an improvement I guess? Some of them I absolutely adored. “The Original Occupant” is basically a prequel to The Ritual, and takes place in that amazingly creepy forest. “Mother’s Milk” is gross-out body horror at its best. “Yellow Teeth” was so unsettling. “To Forget and be Forgotten” was possibly my favorite, and had me checking behind the shower curtain late at night. “The Ancestors” is a great take on Japanese horror.

But about half of the others were huge flops for me. “Pig Thing” was overly short and predictable. “Doll Hands” seemed to be bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. “What God Hath Wrought?” had potential but ended up being overly long and about 80% exposition. “The Age of Entitlement” was just dull. “Florrie” was boring and uneventful.

I did enjoy the end section, which had the history of all the stories (both the writing of them and the ideas themselves). Very Stephen King. But at the end of the day, I’m just so confused by Nevill. I can’t believe the same author wrote all of these stories, much like I can’t believe the same author wrote the first half and second half of The Ritual.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Scent of Winter, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished December 20th. MY HEART

“It happens to me sometimes. Something comes on me that’s more animal than human. I wish there was a word for it. The only word that comes close is ‘bloodlust.’ I’d felt it that night in the woods, the first time with you.”
“When you chased me and ran me down.”
“I wasn’t chasing you, Kingsley. I was hunting you.”

This may seem sacrilegious to other Original Sinners fans, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Kingsley. I don’t hate him, but I just don’t like him as much as the other two members of the Unholy Trinity. The books that focus on him tend to be my least favorites. I mean, I still enjoy him, but I never considered myself a real fan. Until this novella. It tugged on my heartstrings, and for the first time I felt totally sold on Soren/Kingsley. The rawness of their relationship here is so authentic and bittersweet.

“Why would I think I could fall in love with a wolf and never get bitten?”

This is probably my favorite of the Christmas novellas. And while at first it doesn’t seem overtly Christmas-themed, it’s perfectly seasonal!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Innocents, by Cathy Coote. Finished December 21st. I have this morbid fascination with all those “it’s like Lolita!” type of novels. Lamb, The End of Alice, Tampa, et cetera. This already backfired on me once this year with All The Ugly & Wonderful Things (which romanticizes pedophilia, why) so I was a little hesitant to pick this up. The premise is a play on all those “Lolita was a seductress!” morons (I almost apologized for that but if you think Lo was anything but a victim please get out immediately). Our 16-year-old heroine, who remains unnamed, is… kind of a sociopath. And by “kind of” I mean “she fantasizes about beating and torturing her classmates.”

One day she decides that seducing her teacher is a great idea. The plot summary makes it sound like she is the hunter and he is the hunted, and indeed that seems like the direction it’s going in. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The title, Innocents, could apply to both of them. The teacher thinks his student is innocent, and she thinks he is innocent. There is a very strange predator/prey dynamic here where they both think they are “in charge” of the relationship and manipulating the other one.

There is no question that our heroine is very messed up. She is no innocent, abused girl… but at the same time, she is very young and unable to understand adult relationships. The things about herself that she plays up (childish appearance, carefree demeanor, sexual reluctance, innocence and naivete) are not the things a mentally well adult man are interested in that, but she is totally blind to how creepy he is. She thinks she is totally in control and so clever, but she’s set a trap for a pedophile… and nabbed one. The question becomes, which of them will get hurt first? And how badly?

This is a dark, twisty book. You should have a strong stomach if you’re going into it, and a taste for moral ambiguity. It’s certainly not as upsetting as some of the other books in this “genre” (especially because it’s set in Australia, where 16 is the age of consent… if it’s not with a teacher) but there are many stomach-churning scenes. I hope this is not Coote’s last book, because I’d love to see what she does next.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling. Finished December 25th. Sometimes you just have to go where your heart takes you. Towards the end of the month, I just really felt like reading Harry Potter. I knew I had one book to get through before the year ended but hey… sometimes you need comfort food, but in book form. Which is what this is. Not really a lot I could possibly say that’d be new: it’s one of my favorite in the series, and I loved it.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks. Finished December 31st. It seemed fitting to have this be my last book of the year. I started the Culture series in January of 2016, and have devoured the 10 books in it over the course of 2016. Sadly, Banks passed away a few years ago so this is the last Culture book we’ll ever get. And since it’s an open world (no books follow the same characters or plot), it had pretty much endless potential.

This is very much the swan song of the Culture world. It’s about a society at the end of its life-cycle: they are done with reality, and about to go post-physical into the Sublime. The Hydrogen Sonata seems like a goodbye letter, both to the Culture world and (tragically) to life. One of the main themes is the life-tasks people in this society give themselves. It can be anything (playing a particularly difficult piece of music, traveling to a far-away place, covering your body in a specific set of tattoos), but the goal is to accomplish a difficult or obscure task before death. Since the civilization is about to leave the Real, many people are rushing to finish their life-tasks. Like oh, you know… writing a book series. Yeah, it’s a little too close to home.

While this wasn’t the most compelling book in the series or the most emotional, it was beautifully crafted. It felt much more somber than anything else in the Culture world, and a little forlorn. It was also a rough read emotionally, not necessarily because of the content (though it’s quite sad) but because of the real-world parallels to Banks’ life. Plus, you know, last book of such a terrible and tragic year.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

268/175 Books

28/28 Series Books

70/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

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

December Reading Wrapup: Part I

3 Jan

I find the last month of the year to be the most difficult in terms of reading. I’m already looking ahead to my 2017 goals, or looking back on my favorite books of the year. By mid-December I kind of think of the year as “over” already. But despite that, I still had a pretty good reading month! I finished off my series challenge and got quite a few off my TBR read.

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A Gambler’s Anatomy, by Jonathan Lethem*. Finished December 1st. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite authors, but for some reason I only gravitate towards his weirder, lesser-known books like As She Climbed across the Table, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape. Though let’s be honest, I don’t think you could classify any of his books as normal. I haven’t read any of his “big” works like Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, etc–I guess I will eventually, but I have no real drive to. Which is weird, because the books I’ve read of his I adore!

I think A Gambler’s Anatomy falls rather uncomfortably between his odd, quirky books and his more mainstream ones. There are a few elements of magical realism (our main character is psychic, for example) but they don’t add much to the book either in terms of plot or metaphor. It would be basically the exact same book if the mind-reading element was removed. Which is odd–why was it included? It adds an extra layer to the final chapter but that’s about it. I think it would have been a much more interesting book if 1) the magical realism was just removed or 2) it was amped up and more integral to the plot/characters.

My main issues with the book are all the elements that seem neither here nor there. A lot of plot points seem randomly jumbled together, and there’s not enough of any one to make a cohesive whole. It’s hard to even pinpoint what the book is about (and not in a “so many interesting elements!”) kind of way. Is it about gambling? Yes and no. Is it about backgammon? Yes and no. Is it about severe illness? Yes and no. Is it about communist revolutions? Yes and no. Is it about the negative effects of capitalism? Yes and no. Is it about addiction? Yes and no. All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but somehow putting it all in the same plot dilutes all of the oomph.

The writing is, of course, beautiful and it is a compelling read. Even when I wasn’t very interested in what was going on I wanted to keep going, which is an impressive feat. And all of the side characters were great! Our main character? Not so much. He’s supposed to be stoic and boring and his perspective comes off as… stoic and boring. I really dislike “boring, blank-slate” narrators that kind of serve as a widow to the action more than a direct player in it. So while there are lots of redeeming features here, and it was far from a bad book, nothing drew me in. A disappointment, to say the least, though I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. Finished December 2nd. Other than my love affair with Tana French, I find myself continually disappointed by Western crime fiction. I’m just never that interested in whodunnits, so often I feel that any side plots or forced character “development” are just standing in the way of getting the reader to the solution. So it’s no surprise that I adore Eastern crime fiction: in almost all the ones I’ve read (Malice, The Investigation, Confessions) you find out who the killer is fairly early on, and it’s more about the characters and motives. The Devotion of Suspect X takes this to new heights: it’s not a whodunnit, because it starts from the POV of the killers. It’s not even a whydunnit, because the murder takes place very early on and the motives are crystal clear. It is the rarest of things in crime fiction: a howdunnit.

Yasuko is being stalked by her ex-husband. When he goes after her teenage daughter, she kills him in a fit of fear and protectiveness. Her neighbor, the unassuming math teacher Ishigami, helps them cover it up. But it cuts from the murder to days later, when Yasuko comes under suspicion. The mystery here is how Ishigami covered it up. Every angle of the murder is examined, and he seems to have covered it all. But how? It seems like the perfect crime.

Ingeniously, because the book starts out from Yasuko’s POV you are 100% on her side (and thus, on the side of the criminals). I was dying to know how Ishigami managed the coverup, but I wanted even more for them both to get off scott free and for the cops to remain in the dark. This is a riveting novel, a real page-turner but without the fake “cliffanger every chapter” that so many books in the genre rely on. This is my second Higashino book, and I doubt it will be my last. If only more of his work was translated!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Inheritance, by Robin Hobb. Finished December 3rd. This is, technically, the last Realm of the Elderlings book I have to read. I say technically because it’s a collection of short stories, and only the last section is set in that world. The other half is by Robin Hobb’s other pen name, and take place more in the real world (though they have many elements of magical realism and fantasy in them).

I was kind of expecting to skim through the first half in an effort to get to Hobb’s section, but I found them surprisingly enjoyable. I don’t know if it’s a writing style I would seek out on its own, but the stories were quite memorable. A few fell flat, but for the most part-success! But, of course, I came for the Hobb and that’s where this book shined for me.

There are only 3 Hobb stories because as you’d suspect, they are very long. They’re all wonderful, though the first (which is about the settling of the Rainwilds) and the last (which has a cat perspective) were particularly amazing. I don’t think I will ever get enough of this series, so let’s hope that the new one coming out in spring isn’t the last!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Into The Forest, by Jean Hegland. Finished December 4th. What a mixed bag of a book this was. I love survival stories and I love post-apocalyptic fiction so theoretically, I should have loved this. And I will freely admit that those aspects were fantastic. There’s a large amount of day-to-day survival stuff: growing a garden, canning and drying food for winter, figuring out how to hunt, etc. Given my love for survival classics like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson I am a total sucker for “here’s 20 pages that list all the different plants here and what they do!” type of things, which this book has in droves. And the apocalypse itself is very interesting: it’s not one big event, but the culmination of many. Climate change, unstable currency, political strife, a failing economy… sounds eerily familiar.

If the novel had stuck with the survival aspects as the main focus and given us more character development between sisters Nell and Eva, it would have easily been 4 stars. I was so involved for the first 100 pages or so, even though a few of the elements (the forced romance for Nell, the constant flashbacks to her parents) were almost too young-adult-y for my taste. But then, sigh, it takes a very sharp nosedive.

For some reason, the main message of this book seems to be that men are bad and women are victims. I hate hate HATE when fiction frames sexual interaction with men as only negative. If it’s consensual, watch out, you’ll get pregnant and be a single mom! And then, of course, we have to threaten the girls with rape because an apocalypse and having your parents die and almost starving to death just isn’t spooky enough. Sigh. It’s so unfair to both genders. Not all men are evil, obviously, and the “it’s the apocalypse so men revert to being horrible rapists” thing is truly baffling as a trope. And women are not victims! A girl can insist on birth control. A girl can consent to sex and not have any negative consequences, emotional or physical. A girl can, gasp, enjoy sex without somehow getting in trouble for it.

Weird 60′s feminist themes aside, this book really suffers in the last 100 pages or so. There are some truly baffling scenes that serve no purpose besides making the reader uncomfortable (sudden incest like woah) and the book seems to go from reality to magical realism very quickly and suddenly. Things that aren’t physically possible happen with no discussion. And tonally it’s weird. I think the end is meant to be read as inspiring or empowering which is… weird, because it seems more like the girls went totally insane. But rah rah women living together in the forest female power?

If you’d like to read a book about survival in the forest and a (kind of) apocalypse, I’d really recommend Our Endless Numbered Days. It deals with many of the same themes in a far more mature and coherent way (and manages to be much darker without the “men are out to get us!” bullshit).

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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World War Z, by Max Brooks. Finished December 6th. I read this years ago and loved it, and while I’ve heard many people raving about the audiobook I was never really interested. Audiobooks just aren’t my thing. But then I heard that it was what everyone wanted from the movie (an abomination we shall not speak of), plus I needed to read an award-winning audiobook for the Read Harder challenge. So WWZ audiobook it was!

This is just amazing. So immersive, and it really feels like the way the book is meant to be “read.” It is really more like a radio play than a regular audiobook. Fully voice acted, with a consistent narrator. Definitely get the full edition though: many of my favorite stories were left out of the original release.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund. Finished December 9th. This is a dark, dark book. Before you consider reading it, I’d add heavy trigger warnings for child abuse, rape, and incest. If any of these are upsetting topics for you I’d definitely proceed with caution. While none of the violence is gratuitous and most of it happens either in memory or off-screen, a lot of the details are hard to get through even if you have a strong stomach. Though this does work against the book in some ways: by the time you get to the end and the final reveal of the horrors the murderer has created, it seems almost blase. I feel like this is a danger with any long, dark book: eventually the reader is immune to the shocks. But that doesn’t negate how grim and effective 90% of it is.

The Crow Girl neatly toes the line between police procedural and psychological thriller. We have a ton of POVs: everything from the cops working on the case to the killer. Quite a few seem unrelated and really only come together at the end, and there’s a ton of misdirection and potentially unreliable narrators. It’s one of those “who am I supposed to trust?” type of novels, which I always enjoy. Every time I was sure I knew what was going on another twist and turn was revealed. It’s not a wham-twist type of novel like Gone Girl: sure, there’s a lot going on, but it’s hard to say that there is “one big reveal.” It’s more a series of smaller (but still effective) surprises.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the discussions of mental health. It’s both my favorite and least-favorite thing about The Crow Girl. I loved how complex all the characters were, and how intensely it looks at trauma, memory, and mental health. There are some wonderful moments of insight and really interesting discussions.

However, every mentally ill character in the book (and there are quite a few) is either an abuser or a victim. It’s absolutely a myth that the mentally ill are more likely to commit violent crimes: in fact, there’s no proven link between mental illness and criminal behavior. However, the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a crime. For all its interesting discussions, The Crow Girl still uses mental illness as a plot point. It’s supposed to be a revealing look at the cycle of abuse but it kind of comes off as “wow mentally ill people sure are crazy, look at the stuff they do!” It’s a sore subject for me and I didn’t appreciate how black and white the issue was. You also really need to suspend belief for some of the bigger twists, or know nothing about mental illness.

To end on a positive note, this is an incredibly compulsive read. The chapters are quite short (2-5 pages) and the POV/time period changes constantly, making it feel insanely fast paced even though it takes place over the course of a few months. I never felt bored by the length or wanted things to happen faster. In fact, I think it could have been a bit longer: the end is slightly rushed!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Márquez. Finished December 10th. This is my first Marquez, and I think it was a poor choice on my part. I picked it out because I saw it hanging out at the library, and let’s be honest… it’s really short. I don’t read a ton of physical books (almost all of my reading is done late at night on my Kindle, with the lights off), so when I pick one up from the library I don’t want it to be a chunker.

But this book is about age and the path our lives take: it’s an old man hitting 90 reflecting on his life. I just can’t connect with the themes, which is obviously on me and not the book. The writing is beautiful and I think the plot fits the themes perfectly, but I just felt really distanced. It’s hard for me to rate, and I’d love to go back to it in a few decades when the “I’m old and I feel like I’ve wasted my life” is something that I can connect with.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay*. Finished December 10th. I came into this book with low expectations. I know Roxane Gay only from her nonfiction work, so I was expecting a collection of stories with interesting ideas and feminist themes, but perhaps not the most elegant writing. And I was pleasantly very wrong: this book absolutely blew me away.

It is, as the title states, a book about difficult women. Women who strike out on their own path and refuse to follow traditional gender roles. Women who do anything it takes to survive. Women in bad situations, or women in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s easy to classify them all as ‘difficult’ but it’s also a bit depressing to realize that a women can be difficult for something as simple as not listening to a man. As you’d expect from Gay, these stories have a strong feminist vibe and sell the message very well. It never feels forced or preachy: in fact, it’s a depressingly realistic realization that all women are ‘difficult women.’

The writing here is lush and varied. We go from stories totally grounded in reality to hints of magical realism to full-out fantasy to a terrifying dystopian future. The mood changes: we get more upbeat love-themed tales, heartbreaking life stories, little slice of life pieces that are nearly flash fiction, epic-in-scope fantasy… I was wowed by how easily she shifted genre, mood, and tone while still giving them all a cohesive vibe.

Every story felt like it belonged here. Some were so depressing I almost hated them because of how they made me feel, others so short and brief they don’t seem to fit at first. There are stories that end at the worst possible moment, ones that start after the action. And yet they mesh together perfectly by the end. Difficult women are not just difficult in the way they live their lives, but in how their stories are told. They’re not easy to digest: some are challenging thematically, some emotionally. One made me cry. But they all touched me in different ways, and for once I feel like I’ve read a short story collection where I wouldn’t remove a single one

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones. Finished December 11th. Earlier this year I read Stephen Graham Jones’ Demon Theory, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite books of 2016. I really wanted to read more of him but he has a LOT of books out. An intimidating amount, to be honest, and I didn’t know where to start. Mongrels is actually a brand-new release and seems to be getting a lot of hype, plus it’s a modern werewolf tale which is usually something I really enjoy. So it seemed like as good a place as any to dive into his body of work!

Mongrels is about a young boy who is convinced his family is full of werewolves. His mother died in childbirth, and he lives with his aunt and uncle. They are a family of vagabonds, moving from place to place and picking up whatever odd jobs are available along the way. So while this is, on the surface, a story about monsters, it’s much more a book about humanity. It’s about how we all have something monstrous inside of us, and how it can shape our lives in ways we never expected.

Mongrels deals with poverty and classism/racism in America as much as it deals with howling at the moon and eating people. Like all good monster novels, the fantastic elements serve as a metaphor for real-world issues… though it also tackles these themes head-on in a more literal sense. It’s a very fast-paced book but it’s surprisingly deep, and cleverly skirts the line between adult fiction and YA. It’s totally, completely different from Demon Theory and I’m now even more intrigued to read more of Jones’ books.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Rules for Werewolves, by Kirk Lynn. Finished December 13th. I had two werewolf books on my TBR and thought to myself, “why not read them in a row?!” So here we are, with a very wolfish December. Rules for Werewolves is compared to Sharp Teeth in the blurb and that happens to be one of my favorite books so how can I resist?

RfW is told almost entirely in dialogue, but with no speech tags. So there are no descriptions of the action, or even clear ways to know who is talking at any point in time. It reads very much like poetry (thus the Sharp Teeth comparison) and obviously can be intensely confusing at times. The plot itself is simple enough: a group of homeless young people are moving from abandoned house to abandoned house… oh, and their (possibly insane) leader is convinced they are werewolves.

Unlike Mongrels (and Sharp Teeth) this is not an overt “werewolf book.” It’s incredibly unclear if this is a cult-type situation or if they are actual werewolves. This is a difficult book: the plot is messy, there are so many characters it’s almost impossible to keep them straight, and most of the time the reader is a bit unclear on what is going on. But I loved it! It’s so lyrical and interesting, and raises some very interesting questions about how we live our lives. If you like challenging books and possibly-magical-realism with a dark turn, I really recommend this.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Sparks. Finished December 14th. Sometimes I let myself get swayed by hype. I read a bunch of glowing reviews, see it’s a short novel, and pick it up. Though to be honest, this has been sitting on my Kindle for about a year–back when I first read those rave reviews. Even the mid-tier ones mentioned the amazing twists of this little mystery/thriller/whatever it is. I stumbled upon it recently while trying to give some order to the 1,800+ books on my device and off we went.

Sadly, it didn’t live up to the hype. I almost want to give this 2 stars because it was such a disappointment, but the writing was clever and well-crafted. I just… I was SO BORED. The plot sounds so interesting: Lise, a woman who has lived an ordinary life and seems ordinary in every respect, goes on a self-destructive adventure into the long-hidden dark side of her personality. It’s short, witty, and to the point. But I just. Didn’t. Care.

It has a manic energy but manages to be very pedestrian at the same time. Lise acts completely insane: flitting from person to person, topic to topic, changing her personality or aims on a whim. Yet it’s not very interesting to read about because Lise is just a dull person. Even when trying her hardest to get into trouble, the height of her craziness seems to be bold miss-matched prints and stealing car keys. Ooh, scandalous.

Sure, the ending is good. But it wasn’t a twist–you see it coming from a mile away–and you don’t even get any insight into why she chooses that path. Crazy woman does a crazy thing, the book. I prefer more depth and meat to my stories, but maybe I just missed something because this has generally great reviews.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood*. Finished December 14th. Until now, I have not been wowed by the Hogarth Shakespeare line. The ones I have read are, admittedly, exactly as advertised: retellings of Shakespearean stories. But I have always wanted more from these books: more attention to detail, more commentary on society, more meta narratives. Thankfully, Hag-Seed is what I’ve been searching for all along. Which is particularly fitting since The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play!

Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Hag-Seed is a play within a play. The main character, Felix, is putting on The Tempest in a prison, but his actual life mirrors the play. He was deposed from a position of power, is essentially in exile, and is using his in-prison play to get revenge on those who wronged him. His daughter is even named Miranda! So for most characters you have both the in-book counterparts and their in-prison-play counterparts. Felix is, of course, both the in-book Prospero along with playing him in his own play. I’m making this sound way more confusing than it is probably, but basically the book has a play in it and both mirror The Tempest both literally and thematically.

Much like how TT is aware that it is a play, HS seems to be aware that it is a book. Felix’s inner monologue often comes off as a speech to an audience, and many of the book allusions come off as very wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the reader. There’s not a lot of overt 4th-wall breaking, but it’s clear that we are a layer of the book: there’s Felix, then his play, then the audience in the book, and then finally, the reader. Or perhaps we’re the “top” layer of the pile. The question is, are we being played by Felix too or are we in on his shenanigans? This is a book that I already want to re-read because I know there are probably dozens of important things I missed.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Good As Gone, by Amy Gentry. Finished December 15th. I keep picking up these popular thrillers expecting something amazing and getting, surprise surprise, canned mediocrity. If this book had any other premise I would have skipped it: I’ve really trained myself not to pick up those “thriller of the month everyone’s bookclub pick IT’S THE NEXT GONE GIRL” type of things. But I am borderline obsessed with the documentary The Imposter (go watch it, seriously) and this plot seems ripped right from that with the genders reversed.

When she is 13 years old, Julie is kidnapped right out of her bedroom. There are no leads, there’s no evidence, and the case is basically abandoned. She returns many years later and while her parents are thrilled to see her, her mother (Anna) becomes suspicious. Is it really her daughter who has come back, or an imposter?

It’s a really fast read, with chapters that alternate between Anna in the present day and “possibly Julie”‘s past. So you’re going both forward in time and back, which is a nice aspect. It’s smoothy written for the most part, though nothing really stands out and there are some clunky sentences. The pacing is great: very tight, chapter breaks at just the right moments, not a lot of down time or unnecessary content. Every conversation seems packed with meaning, every scene full of clues. If you’re a thriller junkie I think this is probably a great read.

However, I found it really lacking substance. The characters were flat, and the mystery felt very thin (especially because many details were pulled from The Imposter and JonBenet’s case, making it feel overly familiar). The last quarter of the book saved this from being terrible: the reveals are great, and while not totally unexpected they did catch me by surprise.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

259/175 Books

27/28 Series Books

68/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

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

July 2016 Reading Wrapup: Part II

3 Aug

I did a lot of reading in the first half of July, but I wasn’t happy with quite a few of the books I read. The second half was the opposite: I read a lot less, but was a lot more pleased with the books I did finish. I liked all of the books in this wrapup (except for the last one, which I love-hate… it’s complicated), and my motivation really picked up at the tail end of the month. So hopefully August will be chock-full of good reads!

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Super Sushi Ramen Express, by Michael Booth*. Finished July 20th. I have a passionate love for Japanese food. Probably 8 times out of 10 when I go out to eat, it’s something Japanese (ramen, sushi, an izakaya, yakitori, katsu, curry, etc) and while I love the food of most countries (except for France, sorry France) Japan is near and dear to my foodie heart. I love eating it, cooking it, looking at it, reading about it. So yeah, this book was tailor-made for me.

It’s a food memoir, and while all of the experiences are obviously filtered through Michael Booth’s perception, the focus is much more on food and the food-related travel than it is Japan as a whole and his adventures with his family. I really prefer this: if I want a memoir of someone’s life, I’ll read a regular memoir. I’m here for the food, guys! And there is SO MUCH FOOD HERE.

Booth tackles so many areas of Japanese food: from how the base ingredients are made to street/junk food to incredibly expensive restaurant meals and niche types of cooking, he really runs the gamut. It’s full of really interesting tidbits of information (my brain feels jam-packed with information after reading this), but Booth’s writing is so funny and easy to digest (haha food pun) that it’s a speedy, easy read. I actually ended up buying a few of the cookbooks he mentions in here, and this has only spurred on my love for Japanese cuisine.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, by Yukio Mishima. Finished July 21st. I was not prepared at all for this book. I’ve read and loved Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet, and based on how heartbreaking they are (especially The Decay of the Angel) I probably should have steeled myself emotionally. But I thought to myself, “oh a love story with a sailor and a widow and a kind of weird son.” No. Not at all.

Actually, the first half lulls you into a false sense of security. It very much is a love story between Ryuji (the sailor) and Fusako (the widow). In the background is Noboru, her strange and precocious son who has some… issues, shall we say. The first half, aside from one (admittedly brutal but brief) scene of animal cruelty, is slow-paced and almost serene. But as I hit the halfway point I found myself feeling very uneasy. It’s not even necessarily what’s happening: sure, some of Noboru’s inner monologue is disturbing, but there’s no particularly awful moments. Yet by the end I was filled with so much dread I didn’t even want to read the last chapter.

It’s a short book, so it’s basically impossible to talk about the plot with tons of spoilers. But it is a beautiful and ultimately tragic story that will leave you with so, so many questions. By the end my main one was, is it Ryuji or Noboru who is the titular sailor who falls from grace with the sea? If you’d like a slow, uneasy story of both beauty and violence this would probably be right up your alley.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley*. Finished July 24th. This is such a cute, cozy book–which seems like an odd thing to say about a murder mystery, but oh well. Cozy mysteries are definitely not my genres, but… let’s be honest, I requested this because it has a cat on the cover, and I am a sucker for “cat related mystery” books. While the cat is only a minor player in this mystery it’s still got a cat in it. Also an adorable possibly sociopathic kid detective!

Flavia, the 12-year-old mystery solver, is really the heart of this story. It’s wonderful being inside of her head: she’s definitely clever and precocious but there are moments of childlike innocence or confusion that make her seem very much like a real, fleshed-out human. She’s kind of like a nicer, girl version of Artemis Fowl. And while some of her actions are, uh, questionable (the scene of her examining the corpse is particularly creepy) she has a lot of heart. The side story of her sick father and her family basically abandoning her is pretty heart-wrenching.

The first 2/3rds of this book were definitely more enjoyable than the last chunk. The mystery aspect is a little lackluster, especially the final reveal, and I didn’t find myself surprised or wowed at all. But hey, it’s a cozy mystery, I honestly was not expecting a big complicated case. It did have a few nice turns that I wasn’t expecting and I certainly didn’t find it dull, but I preferred the chunks of the story that had more to do with Flavia and her relationships. I’d definitely read more in the series, especially because this one ends on a (non-mystery-related) cliffhanger.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Something Nice, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished July 28th. Two Tiffany Reisz books in one month?? What a time to be alive. This is a short novella that was only available to newsletter subscribers, and of course I read it literally 20 minutes after it downloaded. Because Nora is the light of my life.

This takes place a few months after The Siren, and deals primarily with the emotional fallout Nora is feeling after that crazy ending. It’s a very cathartic read and I feels like it ties up some (emotional) loose ends about Nora/Soren/Wesley that were still lingering in my head. Absolutely a must-read if you’re a fan of the Original Sinners series.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Matter, by Iain M. Banks. Finished July 29th. I have so many conflicting emotions about this book! Probably because, at least to me, it felt like two books: one with crazy space antics and another featuring political intrigue on a low-tech world. Usually the contrast between high- and low-tech societies is something I enjoy in books (The Dreaming Void, A Fire Upon the Deep) but I am generally not a fan of Iain Banks’ more politically driven, almost-fantasy stuff: Inversions is the only Culture book I actively didn’t love, for example. I felt like the two elements didn’t work harmoniously. Even though they are plot-connected, I didn’t feel the mirroring of elements or strong contrast I feel like a low- vs high-tech plot needs.

So let’s talk about the good. I adore the worldbuilding here! So many cool concepts. Tons and tons of really interesting alien races (though tbh I could have used more info or scenes of the other ones in the Shellworld), nifty tech we haven’t seen before, the rumors of ancient alien races, and of course the Shellworld itself–one of my favorite Culture concepts. Just the idea of it was so amazing, and Banks always does such a good job of bringing his ideas to life. I felt like I could picture it all so perfectly.

The characters here, like in many Culture novels, are interesting but not particularly unique feeling. We’ve got the son who doesn’t want to be king, the son who does but is too young and in his head, the scheming overlord, the prodigal sister. I feel like characters are never Banks’ strength, though, so I expected that coming in and it didn’t bother me. Because he always makes up for it with sassy ships & drones! This time we also get a sassy human assistant, because a large chunk takes place on a tech-free world and we need some way to get those sarcastic comments in there.

The last 20% of this book is fantastic. I really felt a huge disjoint between the story aspects, though. The elements of the ending section are touched on but not really talked about until they’re suddenly in play: then it feels like the whole first half of the book (and everything in the Shellworld) were a huge waste of time because they have almost nothing to do with what’s going on. It just feels unbalanced. It could have either been much shorter (we didn’t need half of the on-Shellworld POV scenes for the plot) or the same length but with 1) more space and Culture scenes and 2) more foreshadowing or actual plot-building about the endgame elements.

So, to sum it up, I enjoyed this (like I do most Culture novels) but it’s not one of my favorites from the series. I think my order of preference goes Look to Windward > Excession > Player of Games > Use of Weapons > Matter > State of the Art > Consider Phlebas > Inversions

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne. Finished July 31st. I have too many thoughts about this book. It’s impossible to rate. I grew up on Harry Potter, went to all the midnight releases (books and movies!), and have read the series at LEAST a dozen times (and I’ve read OOTP, HBP, and GoF 20x minimum). There was no way for this book to not be massively over-hyped in my head. New Harry Potter? About a new generation of wizards?? Yeah, I was into it.

Now, I don’t think I built it up to the point that it was impossible to enjoy. Heck, I’ve read long HP fanfiction that I loved almost as much as the originals (Methods of Rationality, the first few James Potter books). So I was really just expecting a nostalgic thrill ride through childhood adventures. And… I kind of got that? There are some wonderful Hogwarts scenes that really brought the magic back for me.

Before I get to my problems, which are numerous, I’m just gonna say that I LOVE Scorpius. I don’t love that his “I will die for you” bromance with Albus turned into a weird platonic thing but that’s kind of a different issue. But yeah, Scorpius was amazing and a precious nerd baby. What a fantastic character. And I did actually enjoy a lot of the plot, which seems to be a little controversial.

My main issue is that this book is like holy character assassination Batman. Ron is a one-note idiot. Harry is a cruel jerk. Draco hasn’t changed a day (and the first half of this book erases all of his HBP/DH progression until suddenly he has one “deep meaningful speech” scene). I’m going to be honest: a lot of the character-related stuff read like bad fanfiction. It didn’t add up AT ALL with the books, and this is supposed to be 22 years of character development AFTER them. Yet everyone’s the same as book 1. Sigh.

And then… the big twist. WHY. It made me VERY ANGRY. And it’s just the tip of the plot-hole iceberg. It’s really hard to emotionally separate myself from anything officially Harry Potter because it’s such a huge part of my childhood and shaped a lot of who I am as a reader. If I view this as a fun “what if?” type of scenario that’s basically just fanfiction of the future, I think it’s decently enjoyable–though the twist is stupid as hell, it’s so nice to be in this world and with these characters again. So for me, this isn’t officially the 8th book and never will be. It’s just a play. I’m gonna keep telling myself that.

No rating because my heart is confused

So I actually did read two other books in July, but they are both up for the Man Booker (Hot Milk and The Sellout), and I’m going to binge-read the longlist and do them as a separate post.

Reading Challenge Goals

171/175 Books

20/35 Series Books

53/50 TBR Books

20/15 Different Countries

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

July 2016 Reading Wrapup: Part I

2 Aug

Like June before it, July was not the best reading month for me. Sure, I got through 17 books (still a bit below my average for 2016), but I read a lot of books I felt only so-so about. In fact, I hit a serious slump mid-month and had to force myself to read at all. Honestly, July is my least-favorite month of the year so I didn’t expect to get a lot accomplished, but I am really looking forward to August–where I will be reading all the Man Booker nominees and hopefully getting through quite a few of my ARCs!

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The Bourbon Thief, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished July 1st. So, this month actually started out quite well. A new release from Tiffany Reisz, the queen of my heart? Sure, it’s not an Original Sinners novel, but it’s a grim and broody standalone. I’d class this as modern gothic: it’s the torrid history of a Kentucky bourbon family that gets increasingly dark and twisty as the plot goes on.

There are two dual storylines: in modern times, a woman named Paris has just stolen a million dollar bottle of bourbon. She says it’s her birthright, and weaves for us the history of the Maddox family who made that original bottle. Of course the stories overlap, but Paris is really just a framing for the historical narrative. Which is everything you’d expect from Reisz: dark, sexy, and tragic. I thought I saw most of the twists coming but this book really plays with reader expectations. As always, totally fabulous.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb. Finished July 7th. I spent the last 100 pages of this book crying off and on. Not full-on sobs or anything, but I don’t think my eyes were dry for even a second. This series just makes me feel SO MANY EMOTIONS. I cried when something sad happened, I cried when people said goodbye, I cried when the characters were happy. I’m way too overly attached, guys.

So, this is the 9th book in the Realm of the Elderlings so of course any amount of plot discussion would be spoilery as hell, but it was, as every Robin Hobb book seems to be, utter perfection. There are many overlaps here with, obviously, the first Farseer trilogy, but we get some nice cameos from the Liveship Traders as well! The plots of these two worlds really “collide” in an interesting fashion. And while the plot and the writing are amazing, it’s the characters who will steal your heart and make you feel things you didn’t think were possible. Always and forever I adore this series.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Lions, by Bonnie Nadzam*. Finished July 9th. I (very) recently read Bonnie Nadzam’s first novel, Lamb, and really enjoyed it. Lamb is a tense, tight little novel with a very limited cast and a slim but well-crafted plot. Lions is the opposite in pretty much every way, as the name cleverly implies. This takes place in a modern ghost town with barely over 100 people, but the cast includes quite a few of these intrepid/desperate souls. The plot is sprawling: there are a few key “events” (a stranger comes to town, someone dies, a boy has to take on a family task–though these things are not necessarily connected), but overall it’s a rambling sort of novel.

There is no sense of linear time here. The reader feels afloat in the story: in a paragraph, we will go from a present-day event to a conversation in the past almost mid-sentence. It always takes a second to get re-oriented, though I never found it confusing. The structure did remind me a bit of Man Tiger, a book I loved for its unconventional timeline. Some of the characters seem to blur together, locations overlap in confusing ways: it’s a clever way to portray how unmoored our main cast feels both in time and in their own lives.

The plot really centers around two teens, Gordon and Leigh, who are the only young people in Lions. They become swept up in events bigger than themselves, but at the same time they are struggling to separate themselves from the town/their parents and form their own identities. It’s not really a coming of age novel, though that is definitely one of the themes explored.

Interestingly, with all the people in it this novel feels kind of empty. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it’s a lonely book. You feel like you’re on these big empty plains in the middle of nowhere with a group of people you don’t fit in with. You’re a stranger here: you never feel like “part of the town.” Just a visitor, nose pressed up against the glass, getting bits and pieces of these peoples’ stories and histories. I think the structure and tone of the book are much more effective than the plot (which I do think could have used a bit of tightening) but it definitely made an impression on me.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Drowned Worlds, by Jonathan Strahan*. Finished July 10th. So, funny story. When I was about 14 I started reading a book that took place on a flooded earth. My room was painted while I was reading and somehow the book got lost in the shuffle. It was so evocative and I’ve spent years unsuccessfully looking for it. Well, it turns out that book was J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (which of course I’ve finally picked up a new copy of), and this short story collection is inspired by that work! Only took me 13 years but I finally solved the mystery.

Short story collections are always hard to talk about, because I can’t go over every single one. This is a really evocative, dreamy collection and while of course the theme is very similar from story to story, there’s no sense of same-ness that makes it boring. I think they actually work better together than separately: I have fond memories of reading this, yet only a few stand out in my mind. The theme really holds them together and makes even the more mediocre ones fun to read.

“Dispatches from the Cradle” by Ken Liu, “Who Do You Love?” by Kathleen Ann Goonan, “Inselberg” by Nalo Hopkins, “Last Gods” by Sam J. Miller, and “The Future is Blue” by Catherynne M. Valente were the standouts for me. While these are all technically in the science fiction genre there’s such a variety (hard scifi, new weird, straight-up bizarro) that I was 100% okay with what was, to be honest, just the same premise (flooded worlds) over and over. If you like science fiction with an environmentalist twist definitely give this one a go.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Listen to Me, by Hannah Pittard*. Finished July 10th. I’ve read a surprising amount of road trip books this year. I can barely think of any I’ve read in the past but so far I’ve tackled I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Binary Star, both of which I’ve adored. So when I heard the summary of Listen to Me (a modern gothic thriller roadtrip novel???) I was hooked. However, I think the marketing for this is SO misleading. It’s the story of a rocky marriage, not a tense thriller.

Sure, there’s quite a bit of tension. Maggie, the wife, was violently mugged recently and has grown paranoid about, well, everything. I really liked this aspect of the novel: it portrayed PTSD in a very realistic manner. It’s not always full-on panic attacks and specific triggers. When you’re attacked like this (muggings, assaults, rapes) the world loses its sense of safety. Suddenly things you trusted and took for granted have sinister angles. Everyone is a potential predator. Every street a potential incident. Maggie’s paranoia may seem overdone but trust me, it’s quite realistic and for me at least very sympathetic.

Her husband Mark, however, is just an asshole. It’s hard to sympathies with his “oh my god my wife is so traumatized and that is very hard for ME because this is all obviously about MY COMFORT.” I think he’s supposed to be unlikeable, but it’s hard to portray a broken marriage between two people who aren’t on the same level. Like, you feel super bad for Maggie and hate Mark. You should either hate or love both of them, and the book seems a little uneven because of this.

Now, my real issue is the ending, which obviously I’m not going to spoil. But it was SUCH a letdown. There’s this huge building of tension: Mark and Maggie are fighting, there’s a huge storm in the distance, towns are losing power, even the dog is getting more and more anxious. But there’s no huge event or climax. A thing happens, and poof, that’s it. There’s no resolution to the problems (or at least a reasonable and believable resolution), there’s no big thriller-y event. I was so let down.

If you like tense stories about relationships and don’t expect a big reveal or climax, this might be a book for you. But domestic drama is usually not my forte and I wish this was marketed more towards its target audience. I think the ending is very fitting for the type of book it is, but not for the type of book readers expect it to be.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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True Crime Addict, by James Renner. Finished July 11th. This is a hard book to review. As a true crime book, it’s easily a 1-star read. Renner muddies the facts of the case, does wildly inaccurate research, and makes insane claims with no proof to back it up. But as a psychological study of a delusional sociopath? It’s truly amazing. And I’m not pulling the sociopath thing out of my ass: in one of the very first chapters, Renner informs the reader that he scored as a sociopath on a therapist-issued personality test. He’s also a lush and potentially a drug addict (also admitted by him, as he detoxes in jail), but we’re supposed to believe a word out of his mouth? Okay.

To be honest, the Maura Murray case isn’t that interesting as far as unsolved mysteries go. Here’s what we know: leading up to her disappearance, Maura was a very troubled individual. She was a kleptomaniac, she committed credit card fraud, had a breakdown at work, lied to her employer about a family member dying, was on probation, and got in 2 car accidents in a few days. If you want to believe Renner’s claims, she also had an eating disorder (I’m not going to touch the promiscuity angle because he has NO valid sources on that-a slighted ex does not count-and it has nothing to do with her being “troubled” anyway ffs). If Maura got in trouble with the law again, her credit fraud would count as a felony and she wouldn’t be able to finish nursing school. She crashes her car while drunk on a back road in the middle of nowhere during winter, denies help from 2 separate people, and goes missing 5 minutes later. She either 1) ran into the woods in order to hide from the cops and died of exposure or 2) was picked up by someone very bad. No other option makes logical sense. Renner denies #1 because they couldn’t see her footprints in the woods from a helicopter. First off, are you kidding me?? And second, even the slightest bit of wind is enough to bury prints. They searched for prints at least 12 hours after she disappeared, plenty of time for the wind to destroy them.

But Renner picks the 2 most insane theories and runs with them, ignoring all evidence that doesn’t agree with his ideas. He’s convinced there was a second car Maura was following (that no one, not the 2 people who tried to help her OR the cops, saw? lol okay). He’s also convinced that she ran away to Canada and is living there. His “evidence” for this is shaky witness testimony that they “totally saw someone who looks like an older Maura!” Sightings like this are not taken seriously because 99% of the time it’s just someone WANTING to see the victim (i.e. Maddie McCann’s “sightings” all over the damn world). None of the evidence points to this, but he’s so fucking obsessed with the idea of “solving” it that he’s blind to its faults.

This book is an utter trainwreck in terms of, well, everything. Renner mentions upwards of a dozen cold cases and solved cases that have NOTHING to do with Maura. He mentions like 5 girls who went missing “near” the area but most of them are solved, or from decades ago. He mentions random serial killer and kidnappers who, again, have nothing to do with Maura. It’s like his brain threw up on the page and we’re just running on his rambling train of thought. Interspersed with his “investigation” (I really don’t consider harassing the family nonstop and getting an army of online minions to find shit for you actual investigation, but ymmv) are random snippets of his life. It includes things like getting put in jail for assaulting a cop, ignoring his autistic son’s diagnosis, becoming convinced that said son is psychic (I’m not lying, he literally thinks his son can read minds), and going to a crackpot medium to “find Maura.” It’s… just really weird. He also thinks that life is giving him clues in the form of “fearful symmetry” (aka coincidences he reads wayyyy too much into).

So every aspect of his investigation into Maura is bullshit. It’s terrible journalism, terrible writing. But this is a fucking fascinating book. The way Renner tries to manipulate the audience, the way he presents the facts about himself but then skirts around the implications, how he glosses over his downright stalking of the family members? It makes for a riveting and disturbing read. Just don’t expect any actual closure on the Maura case.

Lipstick Rating Full

 

 

 

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The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. Finished July 11th. I really love Tom Perrotta. Something about his writing is just very cozy and comforting, though given the themes he tackles it really shouldn’t be. But there’s just something about his suburban settings that feel so delightfully familiar it’s like snuggling up with a cup of tea.

The Leftovers is actually a pretty grim book: there’s a Rapture-like event and the majority of the population is “left behind” to deal with a world that’s suddenly much smaller. Many people lose loved ones, everyone loses friends. This isn’t really an “end of the world” type book, though. It’s about regular people struggling with tragedy. It’s about carrying on after you think you’ve lost everything. It’s about finding a reason to live–a good reason to live. It’s about family.

I read this over the course of about 3 weeks, bit by bit, but not once did even the slightest detail fade for me. I’d go 5 days without reading it at all, pick it up in the middle of the chapter and feel like instantly I was with friends. There’s so much depth and meaning here but as always with Perrotta, it’s the characters that make it special. They’re just so realistic and flawed and you want to hug (almost) all of them.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. Finished July 14th. I am a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s everything I want in a mystery: amazing characters, beautiful writing, strong plot & mystery, tons of subtext and interesting themes. I have yet to find a true mystery even slightly similar (though The City & the City and Kraken also fill out the “everything I want in a mystery” list, but they’re kind of fantasy as well). You usually get either a cool mystery (He Who Fears the Wolf, any and all Agatha Christie) OR interesting characters (1st and 3rd Cormoran Strike, Gillian Flynn, Summertime All the Cats Are Bored). It’s really hard for me to find literary mysteries that are strong in all aspects of the story. So when I heard that the author of Life After Life wrote a mystery series, I assumed I would be all about that.

Well, I assumed wrong. This book didn’t have any of the things I look for in a mystery. It wasn’t even the trashy sort of fun you get from books like Heartsick. First off, I was misled into thinking that the 3 seemingly random cases at the beginning were connected. Spoiler alert: they’re not. At all. I was expecting a cool twist or… something. One gets solved (in a way I found very unsatisfying), one remains solved but also open-ended (hard to explain) and the other… isn’t a mystery? Has nothing to do with anything? Very confusing.

Our main detective was very boring. All of his character traits seemed very trite and played out, plus he was kind of sexist (and not in a Cormoran Strike “we’re playing with noir tropes” kind of way, which I find annoying as well). I did really like Amelia & Julie and the dad of the dead girl (whose name, 4 days later, I cannot remember–shows how well this book held my attention). They were interesting and sympathetic. But everyone else… bleh. There were just SO MANY characters and plots, it felt convoluted and like you never got to know anyone else.

I think this book had potential but needed a really heavy-handed editor. Take out most of the plotlines, leave us with just one of the mysteries (maybe 2 if they actually connected), trim the character list by half. I mean, obviously this book has great reviews and I seem to be mostly alone in this opinion. I think if you’re more of a mystery reader you probably would enjoy this. But it’s a genre I am insanely, overly picky about. The thing is, I really love a mystery done right, but I tend to be super critical and unable to overlook “flaws” in mystery/noir books. This one just read like a batch of all my pet peeves (weak mystery, lackluster characters, too many plots) thrown together.

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier. Finished July 15th. So I read a few lackluster books in a row. I was really feeling the true crime/mystery genre (due to listening to nothing but crime podcasts for 3 days tbh) and I thought to myself, “a book about a child sociopath! How could I go wrong with this.” I feel like I need to have a sit-down with myself and be like, Leah, you don’t like YA as a genre. Stop trying to make it happen for you. It’s not going to happen. (There are a few YA books I LOVE, but literally 90% of the things I read in it are 1 or 2 star reads for me). I mean, I didn’t really read YA books when I was the age they’re aimed at. If that stuff didn’t appeal to 16-year-old me, it sure as hell isn’t going to 11 years later. This is not in any way a dig at anyone who likes YA, it’s just not for me! And I need to accept that.

This is not really a book about Rosa, the tiny sociopath. It’s your usual YA coming-of-age type stuff. Guy moves to a new city, guy is insecure about his future & identity, guy makes new friends and finds love. Sure, his sister is a potential murderer, but that takes a backseat until the end of the book. And while the stuff with Rosa was good, the rest of it made me legitimately angry. Like, I wanted to throw the book I was so angry.

It’s just… it’s really fucking preachy. I adore diversity in books, and it’s something I intentionally seek out. There’s diversity here but it’s sooooo forced. Every character literally gives a lil monologue about how ~different~ they are. It’s bizarre and so unlike real life. When you have a random, everyday discussion with a gay/black/asian/agender/etc person it doesn’t start off with “I AM GAY AND LET ME TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT AND MY GIRLFRIEND AND MY GENDER IDENTITY.” We’d even get weird monologues about diversity from random characters, like Rosa the sociopath who in real life wouldn’t care at all. Many of the side characters were basically only their “diversity” and nothing else. Aside from Leilani (one of my least favorite characters of all time, would rather read 50 Shades than a book about this bitch), they were paper thin and so tropey and it seemed like the author was trying SO HARD to be all “look, diversity, I’m so accepting, check out my cool hip characters.” Also, some of the preachier moments made no sense. Sid will only date someone who “has Jesus in their life” (we get tons and tons of paragraphs about religion and acceptance, possibly the most forced aspect) but her mom runs a non-denominational church and people of several, non-Christian religions attend it? We get a paragraphs-long speech about how a 1k tshirt is what it “actually costs” to make a shirt if you don’t use sweatshops and buying anything cheaper is unethical, and our POV character agrees? Just lots of weird, wtf moments.

In the last 10% or so the focus goes back to Rosa and I was actually invested, which is why this gets 2 and not 1 stars (just kidding, bumped down my rating a lot after thinking on it). I actually thought it was going in a really cool direction that would have saved the entire book for me, but sadly… no. I mean, honestly, for a YA book the ending was pretty brave and refreshing. It wasn’t sugary-sweet happy times everyone gets what they want. Seemed a lot more realistic and I appreciated that a lot. But I wasn’t even that satisfied with the ending and lets’ be real, 5% of good content doesn’t save the 95% that is shitty.

LipstickRating1Half

 

 

 

So, that was the first half of July! It was really a combination of Case Histories/My Sister Rosa that put me in a funk. Reading was going all right until then, but I didn’t finish another book until the 20th!

Reading Challenge Goals

164/175 Books

19/35 Series Books

53/50 TBR Books

20/15 Different Countries

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

June 2016 Wrapup | Part I

19 Jun

So far June has been the exact opposite of May: instead of waiting too long and having too many books to review, I had a… shall we say slow reading month so far. I started off picking up a bunch of books I couldn’t get interested in, and actually dnf’d Before The Fall. I ended up reading one book in the first week of June, and since then I’ve only managed to get through 4 more. However 4 of the 5 were exceptionally long, with the shortest at 672 pages and the longest at 880. And I absolutely adored all of the chunky books, so even if it is a slow month it’s a great one!

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Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb. Finished June 8th. The second book in the Tawny Man trilogy, and the 8th in the Realm of the Elderlings. These books give me the same warm, cozy, “this feels like home” vibe as Harry Potter, which is something I don’t say lightly. Aside from both being fantasy series they have nothing in common, but I just feel so comforted by Robin Hobb’s books–even when horrible, sad, tear-inducing things are happening I still feel like I’m wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanket of happy feelings.

Of course I can’t really talk about the plot without huge spoilers for all the previous books, but so far I think this is my favorite trilogy of the 3 I’ve tackled so far. It doesn’t have the pacing issues of the Farseer trilogy, and I find myself slightly more invested in the characters than I did in Liveship. Of course I adore all 3 series and it’s really hard to pick favorites but this is probably #1 of the Hobb books I’ve read thus far. It’s just… ugh, the feelings. The plot is slow but driven, the magic is fantastically deep, the characters are so real. This is a long book, and I think a lot of fantasy authors would cram the same amount of plot into a 400 or 500 page novel and come up with something fast-paced, but Hobb takes her time to develop the characters and the world. There are many scenes between characters that don’t drive the story forward but work towards building relationships and making the world feel deep and involved. I just love them so, so much and can’t recommend these books enough if you like epic fantasy.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Abyss Beyond Dreams, by Peter Hamilton. Finished June 14th. First off, I’ve seen a lot of reviews say that this can be read as a stand-alone series without tackling the previous books in the Commonwealth Saga: the Pandora’s Star duology and the Void trilogy. This is definitely not true! You definitely need to have read all of the previous books because there are overlapping characters AND the beginning of the second book has huge spoilers for the Void trilogy.

Peter Hamilton is known mostly for his incredibly sprawling space operas, with tons of POV characters and scattered storylines that come together perfectly at the end. This book is a little different, and the structure is quite unusual for what I’ve seen from him. The first sections follow the pattern: we have two long “chunks” of story with different POV characters in scattered locations, and both heavily feature Commonwealth technology. After that it switches drastically. 80% of the book takes place in the Void, so it’s more like Inigo’s dreams than any of the previous tech-heavy books. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the differences between A Fire Upon the Deep and The Children of the Sky. The Void books were a mix of high-tech and low-tech, but this book (and The Children of the Sky) are almost entirely low-tech. If you skimmed/skipped the Inigo sections in the Void books you probably won’t enjoy this very much, but if those held your interest it’ll probably be right up your alley.

Other than the tech-level shift and more limited cast, this has a lot in common with the rest of Hamilton’s books and features a lot of what I love about him. The characters are, as always, fantastic–Kysandra in particular really stood out to me, but that’s not really a surprise because his female characters tend to be the most memorable. There are of course cameos by characters from the previous books, and Nigel is a main character (though not really a POV one for most of the book). The story, while small in scope, is nicely nuanced and contains some nice twists and turns. I was really expecting our main male character, Slvasta, to have an Edeard-like arc since it was shaping up that way, but it went in a really unexpected direction. Plus we get revelations about some elements of the Void trilogy (genistars and Skylords in particular) that totally blew my mind.

There’s a cool race of aliens, if by cool you actually mean “totally terrifying.” They’re not as scary as the Primes, who still remain my favorite bad aliens, but oh my god are they creepy. It’s not universe-destroying terror like the Primes but a more close, claustrophobic, Alien-like horror. Especially in the opening chapter which sent chills down my spine. In fact, I think this book is a lot more horror-heavy than the previous Commonwealth ones which is always a plus in my book because I adore space horror. We’ve also got some cool tech, though of course it’s a lot more limited in this setting.

While I think this would be a 5-star book for me if it was written by another author, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as some of his others because of the narrative change. I still really enjoyed it and am especially looking forward to the sequel, which I’ve already started.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Night Without Stars, by Peter Hamilton*. Finished June 17th. (This review contains light spoilers for the previous books in the series, but none for Night Without Stars!)

I really enjoyed the first book in this series but I think it was lacking a little bit of Hamilton’s signature flare. The scope was a bit more limited, and it took place almost entirely on a very low-tech world. The sequel, however, doesn’t suffer from this: we’re still on the same planet, but a few hundred years in the future and it’s no longer low-tech. Sure, they’re not up to Commonwealth levels of coolness, but there’s a lot more going on in the actual scifi department. It also has a bigger cast with more POV characters, some cool new alien races, tons of clever callbacks to the past books, returning familiar faces, and a sassy spaceship. So basically it just feels more like a Commonwealth book that Abyss Beyond Dreams.

One of the things I love about Hamilton’s novels is how disparate plot threads come together so tightly by the end. This takes place all on one planet, so the POV characters “fit” together a lot more cohesively than, say, Pandora’s Star, but there’s still a massive amount of minor events in the novel (and from the Void trilogy even) that just come together so cleanly at the end. The characters are, as always, totally fantastic. My boo from the first novel, Kysandra, is back with a vengeance and show so much character growth. We’ve also got possibly my favorite new Hamilton character Joey, the world’s sassiest space ship. Most of the cast is brand-new but they’re easy to love (and hate, for a few of them).

Funnily enough the thing I loved most about the first book, the space horror elements, are totally gone here. The Fallers are still a threat but it’s more of a worldwide ‘we’re all going to die’ type of scenario in contrast to the more personal horror of the first. But I was so absorbed in the story that I didn’t even miss it! I know this is a duology and they obviously go together but the tone is just so different from book to book. It’s not a bad thing at all, and really helps you separate one from the other (especially if you’re like me and tend to blur books in a series together). I think if you like smaller, more claustrophobic science fiction you’ll prefer the first one, but if you like broader-scope space opera this will be your favorite. I usually find Hamilton series to read like one huge novel chopped up into parts, so this is definitely a different style for him.

As satisfying as I found the conclusion, I’m really hoping this isn’t the last Commonwealth book. I’m just so invested in the world and the characters–he could write a dozen series in it and I’d happily read them all! I’m also really hoping the next one involves the Planters…

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Familiar Vol 3 Honeysuckle & Pain, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Finished June 17th. I’m so invested in these books it’s not even funny: I read this behemoth in 3 days because I absolutely couldn’t stand not knowing what was going to happen. I know I should savor them and take my time but I just… I can’t. I want all 27 volumes right now!

This series is done in the style of a television show, and there are 9 main characters who (for the most part) have stories that only overlap slightly. Each book tends to give different side characters a stronger “focus” and my favorite, Shnorhk, got three whole chapters in this one!

The thrill of these books is figuring out slowly how everything is connected and what all the symbolism and plot threads really mean. Everything from the formatting of each section to the color of the thread holding the pages together holds meaning–I could probably re-read each volume 10 times (let’s be honest, I probably will) and discover something new with each read. Of course this is really just the beginning and I have no idea how things will develop, but I get mighty excited whenever I work out some little twist or factoid on my own. These are definitely more accessible than, say, House of Leaves or Only Revolutions but still make your brain work overtime while reading them.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton*. Finished June 17th. I went into this book really wanting to love it. It’s literary apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction in the style of Station Eleven or The Road, where the focus is much more on characters than it is on the “big event” that changed everything. But sadly, Good Morning, Midnight kind of left me wanting.

I think the real problem for me was how terribly predictable everything was. You can see every plot event (I hesitate to call them twists but I guess there are some twisty turns) coming from a mile away. There’s no element of surprise, no emotional moments that take the reader’s breath away. Something big happens and you think, “oh yeah, of course, I knew that was coming.” It’s kind of disappointing because I think with a little tweaking this could have been a totally fantastic book.

Part of my issue is the lack of depth in the world. This does not feel like a real, fleshed-out future world, it feels exactly like ours. There’s no worldbuilding at all. One of our main characters, Augie, finds a young girl in his research station and there’s literally NO mention of who she is/how she got there/how this is possible. It’s just “oh look a child” and the reader is left scratching their head. It would be a cool element in a magical realism book, but this is (supposed to be) based purely in reality. Then we have our astronaut team: they are returning from a mission to Jupiter and there is no mention of any kind of space exploration other than the past (our present) and their current mission. You’d think, when mentioning their idols, they’d you know… talk about the first person who went to Mars (which must have happened before humans started heading to Jupiter, right?) but nope. It makes the world feel paper-thin, like the author put NO thought into anything besides the main plot of the novel. I like when worlds feel rich, deep, like there’s real things happening off-screen you’ll never know about. This book does not feel real at all.

This review has seemed pretty negative so far, but I didn’t hate this book by any means. I enjoyed it–it was a fun, light read (not exactly a great thing to say about apocalyptic fiction, I guess) but it just wasn’t memorable. I did like the characters, and I loved most of the spaceship chapters. But there was no wow factor. I feel like I’ll look at this book in two months and think, “what the heck was this about?”

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

142/175 Books

18/35 Series Books

47/50 TBR Books

18/15 Different Countries

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