Tag Archives: short stories

Favorite Books of 2017

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2017 Wrapup: Part II

13 Jun

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 90/200

Goal Books: 84

Impulse Reads: 6

Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part II

4 May

I am almost on time with my final wrapup this month. So proud. Actually I had 3 instead of 2 for April (Part I and Dewey’s) so it’s okay that this is not bang on the first of the month. April ended up being a pretty great reading month: 22 books finished! Of course that was with the huge boost Dewey’s gave me. Last year I was regularly doing 20+ a month without readathons, I wonder what happened? Oh, I know: in 2016 I spent part of each day reading (as opposed to my usual, only-before-bed habit) and in 2017 I’ve been playing so many video games. The 100 hours I’ve sunk into Persona 5 could be, like, 40+ books read but what fun would that be.

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Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. Finished April 16th. Sometimes I’ll be really enjoying a book, and suddenly come to a part where you can see the seams coming undone. It begins to drift further and further from what I want it to be, until I wind up at a hot mess of an ending. Sadly, that happened with Perfect Little World: a book with a lot of potential that somehow manages to squander every one of its interesting premises.

I’ll start with the good, because I really don’t want to be massively negative about this. I gave it 3 stars, after all! And that is mostly because of how much I enjoyed the first 2/3rds or so. PLW is about the ‘Infinite Family Project,’ where ten families (9 sets of parents and one single mom, Izzy, our main character) raise their children communally. It sounds like a hippie commune, but it’s led by a child psychologist and funded by a billionaire. So it’s a really scientific commune! With a premise like that, you expect one of two things: a really annoying utopia, or a utopia-turned-dystopia narrative. Thankfully, PLW skirts the border between the two and gives us a story grounded in humanity.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not the wreck the reader (and the outside world in the novel) expect. Sure, there is tension and not all the parents get along. Sure, our main doctor has a host of issues from his parent’s bizarre choices when raising him. Sure, the woman funding the project is really, really old. But for the most part, it presents a nuanced and mainly positive spin on the idea.

However… I had a lot of issues. Many of them I could have overlooked had the ending not been so terribly trite, rushed, and sappy. For instance, our main character Izzy is so annoying. She’s perfect. Perfect grades in school (literally), she’s good at everything she does, she’s beautiful, she’s kind. Kevin Wilson tries to balance her away from being a Mary Sue with a tragic backstory (ironically one of the trademarks of a Mary Sue) and her strange sense of aloofness. Izzy doesn’t like being close to people. She comes off very holier-than-thou yet incredibly boring at the same time. But she’s a decent narrator when she is not talking about herself, so the whole book is not through this “woe is me, poor damaged but perfect girl” lens.

I think the moment I realized I was not going to love this book was when Izzy started falling for the doctor leading the project (this is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the prologue). I actually said “oh god really? We’re going there?” when it happened. It’s SO TRITE. Only single woman on the project, only single man, both are damaged by ~rough childhood~, of course they end up together. I though Izzy was actually going to get the “you know what? I don’t need a man” narrative which I would have really respected. Instead it’s so chick-lit-y and sappy and bleh.

The last half of the book feels very rushed. We get quite a few pre-IFP chapters with Izzy, and the intro chapters to the project itself are quite long. And after that, every year in the IFP is only one chapter, with some of them being quite short (like 20 pages short). It’s so rushed! We don’t get the in-depth look at either the children’s development or the parental relations. A LOT of these chapters are spent on Izzy at art school (a plot that goes nowhere because she doesn’t even want to be an artist, sigh).

And the ending! Oh god. It’s so sappy and wrapped in a bow. I was really disappointed in it, mainly because it doesn’t fit at all what we are told about the family & children. Literally makes no sense in its own universe, which is one of the worst things you can do with an ending.

I do think this book had a lot of potential. I think Wilson was too smitten with Izzy as a character, and needed to cut that cord badly. The book should have had a different narrator every year (we follow a different set of parents, for example) and should have been much longer (or the intro chapters should have been cut). Too much of this novel felt like useless fluff to the narrative, and we were left with so little meat on the bone.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone Illustrated, by J. K. Rowling. Finished April 17th. I mean, it’s Harry Potter, what is there to say? I got the illustrated versions of books 1 & 2 for Christmas, and it felt like the perfect time to read them. I actually haven’t re-read the first book in… many years! Let me tell you, I have re-read 3 through 7 dozens of times (no exaggeration) but I tend to skip the early novels on my re-reads. Mostly because they just don’t have enough meat on them.

But I was surprised at how much of Sorcerer’s Stone becomes important down the line. So many hints and nudges toward the final reveals. It’s clear that Rowling had a really tight gameplan from the very beginning. Still far from my favorite of the series, but I really appreciated it more this time around.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marlena, by Julie Buntin. Finished April 18th. I always find it hardest to discuss books I adored. If it’s a book I hate, there’s lots to talk about. If it’s a middle of the road book, it’s easy to point out both the flaws and the positives. But when I want to do nothing but gush? I find that a lot harder, since I want to avoid spoilers but I also want to do nothing but talk about how much I adored it. Which isn’t that interesting, usually. Yet here we are.

I am a sucker for the toxic female friendship trope. It’s usually done well enough, but I so rarely find a book that really nails that heady, teenage-friendship-gone-wrong feeling I am looking for. Last year’s Girls on Fire was close but no cigar, and I was a bit worried Marlena would be in that YA-trying-to-be-adult niche that just… it doesn’t work. Pick a side, don’t mix the two! Thankfully, Marlena is head and shoulders above pretty much every other book I’ve read in this micro-genre.

I think the thing that makes it so great is that our narrator, Cat, is telling her story as an adult. She is fully grown and reflecting back on her brief but bright-burning friendship with Marlena, her beautiful but troubled next door neighbor. Her life is still clearly affected by her months with Marlena, which is a touch I adored. So often characters go through trauma and then end up totally fine as adults (or have some stupid single flaw like ~can’t stay in one place~). Adult-Cat is an alcoholic, an issue that clearly starts when she begins drinking with Marlena.

While this is a book about teen girls, it is not at all fluffy or frivolous or lacking in depth. It tackles some really serious issues, and Cat’s adult voice adds a layer of gravitas to the tale. Plus, we know right off the bat that Marlena dies after Cat knows her for less than a year. This is a tragedy, pure and simple. There’s really no bright light in the darkness, and while the ending gives us a tiny glimmer of hope for adult-Cat it’s just bleak in general. At the same time, all the teenage dialogue and stupidity feels completely authentic. It’s really hard to write a book about teenagers without it feeling either childish or like an adult trying to be “hip” but Marlena is just… perfect.

I loved everything about this book. The writing was absolutely gorgeous, from the stunning opening line (“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”) to the poignant and bittersweet end. The characters are real and flawed and human. The story is compelling but never over-the-top or melodramatic. My only complaint is that I wanted it to be so much longer, I wanted my time in this story to never end.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Penric and the Shaman, by  Lois McMaster Bujold. Hugo Nominated Novella. Finished April 24th. The last Hugo-nominated novella! And for me, my least-favorite (though I did still give it 3 stars).

I think the most impressive thing about Penric and the Shaman is that it’s a sequel novella set in an already-established world but I went in blind and was never confused. The worldbuiling is handled so well, and there is enough recap of the main elements that I felt like I understood it by the end. I do wonder if that is tedious for a long-time reader, though! Are they just sitting there like “no shit there are 5 gods, move along now.”

It’s an interesting world for sure, especially the religion built around its gods. I always like when books do that (i.e Gentleman Bastards). There’s shamans, spirit walks, tons of animals, demons, priests, etc. But I wasn’t particularly riveted by the main plotline. It’s kind of a mystery–a murder mystery at first, and then a magic mystery. It becomes “how do the magic elements line up to solve this plotline?” Which I guess is a cool and unique device but… I just didn’t really care about the characters. Maybe because it’s a sequel and a lot of Penric & Desdemona character growth has already happened? They just felt a little flat to me.

It’s certainly not a bad novella, and I think I might have rated it higher if I hadn’t already read the rest of the Hugo novella nominees (which were all 5- or 4-star reads for me).

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Song of Susannah, by Stephen King. Finished April 24th. The penultimate Dark Tower book! And actually my least-favorite so far. That’s not to say I didn’t like it: I mean, I gave it 3.5 stars! But I found it too short and slow-paced. The entire 500+ pages take place in maybe 3 or 4 hours? It crawls through a very short section of time so not a whole lot could possibly happen.

We do get quite a few answers to questions that were raised in previous books, and there was one element in particular (that, apparently, is the most controversial aspect of the series!) I absolutely loved. But it just wasn’t as powerful as Wolves of the Calla or The Waste Lands, which were my favorites. So far. Fingers crossed I like the last book the best!

I think there is a common thread between all the books in the series I absolutely adored. They all feature the core 4 (Roland, Jake, Oy, Eddie, & Susannah) together. When they are separated/not together (like in Song or The Drawing of the Three) I like but don’t love them. Interesting!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfeg. Finished April 26th. I didn’t really love last year’s Booker-nominated Eileen, so it might seem a bit odd that I picked this up. But there were aspects of Eileen that I did enjoy (and, to be honest, I need to read a short story collection by a woman for Read Harder) so I decided to give Moshfeg a second chance.

First off: I think Moshfeg is incredibly pretentious and obnoxious as a human being, and I can’t help but let my perception of her affect my reading of her stories a bit. I kept finishing a story, thinking “okay so what was that about” and then realizing she probably thinks it was ~deep~ and ~meaningful.~ I had to actively stop myself from doing this because it was ruining the book for me. Pro tip: unless you’ve heard from others that an author is an awesome human, maybe don’t read interviews with them.

Like Eileen, these stories all focus on the sordid and dirty side of humanity. They are alternately disgusting, cringey, and gag-inducing. There’s a lot of poop and vomit and weird sex and eating disorders and drugs and squalor. But many of them seem more like chapters in a book than stories. They’ll start off interesting, and just kind of… end? Without anything really happening? It felt like reading a ton of opening chapters, but not in a fun If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler kind of way. It was boring and frustrating, which is not what I want from a story collection.

I’m being so negative, but I did not hate this. Moshfeg can indeed write, and I find her fascination with humanity’s disgusting side to be quite intriguing. Sometimes you find yourself identifying with a character and have to take a step back and just…. reconsider some of your life choices. There were a few standouts I will remember, but all in all this was a well written but poorly constructed collection I’ll soon forget.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Why God is a Woman, by Nin Andrews. Finished April 27th. This pose-poetry collection (isn’t it really more like flash fiction at this point? who decides what is prose-poetry? why is that even a category, if they are two separate things? so many random questions here) does what The Power really wanted to. It takes an inverted view of gender and uses this to discuss some very serious ideas & issues.

Why God is a Woman is a magical-realism “story” that takes place on an island where women are the dominant sex, and men sprout wings at puberty. The wings are obviously a metaphor for girls getting their period (the wings bleed as they come in, they have to wear cotton pads, it’s embarrassing and they are teased about it, etc) but they also are an interesting twist on women being the “flighty” sex. Almost every metaphor here works on two levels like this. There is a very obvious one and then a more subtle, insidious comparison to modern life and gender.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect collection. Some of it came off as a little too silly (like all the women in a town are named Angelina because they look like Angelina Jolie?) and some of it is a bit heavy-handed in its delivery. But overall I found this very enjoyable and it was basically what I wanted from The Power on a social commentary level.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The White Princess, by Philippa Gregory. Finished April 30th. So, Philippa Gregory is one of those authors who I insist I “just kind of like.” But I’ve read 11 of her books at this point, so who am I kidding? Some of them I unabashedly love (like The Constant Princess, which kickstarted my interest in historical fiction), some are bland, and others play a little too fast and loose with history for my liking. White Princess definitely falls into the latter category.

This is the story of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry Tudor and mother of Henry VIII. A very important historical figure! And we’ve seen her several times before in Gregory’s books (namely in the 3 they bunched together for the White Queen tv show). And there are some, ah, magical realism elements at play. Because, you know, maybe Elizabeth and her mother actually did have magical powers! It’s possible, right? But even giving her the “okay so there’s a weird death song they hear when a member of the family dies and they’re descended from a literal water goddess” thing, the amount of liberties taken with history are truly astounding.

For instance, there is no actual proof that Elizabeth had an affair with her uncle, Richard III. But here they were madly in love and she spends about half the book mourning him. And Richard of York, the prince who died in the Tower… probably died in the Tower. Yet here Gregory has decided that one of his many pretenders was actually the real Richard of York, smuggled out of the Tower in secret! And Henry Tudor rapes Elizabeth before their wedding, which there is NO HISTORICAL PROOF FOR. It’s kind of gross that it was included tbh.

So why 3 stars? Something about her books is like crack, guys. Historical fiction crack. I just can’t stop reading them, and I’ve actually read almost all of the Tudor/Cousin’s War books at this point. Might as well finish ‘em off, right?

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 71/200

Goal Books: 65

Impulse Reads: 6

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]

Reading Wrapup: January 2017

13 Feb

My reading got off to a rough start this year. I read less books in January of 2017 than I had in years! It was back in early 2015 that I had such a slow reading month… and back then, it was probably just my reading speed at the time. It was really a combination of things: winter blues, picking up some real chunkers (that I didn’t even finish in January!), and generally feeling like I wasn’t hitting my goals. I couldn’t settle on any one book, I was reading 5 at a time… it was a mess.

I decided in February to combat this by tracking my books not just by numbers and statistics, but by how meaningful they are for my challenges. And I realized that between my TBR, getting through ARCs and owned books, series challenges, and Read Harder, I was doing great! It made me feel so much better about my slow reading, and I’m almost back on track numbers wise. So for this year, I’ll be counting books by whether or not they fit a challenge at the end of these wrapups (unlike 2016, where I detailed each challenge individually).

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Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Finished January 6th. Watership Down is one of those books I read over and over again as a kid and young teen. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I have immensely fond memories of it. I wanted to start 2017′s reading off on a good note (plus, let’s be honest, I needed a re-read for the Read Harder challenge) and the timing just seemed perfect. There’s that BBC adaptation coming out this year, and it also felt like a fitting homage to the late Richard Adams to start my year off with him. I was a bit hesitant that it wouldn’t live up to my memories, though.

I shouldn’t have been! It’s a classic for a reason, and I definitely had a different experience reading it now as an adult. All of those folktales the rabbits tell to each other? SO much foreshadowing packed in there. As a kid I thought they were just cute/creepy stories, but it’s amazing how much meaning is shoved into those few pages. It felt so familiar to read but also fresh and new because I was picking up on all these nuances I’d missed previously.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera. Finished January 7th. This slim volume is absolutely packed with amazing elements. It’s a noir-inspired novel (novella?) about a go-between for two rival gangs. There are elements of Romeo & Juliet, and it’s set in Mexico during what seems to be a plague. It’s a violent, almost apocalyptic tale about family, grief, and loyalty.

The writing is fantastic. There are no quotation marks for speech, so you get sucked into the world immediately. It’s a brutal book, but also a hilarious one: our narrator is quite funny, and comes up with amazing nicknames for all the characters. It’s very clever, because the author can skip physical descriptions but you can instantly picture the person. For example, one of his neighbors is Three Times Blonde. You can picture that woman in your head immediately, right? It’s kind of brilliant.

Yet for some reason, all these fantastic elements added up to a “just okay” book for me. It’s really a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” because I have no idea why I didn’t love this. I think the length was perfect, the writing was amazing, the ideas were so cleverly executed, and it had moments of really deep contemplation. Why didn’t I adore it?! No clue, really. If it sounds like something you’re interested in I really would recommend this, I just didn’t find it entirely engaging.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra. Finished January 9th. I love poetry, and I tend to be drawn to the weirder, quirkier side of the genre. Do most reviews go “this is really weird?” Then it’s for me! And what’s stranger than this, a book of poetry formatted like a multiple-choice test.

It’s an interesting choice of format, because it allows Zambra to do a lot in a slim volume. Because each ‘poem’ is multiple choice, the reader is given different ways to read it: sometimes as few as 1, sometimes as many as 10. So the same poem means a lot of different things depending on your choice. It also stirs up some nostalgia, because I think 99% of readers will have taken one of those annoying state-sponsored tests before. So it’s a familiar format, but the content is so fresh and innovative.

Of course none of that would matter if the writing itself sucked. But obviously it doesn’t! There are actual storylines and themes, which I’ll be honest–I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was just going to be a cute format with maybe not so much substance, but these poems pack an emotional punch. Some of them are political, but many are personal… and a real punch to the gut. Highly recommended for anyone who likes poetry–I also think this might be a good jumping-in point if you want to read poetry, because it’s really interactive and easily keeps your attention.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Six Four, by Hideo Yokohama*. Finished January 10th. This is the slowest of slow-burn mystery novels. In a way, it’s barely even about a mystery. Sure, we focus in on the Six Four kidnapping, a 14-year-old case that has never been solved. But our protagonist, Mikami, is not a detective: he works in Administrative Affairs dealing with the press. As such, there’s a lot about media relations and the day-to-day tedium of his work. Oh, and Mikami also has a missing child who has been classified as a runaway, and he worked on the Six Four case when it happened.

There are a lot of overlapping threads here, but for most of the book the central mystery is on the backburner. 80% of the chapters are about his job, and how much he misses being a detective. I’m going to be brutally honest: I think this book should have been 300 pages shorter. The middle is a real struggle to get through. I absolutely did not care about Mikami’s job and whether or not they were going to release the name of a pregnant woman whose crime is totally irrelevant to our actual mystery. It could have been covered in 2 chapters, instead we get 400 pages of waffling over it and all the ensuing drama.

I almost gave up on this book several times. It felt like a real slog for the first 450 or so pages: just chapter after chapter of police drivel about things I didn’t care about. His missing daughter is barely mentioned. Politics seem more important than solving the case. And almost every character has a name that starts with M, which gets hella confusing! Thankfully, there is a reason for that last part (and it’s really cool).

So far I have just been complaining, but I did give this book a decent score. That’s because the ending is totally amazing. About 80% of the way in a really big event happens and the book picks up tremendously. I was amazed at how so many of the threads came together: it was artfully done. It was also a really satisfying ending, one where you’re shocked but it doesn’t feel like the author did it just for the shock factor. It’s so carefully crafted. But still… this book is way too long and tedious, I feel like most readers won’t have the dedication to tough out the beginning/middle for the amazing end. Worth it if you’re into really slow-burn crime fiction and are willing to make the journey.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shelter, by Jung Yun. Finished January 10th. I have seen Shelter described as many things: a crime novel, a mystery, even as a thriller. I think those descriptions do a disservice to the book, though. Sure, it centers around a crime, but there is very little mystery (we find out what happened & who did it very early on) and zero thriller elements. This is, at its core, a family drama about trauma, grief, loyalty, and honor. It centers around our very flawed protagonist Kyung, who had a rough childhood and is very distanced from his parents. One day he finds his mother bloody and naked in his backyard, and is drawn back into their tangled life.

No one in this book is particularly likeable, even the victims. They all make bad (but realistic) decisions: like Kyung and his wife Gillian, who are almost half a million in debt on their house but go on small vacations they can’t afford every year anyway. Kyung in particular seems hell-bent on driving his life into the ground, and reading through his eyes is a frustrating experience. You just want to slap him and stop him from making a series of increasingly terrible decisions. But as in life, you just have to watch the trainwreck go by.

This book deals with some heavy topics (if you are sensitive to rape/domestic abuse I’d be cautious about reading this), but it handles them artfully and with sensitivity. And for a novel with no real mystery or plot drive (we’re basically just dealing with the aftermath of an attack) it’s such a page turner. I do think some of the turns it took near the end were a bit unrealistic/unexplained so I docked a star for that, but it’s a wonderful and sobering read.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Gunslinger, by Stephen King. Finished January 10th. For years I’ve wanted to read the Dark Tower series. I mean, I love Stephen King and have read about a third of his books (considering how many he has, this is an accomplishment), but why have I never touched this series? It’s hella intimidating, that’s why! 8 (7?) books growing larger and larger in length and everyone talks about how weird and complicated the world is.

Well, that’s true. It’s a very strange, very surreal world. And I’ll be honest, after this first book (and the next few haha) I have nooooo idea what the greater plot is or how the world functions. What even is the Tower? Who knows! But in a surprising twist, I don’t mind feeling like this. King is an amazing storyteller, and he lays the main plot of The Gunslinger out perfectly. Even when you have no clue why things are happening, you know exactly what is happening. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think a lot of fantasy authors that go for “big complicated world we throw the reader into” fall flat on their faces. The Gunslinger is complex and confusing, but at the same time the main plot is simple and easy to digest. Weird, right? And I have a feeling things are just going to keep getting weirder…

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Finished January 12th. Like everyone else who has read this book, once I finished it I immediately wanted to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Thankfully, about 2 hours later I realized it was a terrible idea because I’m kind of fond of my toenails and I enjoy having more than one pair of underwear.

This is the story of a very flawed woman who does something truly insane to find herself. A lot of the complaints about Wild seem to be about Cheryl herself: so if you don’t like flawed protagonists, people who make stupid mistakes and consistently do the wrong thing, this is not for you. If you want a morally straight heroine to root for? Not for you. This is, of course, strengthened by the fact that Cheryl is real. The mistakes, the drugs, the sex, it’s all real. This is a real woman who made some insane decisions, and the reader is just along for the ride. But if you want adventure, that sense of wide-eyed wonder, the cleanliness of a fresh start? It’s a wonderful book.

I don’t usually enjoy memoirs because let’s be honest: the writing is often very middle-of-the-road. Thankfully, Wild is immersive and beautifully written. Cheryl Strayed’s descriptions of the trail are breathtaking, and she is very frank and honest about her life decisions. Some of the scenes here (especially the horse-shooting one) will stick with me for a very long time. I was so involved in the story I didn’t want to do anything but read this book!

It’s certainly not a perfect memoir: there was a little too much off-the-trail content and I do wish it was a little longer, but it was absolutely one of the best I’ve ever read in the genre. If you like survival-themed stories and don’t usually read nonfiction, I think this is a great jumping-in point for the genre.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

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The Twilight Wife, by A.J. Banner. Finished January 14th. This is a stupid book and I feel stupid for reading the whole thing. Have you read Before I Go to Sleep? Then you’ve read this book too. The plot is a weak copy-cat of a book I didn’t even like to start with!

Actually, this book does one thing better than BIGtS: the atmosphere is really great. Our main character is a marine biologist and it takes place on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of foggy, rainy beach scenes and some interesting tidbits about marine life. It was moody and dreary and evocative.

Everything else? Terrible. Plot: woman with amnesia has a husband she ~doesn’t trust~ oooh original! Oh, and it’s both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, which… is impossible. I mean, it’s a bit more believable than the “I only remember 24 hours” of BIGtS, but it’s just so been there done that. Suspicious lack of memories of her husband? Romantic memories of a man who isn’t her husband? Strange doctor visits? A suspicious therapist? The ability to recall memories at a convenient point in the plot? False suspense based on constant memory loss? Friends who won’t be truthful? Yeah… you’ve probably read this book before.

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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Five Stories High, edited by Jonathan Oliver. Finished January 16th. This year, I’m trying to stop all of the impulse-reading I do. Sticking only to my owned but not read/tbr books. Because usually impulse reads are shit (see: The Twilight Wife). But this… this was an amazing impulse read. When I read the synopsis I knew it was basically meant for me. 5 novellas by 5 authors about a house reminiscent of House of Leaves? Yes please.

I really loved this book. It’s a representation of the best that modern weird fiction can do. There’s a sense of unease that isn’t just from the individual stories: it’s truly the cohesive whole that makes this great. Because the stories don’t all fit together. They all take place in Irongrove Lodge, yes, but the timelines and layout of the house directly contradict each other. Yet we have in-between sections cataloguing the history of the house and our narrator assures us they are all true. Somehow, this house is in different places and different times in different shapes. As I said, very HoL!

Not all of the stories worked for me, which is the only reason this didn’t get 5 stars. I am absolutely obsessed with 3 of them (“Maggots,” “Gnaw,” & “Skin Deep”), and I enjoyed the bizarro-style “The Best Story I Could Manage Under The Circumstances.” But I felt like “Priest’s Hole” wasn’t as strong either thematically or writing-wise to stand up to the other 4. It was honestly pretty forgettable, while the other stories are so memorable (though in different ways). But really, that’s my only complaint! And “Priest’s Hole” isn’t a bad story by any means, it’s just not quite on the level of the others.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder. Finished January 18th. This book was a pleasant surprise. I think I was expecting more shock-horror based on the summary (which I’m not a huge fan of), but I’d seen so many positive reviews (and I can’t resist thrillers set in Japan) so I decided to give it a go. Well, friends, this is not at all shock-horror, so if a book about Nanking freaks you out don’t fear: there’s no gratuitous violence. In fact, there’s little violence at all… though when it does happen, it’s very effective.

This is a dual-narrative thriller/horror about a young woman obsessed with a video shot during the Rape of Nanking. The other timeline follows the past of man who has the video, but doesn’t want to give it up. While the violence in Nanking is obviously the theme that ties these two together, there’s a lot going on: hostess bars, a possibly haunted and decaying mansion in Tokyo, the yakuza, and a potential immortality potion. Our main character has a strange and traumatic past, there’s a psychotic murderous nurse… good stuff all around. It may seem like a lot to shove into a book just over 300 pages long, but it works so effectively. Mo Hayder is a very skilled storyteller: the themes in both narratives fit together perfectly, and the pacing was fantastic.

My main complaint probably seems very strange, and possibly callous: I was expecting the final reveal of what’s on the tape/what happened to be WAY worse than it was. This is potentially because I’ve read a lot about real-world tragedies, so I was kind of expecting it to be the most horrible thing that had ever happened in human history or some nonsense like that. I mean, it is terrible (and based on something that actually happened in Nanking) and shocking but… maybe I’m just immune to how terrible humans are. I spent the whole book kind of tensing up in preparation for the ending, but I think there were scenes in the “main” present-day narrative that were far worse? Or at least more effective horror: it’s definitely a scary book.

If you like psychological thrillers but are tired of the endless copy-paste “woman in danger” narrative that is tossed around in today’s publishing world, this might be a book for you. It’s very fresh-feeling. Or if you like wartime historical fiction, books set in China/Japan, slow creeping horror… really, it’s a novel with broad appeal.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Black Feathers, edited by Ellen Datlow*. Finished January 25th. From a young age, I’ve been obsessed with corvids, especially crows and blue jays. I am especially fond of fictional birds and stories that revolve around them, so I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the cover. Creepy crows, plague masks, and edited by the always-wonderful Ellen Datlow? Yes please.

As you would expect in a horror collection about birds, this is a slow and moody read. The stories really get under your skin: even when there are no wow-horror moments, they are all very unsettling and unnerving. You just feel uneasy reading them. Don’t come into this expecting the horror to be spoon-fed to you: most stories have very open endings, and there are very few actual ‘explanations’ for the strange events and creatures we encounter. It’s a style I really love, but I don’t think it will be for everyone. If you want answers and monsters shoved into the light, look elsewhere.

The stories I loved the most were all by authors I know and adore already: Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, Jeffrey Ford, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn. It’s a great whose-who of modern weird fiction. There were, of course, stories I didn’t love: this will be true in almost any collection, though! I’m sure the ones I would cut out of the collection are ones another reader will adore. And I think there’s a little something for every type of horror reader here: historical horror, weird fiction, gothic fantasy, etc. I do recommend reading them spaced out (1-2 a day) because the theme can make them feel a bit same-y if you speed read through it.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Silence, by Shūsaku Endō. Finished January 27th. This is a classic piece of Japanese fiction that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. I’ve owned a copy for probably 10 years, but for some reason I never picked it up. Even though everything about it seems like something I’d love: Japanese literature set during one of my favorite time periods and featuring Jesuit priests. Yet I was intimidated: it’s that “classics” tag, I think. I view classics as these huge, imposing works that I have to love or else. Which is stupid, because then I just end up making them too big in my head and end up never reading them or finding them disappointing.

And, kind of sadly, Silence didn’t totally live up to my expectations. I still enjoyed it, but I think taking 6+ days to read it (I was doing about a chapter a day) made the reading experience suffer. Because this is a slow book: it’s slim, but there’s little action and the majority is discussions between the very small cast. Or traveling across Japan all alone. Of course, the core of the book is in these slow, sad moments. It’s about religion, obviously, but it also touches on other themes like our purpose in life and losing a sense of hope and optimism. So it’s both slow and very depressing. I like to inhale books like that in one or two sittings, so maybe it’s my own fault that I didn’t love this.

There were many things I did love, of course. Certain moments felt so true and real and raw. Some of the revelations were touching. And I don’t think you have to be at all religious to enjoy this (I’m certainly not!): though it’s a core theme, nothing is ever preachy, and it’s as much about culture clash and persecution as it is about any specific religious concept.

I think the first section and the ending parts are the strongest. The middle drags a little and many of the scenes feel very same-y. I wanted a little more character development from our side people, and maybe a little less introspection from the main priest.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 12/200

Goal Books: 9

Impulse Reads: 3

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

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]

November Reading Wrapup: Part II

13 Dec

As I mentioned previously, November was a pretty meh reading month for me. Sure, I got a decent amount of books finished off, but a lot of them were just so-so (or outright negative reading experiences). In fact, I only loved a handful of books this month… and almost all of them were in the first half of November. Towards the end of the month things did pick up but man, I really think this is the worst reading month I had all year!

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The Merciless, by Danielle Vega. Finished November 15th. This book is all fluff and no substance, and reads more like a movie script than a novel. I actually do think it will make a great movie, like a slasher version of Mean Girls. I mean, that’s basically what this is. Girl moves into new town, is taken in by the hot popular girls, participates in the ostracization of the weird loner, falls in love with handsome boy. Only this time the mean girls are a psychotic Christian cult and the loner girl may or may not be skinning cats behind the bleachers.

It’s definitely an odd book. It’s hard to place who it was written for: given the high gore level (tame compared to some of the stuff I read, but very high for YA) I assumed it was more adult-minded… like My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is a book about teens and exorcism and weird violence but has themes that resonate with many readers and writing that’s clearly aimed at an older audience. But so much about this book is juvenile: there’s little to no characterization, the writing is painfully repetitive and simple, the dialogue is stiff, the relationships seem forced. Signs that you’re reading a YA novel, right? But the content is definitely NOT for young teens.

You really have to suspend belief for this book to be halfway effective. Can you imagine, in this day and age, the popular girl group at a public school being crazy devout Christians and baptizing people in bathrooms? No. Somehow I can accept exorcisms and people possibly being possessed by the devil but the idea that a group of teens would be like, “yes, this exorcism sounds like a GREAT IDEA” while also being super hot and popular and appearing totally sane? Nah.

I think the core ideas are good. It’s a very cinematic book, and had potential. But there were a ton of issues! Sofia, our main girl, knows the main girls all of like 4 days before the main events happen. The opening section should have taken place over weeks or months so we feel like she trusts them and they trust her. And why was there a random relationship crammed in there that had nothing to do with the plot? Because teen girls love a good romance? I was a teen girl and let me tell you, if it’s a book about blood and guts I didn’t want to read about making out in between the gore.

The ending definitely redeems it a bit, and while I was not invested at all I’m almost tempted to read the sequel. It’s honestly pretty badly written but was still enjoyable, in that “page-turner thriller every chapter ends on a cliffhanger” bubblegum sort of way. It’s also incredibly short (just over an hour’s read for me) so it’s not a huge time investment. I think readers who like YA would appreciate this more.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb. Finished November 21st. I initially meant to start this trilogy in December. For the first time, I’m reading a Hobb series while it’s in publication, and we aren’t getting the last book until March. So basically, I wanted to end the year on it so it wouldn’t feel like such a long wait. But this was just chilling on my Kindle and I felt inexplicably drawn to it. I’m a heavy mood reader, so off I went back to the Six Duchies! Side note: why is Fitz white on every single cover? Because in the book world, he’s clearly… not. But that’s a topic for another post.

This is the third trilogy featuring Fitz, and the fifth overall in the Elderlings series. I read all of them this year and I became a passionate fan very quickly. There’s just something about Hobb’s writing, world, and characters… even in slow moments (which, to be honest, is 85% of this book at least) it’s so compelling and comfortable feeling. It’s like being with family! The same kind of warm fuzzies I get from Harry Potter & Dresden Files. Which is basically the highest compliment.

But this was not my favorite of her books. Sure, it was a great read, but it was like that slow middle section of the last Farseer book… for 600 pages. Very slow-paced, little happens, and it seems to be mostly a setup book. There are moments of strong tragedy that are like a shock to the system after all that calm slice-of-life stuff, and I think the dark tone of the ending is really setting the stage for the next two books.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. Finished November 23rd. Aickman is one of the godfathers of modern horror, and while you often see story collections influenced by Poe, Ligotti, and Lovecraft (or even modern authors like Laird Barron!), it’s rare to read straight Aickman-inspired fiction, which is what drew me to this collection.

The mood of this collection is so dreary and unsettling, as you’d expect. The stories are inspired more in terms of tone and pacing than style and setting, which I enjoy: I don’t want to read Aickman fanfiction, but stories that feel like they belong in his world. Which these definitely do! But that’s also kind of a downside and what kept this from a higher rating even though the stories were all high quality. Aickman stories tend to never really explain their horror… or really give any sort of definitive conclusion. And all of these stories follow that path. Lots of buildup, lots of spooks, little emotional payoff. It’s not exactly a frustrating experience but it is like literary blue balls. I mean, it’s totally perfect for what it is, but you need to really be in the mood for some unexplainable fiction.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Witch’s Market, by Mingmei Yip. Finished November 25th. This is a strange little book that’s hard to describe. It’s about a woman doing anthropology fieldwork about witches on the Canary Islands, and she has a history of witchcraft in her own family. Sounds fascinating, right? And all of those elements, the Chinese folklore and witch myths, are great. SO many tidbits and pieces of history.

But the writing style just doesn’t match up with the content, which is a problem I’ve rarely encountered. It’s written like chick-lit or a fluffy romance. Very simplistic, with a focus on mundane details and (of course) the looks of everyone around our heroine. It’s not bad writing, it’s just really solidly mediocre. The premise is literary fiction, the writing is not. It’s so strange!

I think most people wouldn’t really enjoy this book. If you want chick-lit, the premise is way too esoteric (and the book actually turns into a murder mystery with ghosts, no joke). If you want literary fiction, it’s unbearably fluffy. But I have a degree in anthropology and a lifelong obsession with mythology, so I really enjoyed all of the information presented here, both real and made-up. I don’t think I would ever recommend this to anyone, but I did enjoy reading it.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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H.P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries, by S. T. Joshi. Finished November 26th. This is an interesting mix of coffee table book and biography. As such, it doesn’t give you a intensely detailed look into Lovecraft’s life and works, but has tons of interesting facts along with fascinating reproduced documents. Everything from the astronomy journal he printed as a child to a handful of letters he wrote to his will and death certificate. And the real illustration of Cthulhu! Most of his stories are also discussed, with insights into how and why they were written. Though obviously, huge spoilers if you haven’t read all of his stories.

While I loved 99% of the book, I found the last chapter (which discusses Lovecraft’s impact on the literary scene) a bit lacking. For example, Joshi states that Stephen King is kind of the anti-Lovecraft (in terms of writing style) and really only has one Lovecraftian story. Anyone who knows King knows that Randall Flagg is literally Nyarlathotep, and there are dozens of Lovecraft references peppered throughout his books and stories. So… that was kind of weird. But very worth reading if you’re a Lovecraft fan.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb. Finished November 27th. This was a big improvement over the first book! Hoenstly there’s not a lot more action, but it feels like more happens. There’s a lot more meaningful dialogue between characters, and it’s a lot less exposition-focused than Fools’ Assassin.

The main improvement is that, of course, our two main characters are finally together again! They were apart for 90% of FA and you spend a long time just waiting for them to come together. And, like Malta in the Liveship books, I went from hating a character from the first book (Shun) to growing rather fond of her… though I have mixed feelings about what happened to her character.

I’ve never had to wait for a Hobb book so the 4 months between now and the finale are going to be absolute agony.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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American Hunger, by Eli Saslow. Finished November 29th. I am a serious food stockpiler. I have enough food in my apartment to last my husband and I a month, probably 2, maybe 3 if we really stretched (in case the zombie apocalypse happens, we are ready!). Boxes of pasta, bags of rice and beans, tomato sauces and tuna cans, mac n cheese, pasta- and rice-a-roni, a freezer full of dumplings, chicken thighs, and sausage, tons of imported ramen… just a LOT of food. And the thing is, this is not insanely expensive. It’s not something I spend a lot of time or money on. We’re on a budget, and our food one is often tight, but I like to feel secure about our eating future. But for so many people in America, cupboards stocked with cheap food is literally an impossible dream.

This is kind of a soul-crushing series of articles. I know there’s poverty in America, and like most “middle class” people I deal with periods where things are very tight, often uncomfortably so. But I’ve never stopped and thought about the families who literally can’t feed their children. The ones who rely on school meals and when summer break hits the panic sets in. The families who can only afford/have access to cheap crap so they have obese kids who are starving and suffering from malnutrition. The mothers who have to chose between milk and cereal because they can’t afford them both. This book is about those people, the ones we try not to think about, the millions of suffering Americans who have it rougher than I’d imagined.

I think it’s a very important read and, thankfully, it is wonderfully written. The tone is compelling, the information and facts presented seamlessly within the narrative of these families. I was so intrigued by this that I immediately read another book on the subject, and have quite a few more in the queue. Highly recommended.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. Finished November 30th. For some reason, after the soul-crushing American Hunger I thought to myself, “let’s read more depressing books about poverty!” And boy is this one a doozy. It’s about the section of America that literally lives on $2 a day–not $2 for food, $2 for every human necessity. It’s something that should be impossible in a 1st world country, yet here we are. After reading this book (and living through the election) I just… America kind of sucks.

This is a great, informative book, but the writing wasn’t nearly as good as American Hunger. I think this actually suffered in my mind because I read them back-to-back. The style here is very to-the-point, and while it follows 8 families below the $2 a day poverty line, you only get a surface level understanding of their lives. I mean, you know their circumstances intimately by the end, but I never knew them as people. For example, one of them is a woman who, in her late 20′s, got into a relationship with a 16 year old boy who ended up being physically abusive. But doesn’t that kind of…. make her a predator? 28-year-old women should not date teens. You get the impression that she is perhaps a little slow, but we don’t get enough information (especially emotional details) to really understand how she ended up in that situation.

I don’t really expect amazing narration from nonfiction, so I can’t dock it too many points for that. Everything else? Fantastic. So much research and information is presented to the reader, but so much of it stuck with me just because of the absolute shock factor. Along with American Hunger, this really changed my perspective on poverty in America.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Springtime, by Michelle de Kretser. Finished November 30th. I was drawn to this slim little novella by the cover. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover, and this (along with the ‘A Ghost Story’ subtitle) was impossible to resist. I mean, where can I buy that dress? Because I want it. And maybe the dog too.

This is a hard book to describe. It is a ghost story… kind of. Much of the character’s inner dialogue focuses on how important small details are, and how misleading a story can seem. And this is referenced, of course, directly in the plot itself. It’s an incredibly tricky little book that on the surface appears quite simple. I think it would benefit from a re-read… and it’s one of those books I honestly wish I read in a classroom. I feel like you need some meaty discussion to really understand all the moving parts.

Unfortunately, while the complicated narrative is super interesting, almost nothing else is. The plot seems quite mundane (even with a ghost) and the characters rather dull. I wanted more from this than what I got.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

246/175 Books

27/28 Series Books

66/50 TBR Books

26/15 Different Countries

November Reading Wrapup: Part I

13 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

LipstickRating1And1Half

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

237/175 Books

25/35 Series Books

66/50 TBR Books

24/15 Different Countries

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

October Reading Wrapup: Spooktober Part II

2 Dec

The all-horror marathon continued in the second half of October! And thankfully it picked up a bit, because I was a bit slow in the first half. I never used to get in book slumps but I’ve found it happening every few months this year. I’m not really sure why, but I get in moods where I don’t want to read or none of the books I pick up hold my interest. It’s never very hard for me to get out of it, but it’s annoying as hell. I had SO many more books on my Spooktober TBR that I didn’t get to! But I did Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon again. The April one was more successful for me, (I read the same number of books both times–6–but far more pages in April) but I was very happy with the progress I made this time.

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Let The Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Finished October 22nd. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for ages. It’s a modern classic in the horror genre, and I love all the various takes on vampires we’ve been getting. So why didn’t I read it sooner? No clue. But I think the hype might have hurt this a little bit for me because it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

In many ways, this is an incredibly effective piece of horror. The characterization is fantastic, especially with our main character Oskar who is incredibly complex, and the vampire Eli. I loved their interactions and creepy/cute relationship: it read very much like a true-to-life vampire story rather than the romanticized plots we often get in this genre. The push/pull between them is absolutely the highlight of the novel for me.

As in many good horror books, this has classic horror elements but the real terror comes from humanity. Eli’s keeper/protector is a pedophile and the scenes in his head, while not overly graphic or exploitative, are so distressing. There is a group of boys picking on Oskar and any of those scenes was hard to read as well, because both of these things (child abuse and bullying) happen crushingly often in real life. Many of the characters’ relationships are also tragic: the drunk dad who Oskar wants to believe in but always lets him down, the teenager who hates his stepdad and feels like he is losing his mother, the lovers who would just could never make it work and always end up apart. It’s the sadness and tragedy of the real life, magnified. You barely even need the vampire element for all of these elements to do their job.

But there are vampire elements… a lot of them. I was actually taken aback at how gruesome and violent this book gets. Some of it is incredibly chilling and well-done, but I felt like other scenes were done purely for shock factor. It was a little TOO much in a book that didn’t need so much gore. I think the shock factor would have been more pronounced if these scenes were more spread out: they lost their effectiveness after the 20th “gross out” moment in 100 pages. I did love the more realistic vampire moments, but a lot of others just felt forced (especially the cat one, you know what I’m talking about if you read it).

I also thought there were a few too many characters and plotlines. We have tons of POV characters and one of the storylines (Tommy/Steffan) could have been cut completely without losing anything. It felt a bit bloated, especially towards the end when everything came together in a pretty halfhearted way. The Eli/Oskar/Hakan/bullies and Lacke/Virginia storylines were all this really needed.

It’s better for a book to have too much instead of not enough, but at the end of the day it just felt bloated. I found the first half far more effective and memorable (except for a few end Eli scenes).

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, by Peter Clines. Finished October 22nd. As a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. I read each at least a dozen times, and wanted to get shipwrecked on a deserted island. It all seemed terribly romantic and probably sparked my lifelong love of survival stories. I’m also a massive Lovecraft fan, an author I discovered a few years after my Robinson/Swiss obsession but read just as many times. Add in Peter Clines, who wrote one of my favorite comedy-horrors 14, and what could go wrong? Nothing, that’s what.

I think this is really only a book you should read if you’ve read and loved both Robinson Crusoe and Lovecraft’s major works. It’s a mashup novel, so it takes the basic plot of RC and reimagines it: what if he landed on a strange Lovecraftian island full of terror? And just for fun, what if he was a werewolf too? Turns out werewolves do NOT like Cthulhu. At all.

The key elements of the book (detailed logs of survival methods, a sense of hope despite the bleak circumstances) are kept intact, as are the Lovecraftian plot points (cultists! fish people! monsters in the waves! ia! ia!). They mesh surprisingly well, and Clines adds in tons of unexpected twists and turns. There are so many subtle Lovecraft references that any fangirl or fanboy will be incredibly happy. And while all the elements are classic and well-trod, there are some events you absolutely do not see coming. And yes, the werewolf thing fits in perfectly. In fact, I think that makes it a much better book, even though at first glance you’d probably think, “okay, that’s way too much.”

I 100% can’t be objective about this book because I love all of the elements. It seriously feels like this was written for me. Sure, the writing is old-fashioned, the plot slow, the inner monologue of Crusoe repetitive. But all of these potentially negative elements are incredibly true to the original. For what this is, it’s perfect.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes. Finished October 22nd. The original Dracula is one of my favorite books, and one that I’ve read over and over again. I’m always drawn to retellings/reimaginings of the plot, so how could I resist Vlad? Dracula in Mexico City, where the crime is rampant and the police basically don’t care about missing people. It seems like the perfect fit–and it is, though I think that being the “plot summary” is a bit misleading.

There’s zero scenes of Dracula roaming around Mexico City. The entire novella is told from the perspective of Yves, a lawyer helping Vlad to buy a house with some very specific necessities… like blacked out windows and a drain in every room. Vlad finally finds his home and becomes very interested in Yves’ wife and daughter. It’s very much a play on the original Jonathan/Dracula/Mina scenario, though with an updated twist of course.

This is a short book, and I think that’s where it suffers for me. The original Dracula is so immersive, a world you can truly get lost in. Vlad is beautifully written and has moments of real horror (the scene with the daughters oh my god), but I never felt quite invested in it. I think that might be my own fault: this is definitely as much a critique of society in Mexico as it is a play on Dracula, and I came into it only looking for the latter. As social commentary it’s pretty scathing, but what I wanted from this was just different from what I got.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The October Country, by Ray Bradbury. Finished October 22nd. For October I really wanted to read some Halloween-feeling books, and what’s better than a short story collection by Bradbury with the month right in the title?

This is a melancholy collection, full of more sorrow than frights. While not every story hit the mark for me (when is that ever true in a collection, though?) I enjoyed the vast majority of them. And it was a really fun read for the month: I did a story a night for most of October, and it definitely added to the “seasonal” feel.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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X’s For Eyes, by Laird Barron. Finished October 22nd. If Bret Easton Ellis wrote Lovecraft fan fiction, it’d probably look a lot like this book. I tend to prefer Barron’s short stories to both his novels and novellas, and that holds true here, but it was still a rollicking romp through nightmare land. Secret corporations, espionage, demented children, cosmic horror, visceral violence, arctic exploration… and a lot more. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for Barron (any of his first 3 short story collections would be a much better introduction) but if you’re a fan it’s probably not to be skipped.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. Finished October 22nd. What is there to say about this book that has not already been said? It broke my heart. Again. This was actually a re-read for me during Dewey’s Readathon. I wanted to cap the night off with a beloved favorite, and I’ve had this sitting on top of my TBR pile for ages. But I wanted perfect “read before the movie” timing and it wasn’t going to get much better than this.

If you haven’t read this, you probably should. I think it has near-universal appeal in the way it deals with grief and loss. I cried the first time I read it, I cried the second time, I’ll probably sob like a little baby when I watch the movie. If you like books packed full of feels, or that whimsical/creepy vibe a lot of older children’s literature has, this cannot be missed.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Doom that Came to Gotham, by Mike Mignola. Finished October 23rd. Continuing my (apparent) Halloween theme of Lovecraft x Things I Love with a Batman crossover! Which really does seem quite natural considering that Batman has always had Lovecraft references in it (Arkham!).

This was a fun ride, and I think started off much stronger than it finished. The real problem is that there’s just SO much going on. We have every Bat-character under the sun: Batman, most of the Robins, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Penguin, Etrigan, Talia, Ras, Harvey Dent, Green Arrow… and that’s not even a comprehensive list. The story itself is a mashup of several Lovecraft tales, though it pulls most heavily from “At The Mountains of Madness.” There’s just too much story for 157 pages, at least half the cast/plot should have been cut.

Oddly enough, none of the Elder Gods are referred to by their real names, but are given “sound-alike” ones (Iog-Sotha instead of Yog-Sothoth, for example) which seemed like a weird choice given how many other authors just pull directly from the mythos without such changes. There are so many clever Lovecraft references that I think non-hardcore fans would miss (Mr. Freeze being given a Cool Air origin story, for example), and some of the villains are hard to guess if you’re not familiar with Batman, so it’s really something only fans of both will enjoy. Definitely worth the read if Batman x Lovecraft sounds appealing to you, but not as deep or interesting as it could have been.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas. Finished October 25th. You know the episodes of Supernatural that take place at their fan convention and are about the crazy fans? Imagine that level of snark and meta-ness… about a Lovecraft convention. But it’s also a murder mystery. Yeah, basically I Am Providence in an nutshell.

I kind of had a love-hate relationship with this book (though it was mostly love). It’s REALLY snarky, about both Lovecraft and the modern Lovecraftian fiction. Obviously this is meant to be satire, and since Mamatas writes in the genre it’s good-natured, but some of probably stings a little for avid Lovecraftian fans. Until you step back and say, “yeah, so you really have a point there.” At the same time, you have to be a huge fan of Lovecraft and modern mythos stuff for this book to be remotely enjoyable. So it walks a very thin line between “I love this book” and “I hate this book” for pretty much every reader, I’m sure… and I think that was 100% intentional. It’s clever and pretty brave to attempt something like this, and it was so much fun. Sure, the murder mystery itself isn’t that interesting, but the characters and mood were a blast.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Swift to Chase, by Laird Barron. Finished October 28th. Can we talk about this book cover? Because it’s perfect. Absolutely my favorite cover of the year.

It kind of kills me to not give a Laird Barron story collection 5 stars. I’m obsessed with his cosmos and his other 3 collections, and perhaps I would have enjoyed Swift to Chase a little more if I wasn’t such a fangirl. Which seems weird to say, right? But Swift goes in a very different direction than his previous work, and is more tonally in line with the novellas he’s been putting out. Darker, more violent, but with less oppressive cosmic horror and more of a grit-lit feel.

That’s not so say that he has totally dumped his previous cosmos. But this book feels like it was written in a world… adjacent to his previous ones. There are a few mentions of the Black Guide and the Leech, but Swift introduces different cosmic elements into play and they’re far more the focus of these stories. It doesn’t feel tightly knit together with his other stories… which makes sense, since in the introduction it’s mentioned that Swift will be part of a “new trilogy” of story collections.

I feel like I’m coming off quite negative! Don’t get me wrong, this is an amazing collection, and the later half in particular delivers all the creep and terror I want from a Laird Barron collection. I just feel like the first section is a bit weaker–though other readers seem to think it’s some of his best work, so don’t take my word for it!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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A Night in Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny. Finished October 31st. This was my October “project.” it’s a book with 31 chapters, one taking place on each night of October, and I read them one-a-day for the entire month. Okay, one day I fell asleep early and read 2 the following night, but other than that I was right on time! Which, I think, really enhanced the experience. This is a super quick read and quite short, so I don’t think I would have liked it as much if I breezed through.

Told from the point of view of a wizard (of sorts)’s familiar, who happens to be a dog, this is the tale of a Halloween Game. The reader doesn’t learn what the Game really is until the last few chapters: our narrator, Snuff, speaks to the reader and other characters as if we’re all equally in the know and never feels the need to explain anything. It’s clever, and everything comes together so seamlessly in the end. Plus, lots of guest appearances by famous horror characters and monsters! Most of the players in the Game are literary characters, though it takes a while to figure out who is what.

This is a really unique take on the comedy horror genre: most of the main characters are the animal familiars, rather than the actual players, and the perspective is drastically different because of that.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

 

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Greener Pastures, by Michael Wehunt. Finished October 31st. Somehow October went from “spooky book month” to “New Weird author month” in the last few weeks. Every time I went to rate a book Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures popped up and it was obviously a sign from the reading gods. Also I can’t stick to a set schedule of books and impulsively read anything that looks new and shiny, and boy oh boy was this looking shiny to me in October.

Thankfully, it’s one of the best things I read this month, probably only topped by The Fisherman (which is, like, top 5 of 2016 for me). Every story in here is a glimmering jewel of horror. Some stories are pure nightmare fuel, others are subdued and quiet horror, but they are consistently amazing. I don’t think there was a dud in the whole collection. And it switches tone so artfully: there’s everything from a House of Leaves inspired piece of metafiction to a love story riddled with body horror to a more traditional (but twisted) possession tale. A little something for everyone, but I think the appeal of most of them stretches way beyond the horror/new weird genre. If you like Laird Barron, John Langan, Paul Tremblay, or any of the writers in that circle this is a must read. Absolutely cannot recommend it enough.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

So as you can see, October was a very successful month for me! Not my best of the year, but close, and I had quite a few 5-star reads. Sometimes I worry that I’m a little too fast-and-loose with my star ratings because I know some people are VERY strict with them, but whatever, I try to rate based on how a book makes me feel. Not every 5-star book is equal in my heart, obviously, but it’s more a scale of enjoyment than “this is objectively amazing.” Because where’s the fun in that?

Reading Challenge Goals

230/175 Books

24/35 Series Books

63/50 TBR Books

24/15 Different Countries