Tag Archives: Stephen King

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.

30688013

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.

31752345

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.

30267890

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?

30763882

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.

19256975

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.

29906980

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.

30201327

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.

30341480

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.

marlena2.indd

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.

8889080

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!

30199417

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.

13456414

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.

30197853

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.

23444482

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.

34084

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.

29966530

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

 

 

 

33652490

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

 

 

 

30211990

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

 

 

 

92332

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

 

 

 

5091

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

 

 

 

18583265

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

 

 

 

34430839

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

 

 

 

30965707

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

 

 

 

20665580

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

 

 

 

22912016

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.

29229956

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

 

 

 

24490481

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

 

 

 

30199414

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

 

 

 

30365013

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

 

 

 

5093

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

 

 

 

30079724

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

 

 

 

23282006

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

 

 

 

12326627

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: April 2017 Part I

24 Apr

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

27403373

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

4978

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

31355127

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

33232722

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

26883558

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

30039062

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

24942688

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 56/200

Goal Books: 52

Impulse Reads: 4

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

Reading Wrapup: March 2017 Part II

20 Apr

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

28965131

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

30408033

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

31349579

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

30078108

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

25241463

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

12341557

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

27874165

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

30687788

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

32969045

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

28957241

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 49/200

Goal Books: 45

Impulse Reads: 4

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

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

21 Mar

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

30763882

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

5096

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

30183198

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

30211957

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

25106926

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

29751398

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

27845924

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

30201327

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

29498713

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

26127593

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

28363987

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

28636686

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 39/200

Goal Books: 36

Impulse Reads: 3

Reading Wrapup: Febraury 2017 Part II

2 Mar

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

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

25664501

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

34084

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

29248613

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

29242077

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

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

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

30267890

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

30304221

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 28/200

Goal Books: 25

Impulse Reads: 3

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.

13456414

 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

 

 

 

9555

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

 

 

 

402093

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

 

 

 

28962996

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

 

 

 

5094

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

 

 

 

23130354

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

 

 

 

27209193

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

 

 

 

29939268

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

 

 

 

25670396

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).

76620

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

 

 

 

31117054

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

 

 

 

28588315

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

 

 

 

26212641

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

 

 

 

25658832

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

 

 

 

43615

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

 

 

 

12262741

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

 

 

29562590

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

 

 

 

27276113

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

 

 

 

10942913

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

 

 

 

30334177

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

 

 

 

25200

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]

October Reading Wrapup: Spooktober Part I

16 Nov

I’m sorry this wrapup is so late, but October was a busy month… and November has been a rough one. After an action-packed few weeks I suffered from election hangover (both metaphorical and literal) but now I’m back on track! My November reading has suffered a little but this is about October, the spookiest month. For years I’ve wanted to do an all-horror reading month for Halloween and I finally did it in 2016! All horror, all month. It was a blast, though I am sure I’ll be tired of the genre for quite some time.

28273664

The Trespasser, by Tana French. Finished October 3rd. So this isn’t technically a horror novel, but 1) Tana French goes to the top of my TBR no matter the situation and 2) a lot of people consider crime/thrillers totally fine for a spooky book read. So, it counts! Technically.

I’m a massive Tana French fangirl. Eventually I’ll have a whole series of posts on her Dublin Murder Squad books, which this is the 6th book in. Suffice to say, it’s one of my favorite series, and Ms. French has basically ruined the mystery genre for me because I’ve never found anything nearly as good. And this one was, like all the others (except maybe Faithful Place which I didn’t love) fantastic. It’s a bit more by-the-books than some of her others at first glance: a deceptively simple case, characters we’ve already gotten to know well, and not-so-complicated relationships. But this is Tana French, so of course things get hinky. She plays with the unreliable narrator (which we haven’t really seen since In The Woods!), and our MC might be in actual, physical danger. The case itself isn’t as intriguing as some of the others, but the character development and writing are, as always, stunning.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

21518350

White, by Tim Lebbon*. Finished October 4th. Winter-themed horror is something I always want to love, but am constantly disappointed by. Snow, The Shuddering… it’s usually just bad. I mean, we also have stuff like At The Mountains of Madness, but modern “snow horror” tends to leave me feeling very un-spooked. I had middling success with Tim Lebbon’s The Silence and thought, “hey, that guy’s okay, let’s read some creepy snow stuff for Spooktober!”

This was an okay book. The bad guys (bad… entities? bad ghosts?) were inventive and certainly original. The snowy setting was quite effective: our main characters are snowbound in a remote mansion while they watch the world end on tv. They’re technically only 5 miles from town, but with the snow several feet deep getting there is an impossible task. Eventually, the tv and radio go out. What happened to the world outside? And what are the strange white creatures they’ve been seeing out of the corner of their eyes?

However, the length really hurts the mood and storytelling. It’s quite short, barely novella length. It’s easier to categorize this as a lengthy short story. And while the cast is small, I felt like we never really got to know anyone. A lot of time is spent setting up events: what’s happening now, what happened before. There’s little time for any character development or discoveries, and we find out literally nothing about the white things OR what happened outside. Which, in a longer book where we got more hints and ominous background information, would be fine. But I found this overall a frustrating read: it had a lot of potential, and I think there was way too much crammed into about 60 pages. It wasn’t a bad book, and it was an easy read, but it’s nothing I will look back fondly on.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

10588

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, by Stephen King. Finished October 10th. I love Stephen King, and I especially love his short stories. As the reigning king of horror, I of course had to read something by him this month, and short stories seemed the way to go. I’ve read many of his other collections (Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Everything’s Eventual) and loved all of them. This one, sadly, didn’t have as much of an effect on me.

There were gems, of course–I loved “Dolan’s Cadillac,” “Home Delivery,” and “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band.” But overall, I think only “Band” will stick with me: they were pleasant enough (well, not pleasant… you know what I mean) but not as spectacular and horrifying as his usual work.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

25774452

Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell. Finished October 11th. Novellas are always a tricky subject for me. There are quite a few I love (Diamond Dogs, Every Heart a Doorway, This Census-Taker) but usually I am left wanting. It’s very hard to strike a balance of decent characters and worldbuilding and a contained plot in such a short page count without it feeling like an overly long short story or a too short novel. To me, a novella has to feel like a full story even if it’s part of a series and basically setting up a world.

This comes SO close to being that perfect balance for me. The urban fantasy world that’s set up is very interesting: it’s not totally unique (town on the border of magical realms has been done nearly to death) but it’s handled in a clever way that felt fresh and not derivative. There’s certainly a ton of room for expansion here, and it’s clearly meant to be the first in the series. But… that’s also kind of my problem. It very much feels like “first novel, setting up the world” but it’s even shorter than your usual “setting shit up” UF book. The plot takes a backseat to worldbuilding and character introduction, to the point where I barely cared about the actual story because it was clear that anything resolved in ~100 pages wasn’t going to be very dramatic. I just never felt any tension even though the stakes were quite high.

Of course there are lots of positives. As I mentioned, I enjoyed the world, but it’s really the characters that shine. We have a group of three “witches” who are quite diverse: there’s Judith, the traditional trope-y older witch, but even she manages to feel unique. There’s Lizzie, a Reverend who is questioning her faith after the death of her boyfriend. And finally Autumn, who runs the New Age store but doesn’t believe in magic. All three were very interesting but their dynamic together was pure magic. We get amazing exchanges like this:

“So,” she said, “that’s a fairy.”
“Yeah,” whispered Autumn.
“He didn’t look like a fairy.”
“What were you expecting?”
“For him to look like a fairy.”

These ladies are high sass all the time. I’m definitely going to continue the series because I think now that we’ve had “meet the characters, learn about the world” the others will be more emotionally deep and have fuller stories. I just wish that this had been longer OR had less plot and focused just on introductory things.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

28220806

The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike*. Finished October 13th. I think there was a lot of potential here, but The Graveyard Apartment never really delivered. I feel like I’d been on a streak of mediocre horror when I read this, and while this was almost great it never really quite raised up out of “just okay.”

The mood of this book is definitely the strong point. It’s a very slow-burn horror, with ominous moments through the first half that really notch up the tension. It’s the type of horror that I think would be way more effective in a visual format (this would make a fantastic movie): it’s SO slow-burn that at times you almost forget you’re reading horror until another unsettling event occurs. And the book itself is highly visual, easy to picture in your head–especially the more horror-driven scenes towards the end.

I’m a fan of slow-burn horror but it was almost too slow for even me. The last 25% of the book is drastically different from the rest and far more frightening–while reading I kept wishing that it had been divided up a little more evenly. The events that kick off the last quarter could have easily happened halfway through and given us a solid half a book of high-octane terror. It’s disturbing, unsettling, and features a really interesting mix of supernatural and survival horror. While I loved the end sections, they actually just served to show how unnaturally slow the pace is through the beginning part.

The character development was also a little lacking. I know horror isn’t a genre known for its great characters, but everyone here (aside from Misao, the mother, who I really liked) felt like thin paper cutouts. So when they were all shoved together at the end, I felt like the tension between them was a bit flat. If we had a better look at their motivations, it would have been far more effective. So overall this was an “almost great but actually just okay” book in basically every aspect. Disappointing, because it’s clear that the potential is there.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

29901930

The Fisherman, by John Langan. Finished October 16th. In the first half of October, I read a lot of mediocre horror. It wasn’t bad, but it was disappointing–which was a shame, because horror is one of my favorite genres. Thankfully, John Langan once again saved the day. I read one of his short story collections last year and was so smitten by his unique brand of cosmic-horror-meets-classic-tropes. Plus, a ton of it is set in the Hudson Valley where I grew up! Including this book, which is set like half an hour from my hometown. Awesome, but also now I’m really scared of the reservoir. Thanks Langan.

This is hands down my favorite book I read in October, and one of my favorites of the year. It’s about a man dealing with grief after his wife dies. He turns to fishing and eventually finds a fishing companion suffering through a similar loss. Sounds like the plot of a dry but well-written literary fiction novel but this is definitely horror. The two guys discover a hidden stream and the sordid history behind it… and of course decide to go fishing there themselves.

The structure is quite interesting. Right in the middle we get the story of Fisherman’s Creek, which is at least a third of the novel and comes basically without warning. We’re with our main characters in a diner, and suddenly it switches to historical fiction horror. A bold choice, and it works beautifully. The tone instantly goes from lightly ominous to intensely terrifying, and ramps up as we finish the tale and then dive back into the “real” plot.

I loved everything about this. The tone, the atmosphere, the twisty plot, the deep look we get into the psyche of our main character. It’s pure yet complex horror, and it goes in a really amazing direction. Langan obviously is part of the current weird horror movement, but his stuff feels so unique and distinctly his own. I’m definitely a rabid fan now and really can’t recommend this enough for horror fans.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

26802679

HEX, by  Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Finished October 20th. As I mentioned, I have a huge weakness for books set near my hometown in the Hudson Valley. Probably because it happens so rarely, and when it does it’s almost always in horror, one of my favorite genres. I inexplicably read not one but TWO horror novels set in the Hudson Valley recently, and this one is basically set in a fictional version of my teeny tiny hometown (at least the English version is–I know it was re-written from the original for this translation). Only, you know, it’s haunted by a 300 year old witch who has her eyes and mouth sewn shut.

While the premise (a haunted town you can’t leave without wanting to commit suicide) is horrifying, there are moments of pure comedy in here. In the opening scene, the witch Katherine appears in a family’s living room while they are eating. Everyone sighs, used to her weird habits, and they drape a towel over her head so they don’t have to look at her face. There are other lighthearted moments where the teens of the town play a series of ridiculous pranks on her, but despite these scenes it’s quite a dark book. Funny, but dark.

The premise is very ‘Blair Witch’ and Thomas Heuvelt plays with the concept a lot. A few of the teens of the town have started secretly filming the witch and prepare on releasing some viral videos of her… things obviously don’t go according to their plan. And I really wasn’t expecting the direction this book went in. It’s darker and more unsettling than your typical “supernatural witch horror” because so many of the moments of terror rely on the depths and darkness of human nature rather than jumpy spooks. It really twists your expectations on their head.

Despite its strengths (truly effective horror, a great setting, original concept, the humor) it’s not a book without flaws. Some events felt a little disjointed, and others intentionally over-the-top for the shock factor. There’s also a very large cast of characters, and while most of them get decent to great character development, others (especially the “villains”) are really lacking. I feel like there also should have been more lead-up to the end: the last 10% or so is really intense but a bit too fast-paced and at times I was almost lost with what was going on and who was where.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

As you can probably tell, Spooktober did not start off that well. There was really only one stand-out book (The Fisherman), though honestly I’d be happy if that was the only book I read for the first half of the month. It was that good. Thankfully, the second half of the month really picked up and I read a ton of great horror overall in October.

Reading Challenge Goals

219/175 Books

24/35 Series Books

61/50 TBR Books

23/15 Different Countries

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