Tag Archives: Steven L. Peck

Favorite Books of 2017

11 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Wrapup: February 2017 Part I

1 Mar

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 21/200

Goal Books: 18

Impulse Reads: 3

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