Last year, according to Goodreads, I read 63 books. So this year I want to read 75, which requires me to also vow to stop playing so many Match 3 games as a sort of side benefit. I’m going to start with three that I read over the holidays (yes cheating whatever) and you don’t have to tally those if you are now writing a log on your hand that says Genni Cannot Read That Much. Also, I will review them here, because it’s my kingdom and I do what I want.
A lush, fully realized world that is beautiful, interesting and the sort of escape a good fantasy novel should be. Phedre is a complex heroine, far more interesting to the feminist reader than many–Phedre owns her sexuality, and uses it unapologetically to both gain what she wants as well as to save those around her. It is the sort of fantasy that is easy to fall into (one doesn’t have to pore over the map or the character lists if one doesn’t want to) but also richly imagined such that it resonates with the real world. It is in no way “thin” as many fantasy novels tend to be. Highly recommended, especially if a beautiful, sexy, adventurous world is the ideal escape from this one.
55. Finished September 03, 2015, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
54. Finished August 7, 2015, Hunting Lila, Sarah Alderson
NOTE: There’s a big gap here because I have been busy and also trying to read an unbelievably boring book that I finally decided to set aside on August 05.
This is entertaining, if a bit heavy on the pining away for a kiss sort of stuff, but there is one major flaw that I found distracting throughout the book. Lila has only lived in London for a few years, and her brother Jack and Alex are both Americans. Yet, linguistically, the book reads as if a group of British tourists have come to America instead of what the story claims, which is that Lila has joined her brother and Alex back in the US. Americans don’t say “your mum” or put a kettle on or get on or get their gym bag out of the boot, or… a zillion other things that every character i this book says throughout. At first I tried to believe that Lila, being a teenager, had quickly picked up the local vernacular and brought it home with her….except she refers numerous times to never having fit in while in London. If you’re going to concoct a series with a reasonable plot, why would your editor never point out that the characters are all speaking Brit when they should be speaking American? There’s likely no going back now, so I’m not sure if it won’t just be too annoying to read the next book.
53. Finished July 25, 2015, Warm Up, V.E. Schwab
See, the problem here is that it’s not a book. It’s a prologue to a book, or an epilogue to Vicious. This “book” was 14 pages long, a deeply irritating discovery after purchasing it (fortunately for $1.99) from Barnes and Noble. Why this would be published and marketed as an actual book is beyond me, and while the story itself is fine (but short!), I felt like I’d been tricked. Since when do we publish any little scribble rather than wait for the complete book to be written? Slightly reminiscent of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which was alarmingly short (but more than 14 pages). Fans waiting on future installments of either author’s series might wish these authors were not distracting themselves from those projects with silly, tiny “books” such as these.
52. Finished July 25, 2015, The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar
An enjoyable read plagued, as so many books are, by a weak ending. The issues of class, poverty, and a lack of women’s rights that affects all Indian women were all clearly shaped and well described. Yet, once those issues are fleshed out, the reader wonders how can such deep and tremendous issues be resolved at all? In books such as A Fine Balance or The God of Small Things, the ending is difficult to stomach, yet in line with the gravity of the issues the characters faced. In this book, it seems the issues were too great for even the author to see it through to resolution. The result is that this fast-moving train of fears and concerns suddenly stops and the reader is forced off with no information as to what might have happened next, “Sorry, this is too hard, we’ll just stop here. Look into the sunset.”
51. Finished July 17, 2015, Vicious, V.E. Schwab
Highly entertaining and fast-paced. Creating characters who are complex and likable despite their despicable and violent behavior is very challenging, but Schwab manages, for the most part, to make Victor and Eli very believable and potentially even salvageable, or, if not salvageable, at least sometimes sympathetic. The EO concept is very creative as are the powers associated with those who become ExtraOrdinary, giving this book a fresh perspective on the old theme of super-powers. Very violent, and anti-hero in terms of character actions, which might bother those who want a more straightforward good guy/bad guy story, but if moral ambiguity is your bag, this is a good read.
50. Finished July 13, 2015, Deafening, Frances Itani
This was an enjoyable read in a summer book sort of way. It seemed like it struggled between two themes–one, that of Grania’s deafness from scarlet fever and the other her husband’s experience in WWI. Linkage between the two seemed awkward, and I would have preferred a deeper focus on the experience of being deaf in the early 1900s and a greater fleshing out of the development of deaf culture in a world that was prepared only to see deafness as a flaw. The interludes that focus on Jim’s war experience seemed out of step with the premise of the book being primarily about Grania.
49. Finished July 03, 2015, The Girl Who Was Saturday NIght, Heather O’Neill
I read this immediately after reading Lullabies for Little Criminals, and I should have put something in between, as the tone is so very different that I had a hard time getting into it (which is why it took me so long to finish it) with Baby’s clear voice still in my head. Once I did, however, the book was wonderful, and Nouschka’s voice as interesting as Baby’s, but much more layered and nuanced. Descriptions often veer into magical, which is indicative of how dreamy and un-tethered Nouschka is as she drifts through her late teens with no sense of her life as an individual.I appreciated how tied to place this story is; Quebec’s particular cultural point of view and history are intrinsic to the development of Nouschka and her family, and it offers a bleak but compelling look at life in Montreal–especially for an American reader, given the US’s tendency to romanticize Canada. Very worthwhile, but not as easy a read as O’Neill’s first book.
48. Finished June 23, 2015, Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill
Lyrical, intense and gritty–a beautifully realized story of a child growing up in a world most of us will never experience. This book pulls no punches–such that there are parts that are very hard to read and yet somehow there is balance. The worst happens, and Baby survives. Despite so much dysfunction, rage, poverty, violence and hatefulness in her world, there are also beautiful moments, acts of kindness and redemption. It forces the reader to confront what qualifies as “okay”– will it be okay? We can’t be sure, but there are always tiny slivers of hope. An amazing first book, I look forward to reading everything Heather O’Neill has written and will write.
47. Finished June 20, 2015, All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
Exceptionally well-written novel that deals with intense life events without becoming maudlin or subjecting the reader to empty sentimentality–such that it is a deeply emotional and satisfying read. Sister stories are tough to balance, yet Toews does just that, even as it is told from one sister’s perspective. There are no black and white answers, and many very serious moral questions that afflict the entire family at the very same time that they sometimes lose track of the depth and shift into the more trivial worries that are easier to bear. Poignant and deeply felt, it strikes at the fluidity of belief and moral certainty in face of proximity to tragedy and the question of whether or not we are ever, really, in control of our lives and the lives of those we love.
46. Finished June 18, 2015, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
Billed as scary when, really, it was more along the lines of surreal, truncated, and unsatisfying. I wanted to be riveted by this Russian author’s work, especially seeing how acclaimed she is, yet this collection didn’t hook me. I found the writing disjointed, the characterization unsympathetic, and the situations in each story so thinly sketched that there was nothing to sink one’s teeth into, so to speak. Disappointingly short (156 pages), it doesn’t inspire me to further explore her work.
45. Finished June 16, 2015, Euphoria, Lily King
Excellent historical fiction full of all kinds of colonial tension as three anthropologists meet in the field in the 1930s, when the science was itself questioned in terms of its validity. The novel deftly touches upon the evolving definition of what was a legitimate science, the place of the observer when studying a tribe that had little outside contact, and the tensions between brilliant scientists competing for research money, fame and recognition within their field. As the observers become better acquainted, the pressures of being isolated next to a culture they hardly understand and struggle to gain access to creates a bond that serves to highlight their own anthropology, as it were, in terms of marriage, attraction, and the roles of men and women within the construct of marriage as well as scientists. As they observe the tribe, the reader observes the notion of a male scientist feeling emasculated by his wife’s academic success even as he accuses her would-be suitor of not being masculine enough to pose a real threat. A very nuanced, fascinating novel.
44. Finished June 13, 2015, I Am Not Myself These Days, Josh Kilmer-Purcell
I’m not entirely sure what the absolute difference between a memoir and an autobiography is by strict definition, but my guess is that the latter is well-researched, balanced and factual and the former is possibly factual but told entirely from one person’s point of view with no input from those about whom the author is also writing. Memoirs tend to be splashy, and this one certainly is–maybe even shocking particularly if you live under a rock and no nothing about LGBTQ culture, drug use and/or drag queens, escorts or fetishes. Overall, it’s a sad and cautionary tale not about the perils of homosexuality or any such nonsense, but about the tendency among people who have been forced to deny their true identities to internalize the notion that there really is something wrong with them, which leads to self-destructive behaviors that can (and do) have very real consequences. I am saddened by the loss of so many unique, interesting people to risky, dangerous activities, and I hope very much that Josh Kilmer-Purcell is able to put that chapter out of his life and value himself as much as he should. No matter what he’s wearing.
43. Finished June 11, 2015, The Magicians (The Magicians #1), Lev Grossman
One could argue that all fantasy (particularly of the High Fantasy variety) written after Tolkien is derivative, and in and of itself, this is not necessarily a strike against the story providing the author has given us a fresh, compelling spin on things. Initially, I felt that my bias against The Magicians was simply that it was too similar to other books (HARRY POTTER) and not offering anything particularly new. Later, it became clear that Grossman was not pretending otherwise, and this was being written in a way that made clear the story itself was aware of the conceit; namely that this is to Harry Potter what Dog Sees God is to Charlie Brown–a grown-up version with all the adult trimmings such as drinking, sex, masturbation, swearing, etc. That *could* have worked, honestly, except the book seems terribly clumsy. Shifts in action seem delayed some of the time and too compressed the rest of the time. The book drags in places, and in others seems to rush through a transitional phase too quickly, tipping the author’s hand that no, this is not really the final decision, but we must wade through some two dimensional set before we get to The Next Bit. It’s as if Grossman threw all possible fantasy elements into a blender and the resultant concoction contains too many tiny bits, none of which result in a clear taste of whatever the big picture is supposed to be.
42. Finished June 05, 2015, Hunting and Gathering, Anna Galvada
There are lines in this book that are now indelibly etched in my memory. A beautiful, messy, heart-rending, sometimes hilarious book punctuated by real, flawed people trying to find their way in Paris. Every character so well-imagined that even as I cared about them they irritated me or behaved in ways I couldn’t understand. The story is basic–a group of down-and-out misfits thrown together by fate–but the telling is sophisticated, tender and highly nuanced. Very reminiscent of being in one’s mid-20s and feeling as if all opportunities had already be squandered and all that was left was a slow drift toward ruin. Yet, it reminds us that things can and do change, and people can and do find happiness–despite their own self-sabotage and shortcomings. A really lovely read.
41. Finished May 31, 2015, A Conspiracy of Faith (Department Q #3), Jussi Adler-Olsen
While the first two books of this series were pretty tight (albeit predictably formulaic), this third offering suffers from far too much of everything. Naturally, one doesn’t read police procedurals for straight-up realism, especially the serialized versions, as we all know that one cop would never have this many amazing cases. Yet, even with suspension of reality set to moderate, A Conspiracy of Faith seems to trip over its overly ambitious (and numerous) subplots and falls into the realm of ridiculousness in terms of far too many coincidences, unrealistic scenarios and the like. Each subplot was practically worthy of a book of its own, and took it from fiction to fantastical–but not in a good way.
40. Finished May 29, 2015, The Absent One (Department Q #2), Jussi Adler-Olsen
Dude, see below.
39. Finished May 28, 2015, The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1), Jussi Adler-Olsen
The formula for Police Procedural fiction is well-established. Take a hard-boiled, crusty-on-the-outside cop who is down and out, pair him with an inscrutable but (at least on the surface) laughable sidekick, add clashes with authority/bureaucracy, a complex and unresolved former relationship, and then, as the cherry on top, an unsolved crime that no one else in this contrived world cares about. Throw in some gruesome crime and/or rape, add a stunning injury to our hero (shot! Stabbed! Hit by a car!), a possible love interest and a conclusion that wraps up our case without releasing our anti-hero from his past, and you have yourself a story.
I’m not sure if it’s the Danish/Scandinavian/Northern European angle that has American readers so enthralled with the writers from cold lands, but they are currently quite hot. As such, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s book is tight, interesting and well-paced. Predictable? Of course. Outlandish plot themes? Naturally. But, entertaining–and entertainment is all I expect from this genre. Do I suspect that all writers of these books possess a software/app that allows the input of variables that result in the next book? Yes, yes I do. But I’m still reading.
38. Finished May 25, 2015, Arcardia, Lauren Groff
A mesmerizing tale that takes the reader full circle in the examination of the child/parent relationship. It inspires meditation on the differing perceptions of children who have shared experience yet who have been shaped very differently in response to their childhood. Arcadia is richly grounded in the impact parental idealism can have on the children who are powerless to protect themselves from a fervent commitment to extreme choices. Underlying the plot structure is a strong sense of the use of fairytale themes to qualify experiences when they are remembered. Bit’s possession of the found book of fairy tales provides him a narrative structure that allows him to recall a childhood of uncertainty and deprivation as one of joyful belonging and magic. The conflict between his narrative and that of Helle’s makes the story really compelling; can both narratives exist or must one be right and one wrong? How can Bit resolve his narrative as he becomes an adult, a parent and finally the one upon whom his parents depend on to carry them through their end-of-life process? Beautifully realized, this is the rare book that I would want to read more than once.
37. Finished May 21, 2015, Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce
Ugh. I am never happy to pay $11.99 for what barely qualifies as a novella. This book seems like it wishes it were Suicide Blonde by Darcy Steinke. I wish it were on par with that book, too, but mostly this just seemed like a sad examination of a young woman with an obvious personality disorder and no internal controls. That could be a good story, or it could be what we find in Love Me Back–an unusually detailed examination of working in a restaurant, which is set up as apparently the most amazing, challenging, satisfying job a person could have–punctuated by the main character’s quest to destroy herself with drugs, sex and self-injury. Which would lead the reader to question if there’s any real point to any of her choices–and this reader would say no, there wasn’t a point, and I’m glad I only had to read 143 pointless pages.
36. Finished May 20, 2015, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi
I once read an article that said that it was best to write the end of the story first. So many really good books seem to falter at the end, and this is one. The story itself was compelling, both as a window into Afghan cultural practices and the lives of women under tribal systems as well as the kinship between generations of women and how one woman’s struggle is carried on by those who remember her life. The writing is unflinching without dipping into sensational in its description of the brutality of child marriages, patriarchal dominance and the physical and emotional oppression of women in this country. Despite that, the ending; suddenly all the complexities and myriad challenges seem to disappear, and it is all tied up far too neatly–at least for this reader. Suddenly we are asked to accept that women who have been forced into servitude, beaten, raped, married against their will, denied a voice, suffered every day of their lives will, with just one act, be FINE. Roll credits, all is well, Hallmark appreciates your viewership. I suppose it’s possible that an editor said to the author that the book was already too long, and we can’t just leave these nice readers feeling hopeless, let’s tie it up and throw some glitter on it. If so, that editor should be sent away; false cheer is cheap and mocks the intelligence of the reader. I will anxiously wait for Nadia Hashimi’s next book, and hope her clout with her editor grows such that that book ends on the same terms with which it began.
35. Finished May 16, 2015, A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson
I was relieved that although this was a companion to Life After Life, it didn’t utilize the same devices. In some ways, I found A God In Ruins to be more subtle than Life After Life, the treatment of our place in time was more refined and tempered, and therefore the magic quality deeper and richer. Certainly, it is a book that while there are hints about the intent, the very last chapters are where things become clear and the heart of the literary puzzle is revealed. A great read, with solid and fascinating characters and Atkinson’s signature wit and multi-layered meanings that comes together as, in some ways, more satisfying than Life After Life, simply because I did not feel that I needed to be trying to put the puzzle together quite so mechanically.
34. Finished May 09, 2015, Blame, Michelle Huneven
This is a book that would have maybe won the awards it was a finalist for had it had a better editor. Conceptually it’s great; a really intriguing examination of guilt, blame and redemption, as well as providing an important critique of Alcoholics Anonymous and the point of view it requires of its participants. Unfortunately, it gets really bogged down in the middle, such that the anticipated (and known) climax comes so close to the end that it feels rushed and incomplete. Too much time is spent on descriptive elements, something I particularly dislike in terms of writing about women. In a book centered on a woman’s alcoholism causing a black out during which she is blamed for the death of two pedestrians it’s not that important to me to know about how she wears her hair (she put it up, but it fell down again, for example),or over-written descriptions of her kitchen remodel. Eliminating some of that chaff would have given the author time really develop what should have been the second half, not the last 70 pages, of the story.
33. Finished May 04, 2015, This One Is Mine, Maria Semple
I enjoy Maria Semple’s smart, fast-paced writing style. Often laugh-out-loud funny, this novel (her first, I believe) isn’t quite as tight as it could be, but the characters are interesting and often unpredictable, and the tone is consistent, satirical and tongue-in-cheek. A good palate cleanser of a read–not too demanding, but certainly not a waste of time, either.
32. Finished April 30, 2015, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
A sweeping, unforgettable examination of the human spirit during one of history’s greatest upheavals, that of WW II. Rendered on a micro scale against the enormous backdrop of intercontinental war, it’s a beautiful study of relationships, loss of innocence and redemption, as well as the myriad of sorrows and damage visited upon all human beings during wartime. A deeply evocative and moving plot, changing back and forth from past to present while maintaining dramatic tension as we rush toward the final events. A greatly satisfying read.
31. Finished April 25, 2015, The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil
It took me SO long to get through this book. Despite an interesting concept and a somewhat relatable world, I could not get into it at all. I found the brothers dull and limited; they lacked the degree of complexity I would have liked to have seen. All the female characters were very flat, simply there to facilitate the brothers, and their stories/responses are given very little insight. Dima stops caring for the mother, yet she never once objects? Yarik tells his wife nothing about his motives and she is happy because she can buy designer clothes she didn’t used to have access to? The notion of an ever-expanding greenhouse and permanent daylight was fascinating but stopped short of being fully developed–so much more could have been done with it that it seems a shame that it’s now Josh Weil’s copyrighted work. Overall it was a promising premise that very quickly proved insufficient to the task and left this reader disappointed and bored.
30. Finished April 17, 2015, A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
It took so long to read this because I spent my week in tech for our last show of the season–good thing I was ahead of my goal going into this one.
This is one of those books that is just utterly amazing until almost the very end, where the reader feels as if jerked rudely from a satisfying nap and emerges bewildered and not a little bit irked. Up until maybe the last 50 pages, this was a 4 star or better book; an amazing look into the heart of a lonely adolescent girl who despite being smart and interesting is drowning beneath the pressures of incessant, remarkably cruel bullying in school and a family that has disintegrated into complete dysfunction. Her diary is being read by a woman who has found it on the beach, and the underlying question is always whether or not the author of the diary is still alive. Highly evocative of the natural world, sensitive to the fluctuations of relationships and connections between others, it moves along in spell binding fashion–this despite the numerous footnotes which must all be read–then, abruptly seems to lose its way entirely with a leap into unreality and a twist that seems almost insulting after all the time and energy it took to get there.
There are moments when the end is hinted at–two of them, I believe, occur when the footnotes document a thought or action of the characters who are reading the diary, which means the reader cannot be sure who the author of the tale they are reading might be–if the characters are self aware and commenting on the book the reader is reading, as well as functioning within the plot structure, something odd is afoot. That said, I don’t feel that it was ever enough to justify the the final, climactic event of the book, which just ends up feeling like a deeply, disappointingly cheap shot.
29. Finished April 11, 2015, The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing
There is a pervasive fatalism to this novel that assures the reader that the story will not be pleasant, and will instead be actively uncomfortable. An unflinching look at racial division in South Africa, made all the more powerful by its unapologetic treatment of the subject. I would wonder if today’s political correctness would allow such clarity to stand, or would it be watered down such that the lesson might go unlearned? Very evocative of the land, the necessary yoking of man to the indifference of nature in agriculture, and extraordinary hardness and cruelty of a system that, at that point, went largely unquestioned. At no time are we given the option of finding a way to like either of the main characters, nor should we, yet despite what seems to be dramatic cruelty (the wife described frankly as never having imagined that the natives were anything like human beings or deserving of anything other than poverty and servitude) ingrained in the ruling race, we still are given to understand how damaging and limiting the system is for all who participate, as even those with power live miserable, stunted lives. The secondary theme of women trapped in a patriarchal world is also quite daring for the time period, even if it is tempered by the woman going mad rather than overcoming societal limitations; still, the idea of Mary’s self confidence being shattered by those who think she should marry and the train wreck that her caving to that demand results in is fascinating and likely an uncomfortable truth about the role women were/are expected to fill.
28. Finished April 10, 2015, Ahab’s Wife, Or The Star Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund
It was possible that an 800+ page novel drawn from one reference to Captain Ahab’s wife in Melville’s Moby Dick would be too contrived and gimmicky, too weak and obvious to stand on its own. Fortunately, this is not the case. An astonishing epic that was captivating from beginning to end, it responds to the feminist criticism of classic literature lacking female heroes with a strong, interesting female character who still lives within the historic parameters of her period. Having just finished The Peabody Sisters, this was a delightful complement in that this fictional tale rests in the same time period and references and even includes many of the known historical figures in its pages. It pushes the boundaries of what is possible at a few points, but never quite strays into out-and-out ridiculousness, with the possible exception of Una’s luck in investments, although even that has an ironic value given the subject.
27. Finished April 05, 2015, Midnight Champagne, by A. Manette Ansay
I always feel gypped if a book is less than 200 pages, which strikes me as a novella rather than a novel,so this slim 174-pager was disappointing just in terms of length. There is nothing particularly new here, and no real surprises in the plot. It’s superbly hetero-normative (note sarcasm) and seems to rest firmly upon the idea that women don’t gain happiness in marriage or child-rearing and therefore their most fitting revenge is to see other women get married and join their club of resentment. Every character is masterfully stereotypical, with the possible exception of the little sister, Margo, who shows momentary promise when she pitches a full scale fit during the wedding, but then drops mostly out of the story. Overall it was a good filler between much meatier, complex reads, but I only paid $.99 for it so I could afford to be a little generous.
26. Finished April 04, 2015, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, by Megan Marshall
A fascinating and inspiring glimpse into the lives of three post-revolutionary women who had tremendous influence in the shaping of religious and educational ideals in early America. Eclipsed in history by the highly visible men of that time period such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and many others, the story of the Peabody sisters is incredible. A reminder that the struggle for equal rights, for women’s place in intellectual and artistic life, did not start recently, but has been part of our history from the very founding of this nation. This is a long book–well over 500 pages plus appendixes and such–but I found it absolutely riveting.
25. Finished March 27, 2015, Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
The book is disappointing given how much dedicated readers know could have been given them by this very talented author. Anne Marie MacDonald writes with a clarity and emotional truth that is astonishing and viscerally moving. Fall On Your Knees would make the top ten list of books I have ever read, and As The Crow Flies would be close. Thus, it’s really difficult and saddening to have to say that while Adult Onset features the same intuitive, intimate and compelling understanding of the main character and the related family dynamics of trauma, abuse and damage, as a novel it winds up being somewhat unsuccessful. It’s as if the reader only got to read half a book, and while that half was mostly really good in the end it wasn’t enough to sustain itself. Too many characters are introduced but not fully realized, some plot devices are introduced as very important but then somehow fade away without being brought to completion, the climax is faintly anti-climatic given the harrowing build up. Perhaps this book was so autobiographical that the story became obscured due to it being too close to home. That also might explain the ending, which seems as if it were hastily tacked on and is over simplistic and detached from the reality the author spent so much time creating. The book suddenly succumbs to the very denial that created such pain, disassociation and rage within Mary Rose;abruptly Everything Is Okay in a way that it could not possibly be.
24. Finished March 25, 2015, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
Snappy and introspective with a certain amount of slightly puzzling theology plus baseball. The anxieties and internal dialogue of the main character as well as his hilarious exchanges with the women in his office are exceptionally well-written. The sense that he has of not belonging and never being in step with everyone else is funny and heartbreaking all at once. I found some elements of the Ulms and religion a bit confusing in terms of how it’s used as an underlying theme, (plus baseball!) and that slowed me down a bit trying to piece it together. It gets at the heart of the distance created by modern day technology that’s supposed to allow us to be closer together, and how isolating a reliance on it can become.
23. Finished March 21, 2015, Remember Me Like This, by Bret Anthony Johnston
A beautifully written examination of the interior lives of a family struggling to adjust to the tremendous changes wrought not only by the disappearance of their young son, but also his return. One might think that finding Justin would erase the past and give them all a new lease on live, allowing the pain of his four year absence to simply be swallowed up in time, but of course nothing is as it used to be, and they are all damaged and different than they were before his abduction. It’s a sad book, but not one that leaves the reader in despair. It’s more as if the author manages to balance hope and despair in such a way that while there seem to be miles to go before they are restored, there is a chance that they will find happiness–albeit in a very different form than once hoped for–if they continue moving forward. I very much appreciated the author resisting the urge to describe Justin’s ordeal in a salacious manner (for salacious and unnecessary, see An Untamed State)–it is hinted at, and it is obvious, but overly focusing on it would have been damaging and distracting from what the book was really about, which is the emotional roller coaster that no one in the family can ever expect to exit.
22. Finished March 19, 2015, Acts of God, Ellen Gilchrist
I found this somewhat uneven; some of the stories were very good, others seem less well-realized. It’s a pretty short book overall, and the ultimate sense I got of it was that it was “nice.” Nice, but not challenging, not exciting, not new. It was a bit bland, despite the subject matter, which seemed odd.
21. Finished March 16, 2015, Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton
A deftly managed, marvelous book. It reminded me a tiny bit of the Accidental Tourist–in particular due to the character Daniel, who seemed to be caught up in the stream of his life without being able to act within it. All of the characters are beautifully realized, nuanced and interesting–and none of them are what I expected. The ability to create a character like Florence, for whom I felt great sympathy even as I wished she could act differently, speaks to the skill and emotional intelligence of the author. Dryly funny, deeply sad, and fascinating.
20. Finished March 13, 2015, An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
I expected a book of great depth; emotional, historical, sociopolitical. Instead, it was a shallow, distasteful and sensationalized tale that seemed designed to shock and titillate but not in any way enrich the reader. The behavior of the main character, Miri, is that of a deeply emotionally disturbed person with narcissistic tendencies–and that is before she is kidnapped. It’s hard to understand why anyone would marry someone as vindictive and petty as this woman, whom we are told is supposed to be strong and ultimately lovable. The tired characterization of a woman who is excessively difficult but “worth the fight to love” is a degrading and unhelpful stereotype, as is her martyr of a husband, who will allow her to denigrate and abuse him long before she has the excuse of every form of PTSD to excuse it.
The plot unfolds like a Lifetime movie wherein no substantive information is given. There were a myriad of elements that did not ring true in terms of human behavior such that it seemed like it was more rape porn than any sort of sensitive, hard-hitting examination of man’s inherent cruelty and the use of sexual violence to subdue women. Every character in the book was flimsy, one-dimensional and unsympathetic, every situation skirted in bare outlines except odd descriptions of clothing and beauty that made it feel like a crummy pulp story in Cosmopolitan. One star seems generous.
19. Finished March 11, 2015, Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
This book is Hunger Games with plastic surgery instead of makeovers and dresses. It is Harry Potter with extreme violence. It is echoes of the most recent Battlestar Galactica. It is totally, 100%, derivative. Yet! YET; Harry Potter was Lord of the Rings for kids, and Hunger Games was written entirely in incomplete sentences and was not in the least bit a feminist tale despite trying to say it was. So, Red Rising is unapologetic in its reliance on a male hero, unapologetic in its heavy borrowing from other works. The question really is; if it is Hunger Games rewritten with a smarter plot–does that mean it is a juvenile exercise in determining that given a plot structure that already exists, a better version can be written OR is it an exercise in reminding the reader that there are only a few archetypes and what matters is readability? I found this book alternately interesting, predictable, infuriating, derivative, entertaining. I mourn for the state of YA fiction inthat there is tremendous violence of every variety yet SEX remains forbidden. How much would I rather my kid read about loving physical intimacy instead of intense physical violence, torture and implied rape? A LOT. The question, then, is will I read the next book? I have to say, with a sense of loathing, that I might. But I will not pretend that is anything other than pulp. Readable, entertaining PULP.
18. Finished March 06, 2015, The Quick, by Lauren Owen
All necessary elements for a Victorian London vampire story are present and neatly assembled in this novel. For the most part it’s a quite entertaining read, though the plot is fairly predictable and there is little added to the genre. I did feel some of the sequencing was awkward or clumsy in places, and it lost some of its energy in the final section (Part 5), where it felt like the reader was being lulled prior to some final drama and instead it drifted to a close, as well as not tying up some loose ends–which makes me feel a bit manipulated in that it feels like a set up for the next book. Also, while the book was pushed as on par with The Night Circus, it was not at all on that level, while comparison to Anne Rice was more realistic, understanding that Anne Rice created a new vampire narrative and this book simply was a book about vampires.
17. Finished March 01, 2015, The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour
The beginning of this book reminded me of Brady Udall’s Miracle Life of Edgar Mint; so desperately sad were Zal’s initial circumstances that it was difficult to read at all. Yet, sticking with it, the window is suddenly opened onto a hopeful future. There are numerous really tender, insightful moments as Zal struggles to determine how it is that he can not only appear or act normally, but to actually *be* normal. Those scenes are what ties the book together emotionally; the reader is hoping as much as anyone in Zal’s life that he will succeed, be happy, be okay. The plot device wherein 9/11 is the theme underneath it all is clumisly over-emphasized and takes away from the experience of just watching Zal try to manage his relationship with Asiya, Winnie and Zach as well his adoptive father. This is a case where the plot device(s) tended to overshadow the story, something I feel tends to happen when a writer is not confident enough of their characters/descriptions to just let them carry the bulk of the story. A very good, moving read overall and I do recommend it–the flaws aren’t enough to spoil the beauty of Zal’s story.
16. Finished February 27, 2015, Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
I decided to read this during a hectic time (tech for our first show, plus familial stress factors), and this book requires strict attention and the ability to be very tuned in to the story line. The plot is complex and non-linear, and it wasn’t until halfway through that I caught on that each vignette from the beginning would be revisited in reverse order in the second half. I didn’t find it as compelling or as entertaining as The Bone Clocks; it seemed to have poor linkage between elements–or I was not up the job of sleuthing for them. While I wouldn’t say it’s as convoluted as A Winter’s Tale (which I have never been able to bring myself to finish), it feels very much like it may have been the rare case in which the movie was better than the book (I don’t know for sure, however, since I have not seen the movie) in that it would offer more visual cues to help follow the plot. Or I was too tired and possibly inebriated to follow it, and it took me too long to finish because I would have go back a full chapter to remember what happened last time I read it.
15. Finished February 14, 2015, The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Naturally one feels pressure reading an award-winning book by a master of his genre such as Philip K. Dick; what would it say about me as a reader if I didn’t like it? Very limited by the time in which it was written, I found it off-putting even as I appreciated what he did with this book in terms of redefining Science Fiction. Written in 1962, it holds forth what must have been a very relevant and thrilling concept–what would the world be like if the US had not won WWII, and were instead occupied by Japan and Germany? It is told from a singularly male point of view, one which I struggled to find engaging, as most women were relegated to positions as “wife” and shadows in the background, except for Julia, who was portrayed as morally loose and possibly crazy.There just wasn’t enough to really grab onto beyond a very patriarchal world in which the only viewpoint was through the lens of male privilege and superiority.
14. Finished February 10, 2015, The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Historical fiction is often hit and miss, sometimes so loaded with detail (in the name of accuracy) that the story is lost, sometimes so inaccurate that the story ceases to matter. This novel gets the balance just right. I did not find the plot twists particularly surprising, but the emotional aspects were not harmed by guessing what was going to happen ahead of time. The central characters were very well-developed, although a few of the secondary characters were a bit flat and could have been more fully fleshed out–I felt this was really good, and could have been longer to more fully explore the characters.
13. Finished February 07, 2015, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, by Will Chancellor
I found this book overwrought and frequently bloated, so lost in its own descriptions that it was like trying to follow a squirrel through a maze. Conceptually I thought it sounded brilliant and potentially a fascinating look at art and philosophy and what constitutes each. The reality proved different, in that the language is so dense as to make it difficult to penetrate through to the characters themselves. In many ways emotionless, I found it really challenging to view the characters as real people, much less people I had any sympathy/empathy for despite it opening with the loss of a young athlete’s eye. Motivations seemed unclear throughout; not once did I understand exactly why Owen, his father, or any of the other characters acted as they did. Ultimately unsatisfying and psuedo-cerebral in a way that made it seem as if the book were constantly trying to make the reader feel like they weren’t smart enough to read it. That’s a pet peeve of mine, because I’m plenty smart, but I don’t enjoy a smug, self-important book that’s so full of itself it can’t just tell its story. Two stars.
12. Finished January 31, 2015, The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli
This was on my list to read from last year. I typically stay far, far away from war stories in print, in film, anywhere. This, however, hooked me because the main character is a woman trying to make her way as a combat photojournalist in Vietnam–clearly a man’s game. This is a beautifully realized story with hypnotic interludes and grim, violent moments that reflect the unreality of living within a war that one is recording, not fighting. It seems to get everything right, from moral complexities to historical information, to the twists and turns of each person’s character and role. I gave it four stars.
11. Finished January 24, 2015, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob
Like Panic in a Suitcase, this is a tale of a family that has immigrated to the US; in this case they are from India and they live in Albuquerque, NM. Unlike Panic in a Suitcase, this book is lyrical and enchanting, building a defined sense of the family, their cooking, the challenges in being first generation Americans all while keeping the story based in something that many families experience at some point–the loss of a child. I would call it an Ordinary People book, in the sense that certainly the family drama genre is flooded with novels that touch in one way or another on survivor guilt, marital discord, loss, depression, death and dying. But from a crowded field this book carves its own place and offers its own unique perspective that is imminently readable, often poignant and also darkly funny. It offers no major challenges, it isn’t literature, but it was quite enjoyable and well written.
10. Finished January 22, 2015, Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson
This is literature. Unflinching, unsparing prose that captures the deepest rot in American life. This is not a cheerful book, it will not offer you much comfort, but it will show you something you should see. Smith writes a lot like Cormac McCarthy, and has the same fearless commitment to showing the reader just how bad, just how sad, just how deeply screwed up the world can be while somehow still giving you someone to (sort of) root for. Underlying all of the despair there is redemption, if we allow ourselves to look for it in small places, in small amounts. This is a hard book to read, but absolutely worthwhile, even if it doesn’t leave you feeling like the world is a terrific place. I am astounded that this is Henderson’s first book, and look forward to future work–even as I am relieved that I don’t have to turn around and read anything by him just yet.
9. Finished January 18, 2015, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
This is the best book I’ve read this year so far. I might not have given The Book of Strange New Things four stars had I read The Bone Clocks first—though at the same time, they are very different books. What Mitchell does is provide extremely strong voices for his characters; they are deeply distinct, and clarified to the degree I felt I could hear their voices in my head. Once the underlying plot begins to emerge (which really doesn’t happen until the last third of the book), it gets slightly complicated to keep everything straight–this is not a “read with your third glass of wine” book (not that I’m saying I read when I’m drinking wine….okay, of course I do). It’s totally worth it, and never once did I feel this 600+ page book was over the top or needed editing down–it all really works.
8. Finished January 15, 2015, The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber
This book has flaws. It does, it really does, if only because the vehicle by which it must be told is a stretch, and that makes it hard to keep it in the realm of believable. But I urge you to ignore the flaws. Ignore the awkwardness of an imagined new world and its climate and inhabitants, because they are not really what the story is about–and those things often feel like flimsy props, which they are, and the only way they might not have been is if the book were 1,000 pages long instead of 500, and then the technical aspects would have drowned all the emotional content within it. In some ways I am sorry that Faber chose aliens and space and new planet and such, because what this really is, what this book really tells us is about humanity and its fragility and self-indulgence and ego….it tells us about the fable that is dogmatic faith and about religion as a shield that stops connection on other levels. If you are an animal lover there is one scene that is unbearable but necessary, and if you just drop the Sci-fi need for the imagined things to make perfect sense, it’s a beautiful, meaningful, haunting story. Four stars. Rarely awarded by me, but it deserves it despite, or maybe because of, its flaws.
7. Finished January 12, 2015, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
This was a very compelling read, told in a voice that I suspect is very foreign to most American readers in that it is spoken from the point of view of “we” rather than “I”– obviously drawn from the communal mindedness of Communist China or North Korea–or at least from mindset people in those systems were expected to have. The value of the group over the individual, as well as the value of generations over singular birth/death cycles. Once I got accustomed to that narrative, it was easier to dip in and out of it to see that even as it spoke from the collective perspective, it was really about the importance of self-determination and individuality on the part of the main focus of the story; one young woman who bucks the system–or was it a cautionary tale about those things?–that is a question a reader might be left with. This is not American-style rebellion, with lots of shooting and clever torture and action, it’s a mostly quiet story–which is what lends power to it. There are some plot elements that don’t seem to fit so well within the structure, and I suspect they are symbolic of other things and a real critical examination would clarify that. It’s a good book, but very different. Time will tell if it’s a new dystopian classic or just another dystopian book in an age when every third book wants to address what happens after the end of the world.
6. Finished January 08, 2015, Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
I was dismayed to find this was only 200 pages. I feel cheated if I pay $10 for less than 250 pages. However, this is a snappy little read, and pretty violent, so in the end 200 pages felt like enough. It’s a noir-style post-apocalyptic thing, so there are no quotation marks a la Cormac McCarthy (my youngest kid is named after Cormac McCarthy, if that tells you how much I love his writing), which once you get into the rhythm is a method by which you kind of fall into the world and feel like you are moving with them through the story. It’s really violent, but where The Sisters Brothers made one wish it would just stop with the death of everyone in that world, there’s a component of interest and humanity that kept me interested in the lead character. It was a bit predictable (I figured out the plot twist pretty quickly, and I often try not to figure things like that out), but an interesting world and scenario. Not the pinnacle of originality, but a right entertaining zip-through of a story. The second one in the series comes out this month.
5. Finished January 05, 2015, Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
“Dazzling” is how the blurb described it, if by “Dazzling” they mean confusing and poorly organized? This is a book that might have been great had the author had a better editor. There are some hilarious moments, there are some interesting characters, but as a story it seems to trip over itself, drop the groceries and never quite get them accounted for afterward. I generally don’t like books that make me feel like I need to write down a chart of who’s who in order to keep track of it (which is why I read only a very, very few High Fantasy books and only if they are VERY good, so no, not Game of Thrones, sorry). I thought the last third of the book was really what the book should have been about, which again goes back to editing. I will hope for better things from her in the future.
4. FINALLY 2015. Finished January 07, 2015, California by Edan Lepucki
A lot of people really liked this book. It made some lists (author’s picks on Salon, maybe?) and I am almost always down for a post-apocalyptic read. Except if it isn’t very good, and damn, I’m a picky bitch but it isn’t very good. There is a part wherein the female main character has sort of fetishized a turkey baster, and it’s such a clumsy, artless reference to A Canticle for Liebowitz that I felt a little bit sorry for the author (Edan, please read A Canticle for Liebowitz, honey). It was readable, but there were sizable plot issues that just didn’t hold water and I had trouble really liking the main characters Cal and Frida because they seemed like Hipsters On Survivor: The Apocalypse. Like so many books, the ending wasn’t really an ending, it was just sort of a place where they stopped writing and hoped you would think it was clever. Good endings are clever, “I stopped writing here” is not clever. Meh.
3. Finished December 27, 2014, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
This was short-listed for a Man Booker Prize which makes me think we need a Woman Booker or something because really, this is one long screenplay being pitched at Quentin Tarantino as another horrid story full of wretched, awful people (men) who do horrible things to other people (men and women and a horse) and fall in with other horrid men where there results then more horror (and slightly -cough- unbelievable levels of New Better Violence/Gore) and a whole chapter or so in which such terrible things are done to a horse that I had to skip it. There is not one thing redeeming about any character (except the poor fucking horse) in this book. Not. One. Thing. I’m sorry it’s in my brain at all, seriously.
2. Finished December 20, 2014, Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
Where did I get this? Was it another cheap Nook book? Probably. It is part of a trilogy that I entirely without regret will not bother to follow up on. Predictable story of maniac child sex killer and child looking for answers, unwittingly creating a dangerous cat-and-yawn-mouse, child feels unloved due to death of previous child, yawn, cliff-hanger ending (if what’s hanging off the cliff is a nice hammock), everything is better, the end. It was readable trash, but also felt like it came out of a computer with a massive database that looks at what is currently popular in crime television, chooses some variables and spits out a book. Blah.
1. Finished December 14. 2014, The Nature of Water and Air by Regina McBride.
I may have purchased this because it was only $1.99 in the Nook store, a dare I take only rarely, but it is a wonderful book. Regina McBride (who has not yet paid me any money for this review) is a poet, and according to my mother has written other books although I thought this was her first one. Whatever. This book is evocative, beautiful reading. The plot has some beautifully realized elements that made me want to illustrate it, but in no way fell into predictability or offered unnecessary comfort. An absolutely gorgeous read. Not a happy book, but an astoundingly beautiful one that reminded me of Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, which is in the top ten of books I’ve read in my life.