Mondays on the Margins: Books 2011 part 3 - the ones that Kicked Ass

And it's before March (just barely, I know -- still counts!)  And I know no one really cares - except Julie. You still care, right Julie? I still found the act of finishing it quite satisfying, and I promise that if it gets no comments I will not, under any circumstances, sink to the shameful low of begging for comments on Twitter (again).

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell - one of the reviews on the back cover said that this was something like a Flannery O'Connor novel with zombies, which is a very apt description. The heroine is young but tough, smart and with a strong moral code. Oddly enough, her nemesis, the threat to her existence other than the zombies, the one who holds the place that would be occupied by 'bad guy' in another book, is not entirely different. The voice is measured and there is a feeling of inevitability about the whole thing. Someone on Goodreads was complaining about all the 'thinking' zombie novels, because this meant he was being cruelly duped into reading books where thoughtful prose, intelligent characters and the odd metaphor detracted from the experience of zombies just rising up and eating people. This book must have really pissed him off.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney - reviewed on blog.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart - read for book club. I have trouble with satire, but I loved this, mostly due to the characters which were much more fully realized than they often are in satiric works. The 'less words means more fun!' marketing slogans, the way Lenny has to try to hide the fact that he reads real books from Eunice, the constant texting and shopping on mobile devices were frighteningly believable.

We Never Talk About my Brother by Peter S. Beagle - five stars. The first story I read by Peter S. Beagle was called Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros. At some point during the story, I became aware that I was grinning like an idiot. As I read the last sentence, I had trouble drawing in a breath. That's right - when he's at his best, his writing literally takes my breath away. And yet, it is not heavy in the least. It is both light and full of light. Okay, now I sound like a douche. I don't know how to articulate what it is that makes these stories seem different and larger and brighter and more full of wonder than almost anything else I read last year.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block - I love the Matt Scudder series. I haven't been able to get into any of this author's other series the same way, although I did really like his Small Town. He renders a very vivid sense of place (it's just barely possible that he overuses the phrase 'smelling of mice and urine', since that's always the one I wait for when Scudder enters another oldish apartment building or hotel, but hey - it's certainly descriptive). I sometimes find books that go back in a character's history a little tiresome, but in this case the protagonist has straightened out his life and settled down to the point that I'm constantly afraid the series will end, so I'm all for it. The fact that this book takes place early in Scudder's sobriety adds an interesting element to the story.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus - The synopsis on Goodreads calls it "moving" (curiously, yes), "terrifying" (yeah, kinda) and "unconventional" (oh my, yes). Boy's Mom dies, boy moves in with his cold, withdrawn father, boy is eventually inducted into the age-old art of..... GRAVE ROBBING? Seriously? Yes, grave robbing. This was so close to just being a gross-out fest; the pathos, the intricate structure of the guild of "Diggers"  and the characters elevate it to something more. Still gross, you understand, but also quite an affecting story. But really, really, cannot-be-overstated, over-the-top can-almost-smell-it gross.

Iron House by John Hart - good story, good writing. Always enjoy this author.

Feed and Deadline by Mira Hart -  This is what I wrote on Beck's blog, which is why it's in a slightly different font that I can't get rid of: I love zombies. I can't get enough of zombies. But I don't read just any zombie books. They have to be well-written books with great characters and engaging plots that just happen to contain zombies. If the people in them don't actually HAVE any brains worth eating, I'm outta there. These books are fabulous, and topical - they take place in a near future in which bloggers are prime players in the news. In this future, two vaccines (which cured cancer and the common cold) have combined to generate a virus which is dormant in everyone, but results in zombification after death, with the added bonus that anyone can also undergo 'amplification' at any moment and zombify spontaneously. Also, everyone names their kids George or Georgia (after George Romero) or Buffy. This series succeeds in creating a completely believable world, characters I love and genuinely heart-wrenching moments. 

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg - reviewed on blog. Which review I would have been able to find much more easily if I hadn't kept typing in Island of BROKEN Wings. Sheesh.

John Dies at the End by David Wong - reviewed on blog.

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault - reviewed on blog.

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier - reviewed on blog.

Killer Move by Michael Marshall - another author I love, who completely transcends his genre. Another book that, come to think of it, took a darker turn at the end much like Andrew Klavan. What's the deal, Dudes? (reviewed briefly on Goodreads).

The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L. Konigsburg - Can't lose with this author. About Leonardo da Vinci, a whip-smart and perceptive street urchin who becomes his assistant, and the Mona Lisa.

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann - I think I'd like to read this again. I had some trouble getting into it, but then got completely swept away. The notes between chapters on manifestations of love in the natural world are enchanting.

Set this House in Order: a Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff - This was really different and very engaging. It's a story of 'multiple personality disorder', but avoids the associated clichés and sensationalism. It gets a little out of control near the end, but on the whole it was very moving and original.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne - reviewed on blog.

Digital Domains: a Decade of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Ellen Datlow - can't go wrong with a Datlow anthology.

Darkside and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer - Dark, affecting mysteries.

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman - This seemed to be marketed as a mystery/suspense novel, which isn't really accurate, even though crime is at the centre of it. I really liked it, but I can see being disappointed if you were looking for something more plot-driven. The portrayal of the town is disturbingly vivid - a former family farm turned into an industrial dairy operation, ground contamination, poverty, closed-mindedness, stultification. The family who moves there in a passionate, misguided attempt to get 'back to the land' and live their ideals, and the terrifyingly intelligent child they end up bringing into an impossible environment. And various other sentence fragments....

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer Fleming - dare you to read any of these and not fall in love with Russ and Clare.

Bookweird by Paul Glennon - okay, so the stuck-in-a-book thing has been done. But this is SO much fun. Kid nibbles on a page and gets stuck in a book and makes friends with a stoat - a STOAT, which is awesome, because really, talking horses and birds are kind of overdone, don't you agree? Also, other books his family is reading get into the game also and -- really, just read it.

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham - I read this when I was working in audio publishing because my boss said it was the best book he'd ever read. Over the years I've thought about it quite often and decided to reread it to see if my discomfort with Maugham's treatment of his female characters still persisted. It kind of did. It's still a thought-provoking work with some finely drawn character studies. I tried to put it on the book club list for this year, but it didn't take.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny - Adore this author. Would want to live in the village she's created, if not for the fact that people keep dying there. While reading this book, I began to develop the whisper of a suspicion of a thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Inspector Gamache is a little TOO perfect. But I'm sure I'll get over that. I would recommend the early ones slightly more strongly.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff - It might have benefited slightly from the three or four total crap YA novels I've read recently. For a first novel especially, this was remarkably well-written and affecting. It has some good characters and a nicely woven sense of melancholy and dread. I thought it was a little rushed and unsophisticated in some places near the end, particularly when Mackie is trying to formulate why he identifies with the humans more than his true 'family', and it has the common modern problem of 'when is a sacrifice not really a sacrifice', but overall it was really good.

The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip - Reminded me a little of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews -- the same kind of smart, funny, lost adolescent female character, but the sister is still around, sort of. Less a mystery than a sort of sad coming-of-age story.

Attachment by Isabel Fonseca - An interesting twist on the 'wife suspects husband of cheating' trope. I was completely drawn in.

Spell Hunter by R.J. Anderson - Try to ignore the cheesy cover. It's an interesting and original imagining of fairies (I can't quite bring myself to use 'faery'. It makes me feel like those people who pronounce karate with the emphasis on the last syllable).

The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman - Not gonna lie, I do always feel slightly ripped off when authors put out novellas about their series characters - like throwing the dogs a bone so they don't lick you to death. But this was good. Short, but good.

The Happiness Code by Amy Herrick - Quirky, fun, thought-provoking. The voice sort of made me feel like I was reading a book written by one of my favourite bloggers. Pinky and Arthur are such a great pairing - the redheaded spitfire and the gloomy scientist - and Teddy is a refreshingly non-cutesy child, with his serious singlemindedness and irascibility. Some good questions about the nature - and desirability - of happiness, as an ephemeral state, an unattainable fiction, or a genetically assured certainty.

Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot - She really doesn't sugarcoat the realities of aging. A nice, unassuming, steals-up-on you story. Also one of those books that makes me wonder if people I know are cheating on their spouses since, if literature is to be believed, it's happening a lot more than I realize.

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by  D.C. Pierson - I wonder if the editor shouted and screamed trying to get the author to change the title. When I saw the title, it seemed so cheesy and ridiculous that I almost didn't look at the book, but the book is fantastic. It captures the vagaries and tribulations of geeky adolescence and male friendship and first love perfectly. And, well, I've never actually met anyone who typefies a new level in human evolution or been involved in a sinister conspiracy, but I think it does a pretty good job of capturing that too. It's both entertaining and thoughtful. For any novel it's completely worth reading. For a first novel with a silly unwieldy title? It's pure gold.(less)

The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach - Five stars. I can't put my finger, exactly, on why I loved this book so much, although the characters are a big part of it. It's incredibly complex and vivid, and there are moments of insight but no trite scenes of 'redemption'.

Shelter by Susan Palwick - I adore this author, who is as quirky and gracious and wonderful in person (and by 'in person' I mean 'on Facebook') as she is in her writing. This is a sprawling, generous, big-hearted, thoughtful book. I got completely lost in it and wandered slack-jawed in amazement. I did wonder if my admiration was coloured by my love of Susan Palwick, and worried about recommending it to others, but the first person I lent it to loved it as much as I did. 

Liars All by Jo Bannister - Interesting - more of a morality play than a mystery, in a lot of ways. Definitely a lot more attention to character than you often get - verging on too much at times, or maybe it's just that the main characters are all a smidge too noble to be completely credible.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner - reviewed on blog.

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan - I usually read literary short stories with an attitude of detached admiration - of the narrative technique, of the shaping of the story arc, that kind of thing. Very rarely do I feel the kind of tension I did reading these -- I think it's the closest I've come to a genuine experience of Aristotle's catharsis involving pity and fear. In 'Fattening for Gabon' I was riveted, anticipating not just the actual taking of the children, but the realization that the adoptive godparents of whom they were so enamoured were actually child traffickers, and that their uncle was selling them. The hysterical shame and torment on the part of the uncle is horrible to see. In "Luxurious Hearses", a young Muslim boy is trying to pass for Christian so he can ride on a bus to his father's home in southern Nigeria, fleeing religious violence in the north. I was sick with tension reading about how he tries to disguise his accent and hide his missing hand, which will reveal him as a Muslim. I don't know how anyone turns the discomfort and recognition provoked by a book like this into a positive change (other than making another donation to World Vision). Anything that puts a face on the statistics has to be a move in the right direction.

Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens - I'm generally powerless in the grip of a Lori Lansens book. Stayed up way too late for two nights reading this. A lot of it is almost too freaking sad to even bear thinking about, but what a story, past and present.

The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens - Couldn't put it down -- for whatever reason it was the exact right book for this time in my life. I love Lori Lansens, not for arrestingly beautiful look-at-me-be-brilliant prose (not that there's anything wrong with that, at times), but because she tells great stories, with heartbreakingly flawed and wounded characters, and sometimes you just need a really great story to take you out of yourself.

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones - It's Diana Wynne Jones, DUH. 

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein - I loved her non fiction book about Spinoza, and then felt quite tepid about the novel I read, so I wasn't sure, but this was highly enjoyable -- maybe because it combined a lot of the concepts from philosophy with the fiction. The language play and the exuberance of the writing reminded me (somewhat inexplicably) of The Ground Beneath her Feet by Salman Rushdie.

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card - I always find living in an OSC universe so comforting and comfortable. Something about how he writes people and dialogue, how he think so deeply and carefully about how people think, draws me in so that I always feel sort of sad and bereft when it's over. Even with the slightly overly-belaboured dwelling on the intricacies of time travel.

Bedtime Story by Robert J. Wiersema - Thoughtful and moving, and also outstandingly plotted and wholly entertaining. A deeply satisfying reading experience.

All Saints by Liam Callanan - I hated the ending, but not because it was wrong or out of tone with the rest of the book. Otherwise, it was a rapturous reading experience and I was utterly charmed by the foul-mouthed, profane, irreverent, sarcastic Catholic school teacher with poor impulse control. If there were more people like this in it, I'd still be Catholic. I plucked this one at random off the library shelf for my Mom and then cracked it cautiously when she was done and my Tuesday night was totally hijacked.

The Whisperers by John Connolly - The same mix of shivery melancholy and great characters as all his other books. He's the only one I've come across so far who can work the supernatural subtly into a mainstream mystery and not have it come off hokey or unbelievable.

The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende - Five stars. Blew my mind. Haiti before it was Haiti. The purest expression of history coming alive. 

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - It's such a pleasure sometimes to just read a great story. No narrative tricks, no flashy post-modern tactics (not that I don't enjoy those sometimes), just a great story about an age-old theme, with wonderful characters. I'm a little annoyed by how stupidly beautiful the author is, but I can get past it.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell - Hard to objectively evaluate. The circumstances of their lives and personalities made for an extraordinary friendship, and Caldwell has the writing ability to articulate it well. Beyond that, either it will resonate with you or it won't. It did with me.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane - I love this author. I love this series. I love these characters. I'm not sure I can evaluate this book with anything approaching objectivity. If there were fifty more of these, I'd be a happy woman.

What I Didn't See: Stories by Karen Joy Fowler - urban fantasy-ish, feminist perspective, mind-bending.

Room by Emma Donoghue - Five stars. (Yes, yes, fine, you were all right and I was wrong, let's move on shall we? Hmph.)

The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men, (Chaos Walking Trilogy), by Patrick Ness - quite a good trilogy. Set apart from all the other dystopic YA trilogies by a higher degree or originality, more flawed and less predictable characters, genuine moral conflicts with no certainty that 'the right thing' will be chosen in the end, and some vivid illustrations of how easy it is to be co-opted into corrupt power structures. The last book dragged on a bit, but overall I would recommend this trilogy.

100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, The Chestnut King, by N.D. Wilson - utterly, utterly charming. Particularly because when I gave the first book to Angus last year he kept walking around saying "where's my hundred cup boards book?"


Mary Lynn said…
Oh my, but I am impressed with your amazing reading skills. It seems my attention span has gone the way of the dodo. Even when I'm in the middle of a book I'm quite enjoying, I find I that when I set it aside I don't go back to it for days and days.

Anyway, the only two I've read that you mentioned are Room and The Namesake, both of which I loved. Very interested in reading the Allende book, as I do enjoy her writing. Have marked several others as books to read eventually, too.
StephLove said…
I was so excited to see a recommendation for a book about Haiti. My sister is adopting from Haiti and has a birthday coming up and I was thinking a book about Haiti (fiction or non-fiction) would be a great present.

Also, I feel compelled to mention to you that both my kids share your zombie obsession. It started around Halloween but it just never ended. They are constantly chasing each other around the house trying to eat each other's brains.
Amy said…
People tell me I should read Room but I just can't bring myself to pick it up. I'm scared of it.
Julie said…
yeah! now this book list will take me about 20 yrs to read, so don't do them too often, ok? but at least i know where to look when my kobo is emptied of YA and fantasy fiction. ;)

i'm with amy, Room scares me. heck i couldn't read Sarah's Key because of the little boy locked in the closet.
Zombies are not generally my thing but I do admit to being curious about Feed. I think your love of zombies is rubbing off on me.
Nicole said…
Awesome list. Can't wait to pick up a few of those titles!
Ms. G said…
I'm almost finished with We Never Talk About My Brother. Good Stuff! The title story pleased me no end and as for 'Spook', if I wasn't a happily married old woman I'd show up on Peter Beagles doorstep and beg him to marry me!
Jane said…
You are a reading rock star! My idol. I'm thinking my boys might enjoy the Peter Nimble selection. I'm adding it to my list!
clara said…
Wow. You have inspired me to read more, and to keep track, and also this is a kickass list that I am bookmarking because I haven't even heard of some of these people and their books. right.

Love Allende. *sigh*
Betsy B. Honest said…
You read even more than me!

I will consult this next time I'm looking for something to read. I've read books you've recommended before, and loved 'em.

I just discovered Kate Atkinson though, so I might be awhile.
Sasha said…
Holy jumpin. Where to begin??

First of all - this is what you read last year? Or, only one third of it? Yeah, I could go back and look at parts 1 & 2 for a clue, but I just frittered away my entire lunch hour looking for adult ballet and tap lessons online. Yes, really.

I think Super Sad True Love Story was on my list at one point - possibly reviewed on CBC at the same time as Room? The latter is definitly in the 'suspended holds' list at the library. I know this because I just had to go and review that list when 5 items suddenly became unsuspended and were demanding to be picked up. This happens every once in a while. Apparently, at some point in my life, February 2012 seemed so far away that I thought I'd be ready to read books again by then.

There's so much I want to read here. Bookweird has to top the list (people stuck in books has been done before? really???). The Happiness Code looks intriguing too (funny how I gravitate towards anything described as "quirky").

And Enchanted Glass (Diana Wynne Jones. Duh.)

(Duh, who is Diana Wynne Jones? I have a feeling I need to find out).

And 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. And Attachment. And... um... see list above :)
Kelly Miller said…
Holy cow. The length of this list and the words you used to describe each book made me feel really, really dumb.

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