Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Books Read in 2012: Four and Five Stars

I count 69 four and five-star reads, up from 53 last year, so that's cool. I've done some rough organizing into categories because otherwise it's just a big long amorphous list and I was finding it intimidating.

Among Others by Jo Walton: In a meandering post on summer reading, I said about this that "I adored (it), although I find it hard to articulate precisely why. Mori's voice is note-perfect and engaging and I love how thoughtful and insightful and matter-of-fact she is about almost everything - growing up interacting with fairies, having an evil world-destroying witch for a mother, the ethics of using magic, coming of age sexually, the Dickensian cruelty and horror that is English boarding school. Plus the endless talk of books, of course. I like how it's just about her life, and the pitched magical battle is sort of incidental to everything else - part of it is in the past and only talked about fleetingly in retrospect, and the rest of it isn't this big loud climax of the book, it just sort of makes sense how it plays out. So I DON'T actually REQUIRE a bunch of supernatural crap to like a book, so THERE."

Books I read as a direct result of reading Among Others

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.: Wow. I mean, WOW. I had read her before, but I kind of think it's something that needs to be done maybe annually, because - wow. There is a consciousness and an intelligence and an understanding here that is just incredibly rare and precious.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin: And again with the Wow, and again with the need to be reminded that reading an Ursula K. LeGuin book is a restorative and nourishing experience. It's rare that I read a book that demands so much of my intellect and feel, rather than exhausted and resentful, joyful at the prospect of repeated readings and continued engagement with the fierce and benevolent intelligence at work here.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. LeGuin: I wanted to print out the pages of April in Paris and wallpaper my bedroom walls with them.

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein by.... well, yeah: The least mind-blowing, but enjoyable.

Short Story Anthologies, Fantasy and Science Fiction

Best Science Fiction Stories of Clifford D. Simak by Clifford D. Simak (duh): Really, really good. A lively, imaginative, questing and passionate voice.

After: 19 stories of apocalypse and dystopia, Ellen Datlow ed.: I never pass up an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow.

Supernatural Noir, Ellen Datlow ed.: See?

Blood and Other Cravings, Ellen Datlow ed.: See again?

Stories: All-New Tales, Neil Gaiman Ed.: Same. The Gaiman story in this collection haunted me for weeks. Wrote on Goodreads: None of them sucked, and the best of them were very, very, very good.

The Poison-eaters and other stories by Holly Black: Wrote on Goodreads: Much better than the novel by her that I read. Some real range and breadth of subject, theme and mood. Some are snort-out-loud funny, some are deeply moving.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur Evans ed.: This was really cool. It's a very large and comprehensive anthology, and there are older stories linked thematically with newer stories, which made for a sometimes startling and revelatory experience. 

Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers: Adjective fatigue. It was good.


Grave Writer by Mark Arsenault: Wrote on Goodreads: Looks like your average mystery, but is well above average in writing and characterization. Even minor characters are fully dimensional and many are extremely endearing. The thread of plot about grief and family relationships and regrets is also very well done - subtle, but affecting. This was a great read for a rainy Sunday.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming: I fell in love with this series - fantastic characters, good solid writing, a realistic love story between two older people - years ago and stole this from my sister's shelf to reread.

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming: The latest in the same series. The very last sentence sort of pissed me off as an unneeded, unrealistic twist, but I won't pretend I'm not going to read the next one.

Broken Harbor by Tana French: Wrote on Goodreads: Gah. I'm totally gutted. It's like she crushed up broken hearts and wrote this with the broken-heart juice. I wish I'd never seen this book. Okay, actually it's really good. But don't read it.

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams: Reviewed (sort of) on blog.

Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson: Wrote on Goodreads:  Took a while to catch fire for me, but it really delivered in the end. The story of Tillie, the actress descending into dementia, was deeply unpleasant and distressing. A lot of the lives described here are of the 'nasty, brutish and short' variety. Some keen observations of human nature and some dark and cock-eyed humour. At the end, I felt like I'd missed some stuff, but only because there was so much stuff there.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson: Wrote on Goodreads: This is just so goddamned good.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson: Also very goddamned good.

Bloodman by Robert Pobi: Impressive, doubly so considering it's a first novel.

Borkmann's Point by Hakan Nesser: Another Swedish mystery writer that I would recommend head and shoulders over the Dragon Tattoo guy. Fantastic character. Thoughtful, noir-ish, smart.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Wrote on Goodreads: Good, insightful writing, incisive character analysis, and a thumping good read.

The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell: Wrote on Goodreads (with a somewhat distressing lack of originality, I see now): She is just so fucking good.

Historical Fiction (Which I Don't Usually Read)

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon: I try really hard to remember that different people have different preferences and opinions and THAT'S OKAY, but when a woman I adore in my book club said she didn't like this book, I had to work really hard not to write her off as a decent human being. Okay, I'm exaggerating. A little. There is just something so delightfully human and forgiving and lovely in the way this is written. It completely brought Aristotle to life for me, and put me in the heat and the dust of ancient Macedonia, and I was smitten.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: Frida Kahlo. Diego Rivera. Trotsky. Aztec history. And this guy named Harrison Shepherd who somehow floats around in the middle of it all. I picked it up because when Kingsolver is good she's very, very good, started reading and thought WHAT now? And then got sucked in and couldn't put it down.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Wrote on Goodreads: I have no idea how historically accurate this is, but I started reading it out of a sense of duty and then couldn't put it down. I'm not generally a fan of historical fiction, but the characterization and style were so warm and witty and compelling. In a way it was strange being in the protracted interlude between Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn - I found myself wondering how the King had enough time to fit four more wives in. I absolutely gained more of an appreciation for and interest in this era in British history. Although I enjoyed the portrayal immensely, Cromwell seemed almost too perfect a man, but as the fulcrum for the story he was ideal

YA Fantasy

The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby: Wrote on Goodreads: Heartbreaking, exhilarating, musical, melancholy, magical.

Dust City by Robert Paul Weston: Wrote on Goodreads: In the afterword, Robert Weston says he was trying to imagine what the modern world would be like if it had evolved from the world of Grimm's Fairy Tales. He succeeds admirably in this endeavour. The world, peopled with hominids, animal people, giants and water creatures, is gritty, dark and violent, with the disappeared fairies adding a nice note of yearning melancholy. Henry Whelp is a great noir character - the overmatched under-dog (wolf) with a good heart. I really enjoyed this.

Shift by Em Bailey: Wrote on Goodreads: Maybe 3.5 stars. Good story, a tiny bit formulaic in the romance department, but the writing and the characters elevate this above most of the other similar YA paranormal books with a romance subplot that I've read. Which are many. Sigh.

Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor: Wrote on Goodreads: Beautifully written, moving and original and imaginative.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor: Really quite cool and different, as these things go. Just got the second book from the library. EXCITED.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: Picked this up on a whim in the bookstore and was afraid it wouldn't live up to its promise, which it totally did, except I didn't know it was going to set up for a sequel, which kind of pissed me off. My son read it and liked it (last year when he was 11) but was so creeped out by the pictures that he would only read it while beside me in bed. 

Adult Fantasy

11/22/63 by Stephen King: Wrote on Goodreads: All of the stuff Stephen King does well (by which I think I mean.... melancholy regret, good plot, characterization that stops just short of being too sappy so that you love some characters almost too much, foreboding and charm) and not too much of the stuff that really bugs me (gratuitous-silly gore, endless repetition of certain phrases that starts out creepy and ends up stick-a-fork-in-your-eye annoying). I love time travel stuff anyway, and this was highly enjoyable.

The Gift by Patrick O'Leary: I read this years ago and reread it last year, and it was a completely different read than the one I remember. It's a slippery, dark story, beautifully voiced and layered.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman: Wrote on Goodreads: Don't think I liked it quite as much as the first, and some parts dragged a little, but I loved going back to this world, and the ending was so right. (This is a sequel to The Magicians, which is the book I read and recommended to everyone I knew and most people hated it. By 'the ending was so right', I mean that there is a sacrifice required, and it is an actual sacrifice and is actually required to be given all the way and not taken back, unlike in so many books these days, where as long as the gesture of sacrifice is made, the actual loss or death is not required to be final.)

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier: This author always does offbeat and thought-provoking stuff. This was quite good, although I might have been the most impressed with all the different ways he came up with to describe people's glowing wounds:"hand flared with pain; One of his ribs still shone with a filmy incandescence; Wound still wept with light occasionally; a woman in a thin linen dress stepping out of a French salon, her freshly waxed pubis phosphorescing through her skirt; Her shinbone glittered like a mirror full of camera flashes; A luminous crater on the shoulder plane of his back; Her mouth was shedding a raw white light that sharpened to a knifepoint every time her lips came together; occasional gleaming cincture of a hangover headache; her pelvis a shining cameo of bones; her spine iridescing through her shirt like a string of frightful pearls."


Blackout (Newsflesh Trilogy #3) by Mira Grant: Loved it, except so sad the series is over. Even though she does allow take-backsies in a big way on the whole sacrifice thing.

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell: Zombie Gothic. One of the reviews says this is what it would be like if Flannery O'Connor wrote about zombies, and I heartily concur. Fate, nemesis, implacable forces, one kick-ass young female protagonist, and zombies. Very, very good.

Fiction Without Zombies

Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones: Sure, it's 'intense, beautiful and fablelike' if fables ripped out your heart and stomped on it with jackboots. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Wrote on Goodreads: I wouldn't have guessed that this book would be such a polarizing phenomenon. I hated the first chapter - something about the way Benny kept leaping up or lurching around and saying and doing embarrassing things was incredibly annoying - but shortly thereafter I really got into it - a lot of the characters were lost and searching in a way I could identify with, and even the ones I didn't empathize with were well-drawn and had depth. I know some people find it annoying when each chapter bounces around in time and forces the reader to figure out which characters are now central and how they fit into the book as a whole, but I actually really enjoyed that - this is more a 'mosaic novel' than several books I have read that actually used that label. The relationships between characters were in some ways so recognizable and in other ways refreshingly unexpected. Highly recommended, although I do promise to feel guilty if you read it and don't like it

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley: So much fun!

Faith by Jennifer Haigh: She writes beautifully and with such kindness about people, in all their frailty and failings. Sweet and mournful. 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: Broke my heart. In a good way. 

Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre: Wrote on Goodreads: I believe my words on Twitter were 'highly enjoyable, in a kind of barfy, horrified way'. Some people in my book club found it too over-the-top to be believable, an opinion which I often share regarding satire, but I found most of this all-too-believable. I also found Vernon to be very sympathetic as a character, despite some of his very understandable but really unpleasant obsessions regarding female anatomy and underclothing. (Sort of a latter-day Catcher in the Rye.)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: Wrote on Goodreads: Picked it up on a whim in the library. Wow. I almost gave up halfway through just because of the overwhelming sadness of Larry Ott's life. The characterization and the depiction of male friendships, and father-son relationships, and being the weird kid at school, is searingly accurate. It's all just so subtle, and real, and moving and wonderful. I feel like a jackass trying to write about it.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Enchanting. I laughed out loud - my husband had to go sleep on the couch.

The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass: Just a great story, from a writer I love.

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett: I reviewed it better than I remember liking it: Lyrical and punishingly evocative. Renders that claustrophobic small-town feel disturbingly well. Less narrative energy than I usually like, but gorgeous.

Fiction - Canadian Authors

Blue Becomes You by Bettina Von Kampen: Wrote on Goodreads: This one really snuck up on me. At the beginning I found it a little dull and kept putting it aside to read other things. When I finally decided to finish it, though, I really enjoyed it. The characters are very well-drawn, even (especially?) the annoying ones. The stifling, trapped sense that can come from living in a small town is well-rendered, also. This was a quiet read, but very satisfying.

419 by Will Ferguson: Reviewed on blog.

You Comma Idiot by Doug Harris: Reviewed on blog (hi Sasha!).

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder: Reviewed on blog

Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani: Didn't love it as much as deafening, but a good story.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt: Loved it loved it loved it. Such a unique voice, such melancholy slapstick twisted hilarity and violence. 

The Deception of Livvy Higgs by Donna Morrissey: Reviewed on blog

The Dominion of Wyley McFadden by Scott Gardiner: Someone else on Goodreads said that "It builds on some absolutely absurd truths in the Canadian political culture", which is apt. Interesting.


Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son by Anne Lamott: Nothing terribly different here for those who read Anne Lamott, but that's okay with me. 

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman: She's honest and not terribly self-conscious and doesn't seem to care much what people think of her. I admire that, some days more fervently than others. 

Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson: Wrote on Goodreads: This is a fairly non-traditional biography. I take all biographies with a grain of salt, and I don't think Wilson can be said to get more at the 'truth' of Iris Murdoch because he knew her - in fact, if anything it makes him less reliable. That said, his shifting perspective and erudite style is very enjoyable to read, and at many points in the narrative I found myself smiling. It's an interesting snapshot of university life in Iris Murdoch's era. Some of the criticism of her philosophy and literature gets a little murky and comes across as being in love with its own vocabulary. I've been working my way through her novels, and it was interesting to read this alongside that.

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times: A Collection of All-Original Essays from Today's (and Tomorrow's) Young Authors on the State of the Art -- and the Art of the Hustle -- in the Age of Information Overload, Kevin Smokler Ed.: Wrote on Goodreads: I really enjoyed this - some more than others, but on the whole it was great. Nice variety and cross-section of writers, different viewpoints and perspectives and some great humour. I've given up on trying to get published, so maybe that helped - I was just reading it for fun, not tips.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson: I guess maybe I'd like to say I didn't find it as hysterically funny as everyone else did, just so I could feel special and non-mainstream. But I'd be lying. I damned near laughed my husband physically out of our bed. 

My Leaky Body: Tales from the Gurney by Julie Devaney: Reviewed on blog

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: The incomparable Magpie wrote on Goodreads: "It's one of the best books I've read in years - it's social and medical history all intertwined with racism, poverty, philosophy, morality and family, in a book that reads like a thriller". That about sums it up. I read it and thought 'how the hell did I not know all this stuff already?' It was also the story of how the author got the story, which was riveting in its own way. 

Unsure how to classify

The Watcher by Charles Maclean: I can't remember where I read about this (I need to start keeping track of that part, along with everything else, on Goodreads). It was really interesting - more of a psychological thriller than the horror that it sounded like, and I found myself thinking that I had never read anything quite like it before. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Last night my dreams were filled with waves of new-birthed babies and softly rounded toddlers. This morning I am beached and bereft. I want nothing more than to reach down into a crib and gather up an armful of warm, sleepy child, every inch of the plumped body absolutely buzzing with life. I want to wait for a visit from a friend with another small child, and I want to talk and drink tea while we watch the clumsy navigations of unsure hands and unsteady feet. I want to sit in the rocker and feel a warm, befuzzed baby head grazing the delicate skin on the inside of my forearm. I want to experience that moment when you lift a baby under their arms and their head automatically goes just far enough back that you can reach that perfectly kissable spot under their chin.

I miss Angus calling himself A. "A do it!" "The wain was falling on A's head!" I miss the way he called a frying pan a pancake and called beer Dad Juice and ran towards the phone yelling Hi Damma, Hi Damma even when I wasn't talking to Grandma. I miss Eve enthusiastically saying "Nice booby thing, Mommy!" every time she saw me wearing a pretty bra. I miss the naked hug we would do every morning before I got in the shower. I miss the way they would both start yelling "DANCE MOMMY! DANCE! in the last few seconds of Sesame Street, distressed that I might not get out of my chair quickly enough for us to dance while the catchy, syncopated version of the Sesame Street song played over the credits. I miss the way that every single thing was an amazing discovery and a new experience.

We are all conversant with the ways in which parenthood is a parade of small deaths and vestigial mournings.  Sometimes I think it's monstrously unfair that we are bound to experiencing our children in such a relentlessly linear fashion. Wouldn't it be nicer if the chain of days was interspersed with spacers where we could reach into the past - go from six days of algebra and peach-fuzz whiskers and giant shoes back to a few hours of picture books and playing with the garden hose and word pronunciation gone delightfully askew and silky smooth cheeks?

No, of course not. It would be unnatural and wrong. I've read Slaughterhouse Five and The Time Traveler's Wife. Some of my worst nightmares revolve around coming untethered in time. And I know the Monkey's Paw-ishness of this kind of wish. I know there are people who have lost their small children and never get to experience the pleasure and awe of the new people you're supposed to receive in exchange. I know there are people who do have the experience of living with children who don't age, and for many of them it's no cause for celebration.

I love these people I live with. I love that I carried something inside me that now towers over me. I love that they can have thoughts that amaze me. I love that they find strength and confidence in actions and environments that are completely apart from me. I love seeing the ways in which they are like me and the ways in which they are wondrously, vastly different.

But they were of me, and every day they are less so. And some days the throbbing of that absence is a little more noticeable. And today I just feel like letting that pain have a place, and a voice.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Surly Thursday

Thesauruses (thesauri?) tend to make me surly. First of all, I have this irrational feeling that if I use a thesaurus, it's kind of cheating. It's not really a hundred percent my own work any more if I have to get a word consult. But more than that, doesn't it often turn out that using a thesaurus doesn't really work? I was writing an assignment and looking for a synonym for 'celebrate', as in 'celebrate diversity', but I'd already used 'celebrate', and didn't want to use it four more times. But 'beat the drum for diversity' really didn't seem appropriate. Neither did 'blow off steam' or 'carouse' or 'ceremonialize'. And 'drink to'? Yes, my marketing assignment was really going to fly with my brilliant plan to organize a book club for elementary school students wherein we all 'drink to diversity!'

So yeah, this course. It's called "Library Marketing and Advocacy". Except it just started being called that - last term, before they reworked the entire goddamned curriculum for Library and Information Technology Diploma, it was called "Client Services". I looked at this course title back when I started the program, and I thought "that course is going to be a walk in the park where I just write nice little papers about courtesy and treating clients with respect and delivering great customer service and bullshit like that". And I bet it WOULD HAVE BEEN if I'd taken it a couple of term ago. Bugger. BUGGER! As it is, my husband had to talk me down off a ledge last week as I was starting this assignment, because the only thing that freaks me out more than computer database work is anything that smacks of (shudder) SALES. I could not sell water in the desert. I could not sell potato chips to stoned people. I could not sell pasties to Rihanna. I do not possess the Marketing Gene.

And then people hurt my feelings on Twitter. And then people hurt my feelings on Blogger. And then people on Facebook made fun of string cheese, and people, the fact that I can have a cheese string and fifteen almonds at three-thirty is the only thing preventing me from committing shawarmageddon or a cheeseburgerpocalypse all over my Weight Watcher points right now, so just BACK THE FUCK OFF MY DELIGHTFULLY STRINGABLE DAIRY PRODUCT, WILL YA?

There's a package of chicken breasts in the fridge. I think if I have to cook it I'm actually going to kill myself.

Hannah's Surly Thursday post can be found here. So proud to be Spreading the Surly...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 In Books: The Ones I "Liked"

These were the three-star ones. I always say (I haven't looked at last year's review but I would bet that I said it then) that a three-star rating from me is pretty arbitrary. On a day where I was feeling more frivolous I might have given some of them four stars. I don't think I would round up to three, but I suppose anything's possible.

Horror Story and other Horror Stories by Robert Boyczuk: I wrote on Goodreads: It's better than three stars, but that would mean I really liked it, and I admired it more than I liked it. It's very subtle, off-kilter horror rather than in-your-face horror, which I appreciate, but a lot of it is just too abstruse for me. Also, the typesetting of the story titles couples with the lack of finality in the endings made it hard to tell when a new story was beginning. When it's good it's very very good. When it's bad it feels like it's trying too hard to be sophisticated.

A Finer End by Deborah Crombie: Wrote on Goodreads: Three and a half stars. Very good and convincing at adding in a slight supernatural element without tipping over into melodrama or unbelievability. Picking up the series after leaving it for a few years.

Husk by Corey Redekop: This is by a lovely fellow who sends me review copies from Goose Lane books. It's a zombie novel, but quite original - which is saying something at this point in zombie literature. It's kind of like this book, in that the characters and the melancholy thread of people straining to connect keep it from being only gross, but it's still, it must be said, really really gross.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu: I actually BOUGHT this book, so intrigued was I by the description, and I so wanted to love it. Sharon Holland wrote a magnificent review of it here when I was not quite finished reading the book, and I am slightly heartbroken that I did not get what she did out of the book, but I really just didn't. I'm not opposed to fragmented narratives, but in this case the choppy narration and episodic nature of the book prevented me from connecting with the main character or the story in any meaningful way.

Total Oblivion, More or Less by Alan DeNiro: I was reading this book at the same time as the Science Fictional Universe one, and I did wonder if part of the problem was reading them at the same time. Again, this was a very fragmented narrative which, in addition to the fast-and-furious surreal events which peppered the story, made me unable to process the book in any way except cerebrally. At the end I did feel a frisson of engagement, but I felt sort of like it was an unearned payoff. I think maybe at some point I should give both these books a reread, but not at the same time.

Use Once, Then Destroy by Conrad Williams: I wrote on Goodreads: Don't know. I realized as I started reading it that I had borrowed it from the library before and not loved it then. Took another crack at it. I've read one or two of his stories in other collections and admired them (seems like it would be weird to say 'liked', because he's a fairly twisted puppy). I don't know if it was reading all of these together or if these just weren't quite as strong, but they all seemed to blend together into one oppressive, not entirely coherent, intriguing and yet ultimately unsatisfying mass.

Just Kids by Patti Smith: Someone in my book club put this on the list. I don't know Patti Smith's music, which some people consider a shameful thing. The book was interesting. I freely admit that I can be a bit of a bitch about memoirs - it's hard to impress me, even though it's not like my life's story is any tremendous work of art. I can't help thinking that as a writer, Patti Smith is a pretty good singer. I enjoyed reading about her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and her interactions with many of the famous names of the time, but I can't help thinking that she's quite impressed with herself, when much of her success came from simply being in the right place at the right time. Which is fine, but she's definitely in love with the mythology of her life, and my eyes rolled more than once.

Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz: This one didn't make my eyes roll at all, but it was kind of a strange reading experience. I don't know if it's Jentz's writing style or simply that she hasn't ever allowed herself to process her near death in any kind of visceral way, but it reads almost as if she's writing about things that happened to somebody else. It also could have used a good edit. I enjoyed her connection with people she met on her travels, but it took me a long time to get through the whole book.

Inside by Alix Ohlin: Reviewed on blog.

Midsummer Night by Freda Warrington: This was weird - when I looked at the title in my list, I thought "why did I rate it? I took it out of the library but returned it before I read it." Then I realized I had read it, but clearly it didn't make a strong impression. Although, strong enough that I gave it three stars. It's a mystery. Well, no, it's a fantasy, but it's a mystery that... you get it.

Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon: I've found this series to be quite satisfying, with all the requisite elements: engaging protagonist, solid writing and really good, tight, intriguing plot.

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller: borrowed this from my sister at Christmas. She said it was disturbing. It totally was.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede: If you click on that link, I think you can read Sharon's review, which kicks the shit out of anything I could come up with.

Faerie Winter by Janni Lee Simner: Good, but kind of slight. I read The Bones of Faerie and it didn't really require a sequel.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce: Nicely creepy, strange and original.

Water Wings by Kristen den Hartog: I wrote on Goodreads: I found it intriguing and wanted to keep reading, but I can't really think of what to say about it. The device of the mother's wedding bringing the two girls back to town is weak and barely-there as a pretext for the memories, which are the real story. The characterization is very strong. It reads more as a series of vignettes than a story, which works under the circumstances.

McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Michael Chabon ed.: I should have made notes on the stories, because now I can't really remember individual ones, except Ayelet Waldman's Minnow is heartwrenching and carved into my brain.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin: The plot is really quite different and enough of a hook that this stands out in my mind from all the other YA books I read last year. The romance is also done really well, which can be really hard - it's not sappy or contrived, it flows naturally from the personalities of the characters and is totally believable.

Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin: I got this one out of the library on the strength of the last one. The bending of events to fit the oddity of the premise is a little more obvious in this one, but it still has something that sets it apart. (I wrote on Goodreads: Some of the story seemed a little forced, but the plot device was original and she pulled off the ending much more gracefully than I expected she'd be able to.)

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer: Been meaning to check this series out for a while. It's good fun.

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein: Wrote on Goodreads: A good book that was nearly a great one. It almost feels like it was rushed by either the writer or the editor - the plot is great, the narrator's voice and the characters and the set-up are well-done, and then there are a few crucial brushstrokes that are left out so the whole thing feels a little incomplete. Some of the dialogue is unforgivably stilted (a woman is returned to her family after years in the 'other realm', and when told that her mother mourned her for years her reply is 'oh'). Physical descriptions are lacking - it drove me crazy that Rose is only ever described as long-haired and 'plumper than her sisters' (and I don't mean just once, I mean every singple time he describes her). And the Feierabend family's whole unexamined attitude toward their dearly-paid-for good fortune bothered me.

Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindquist: Wrote on Goodreads: Really good as a thoughtful zombie novel. Not nearly as good as Let the Right One In. Started strongly, some good moments but then kind of went nowhere.

Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield: Fairly mediocre zombie novel.

Niceville by Carsten Stroud: Started out so promisingly, but got bogged down in too many subplots and ended up not concluding anything satisfactorily.

The Best of All Flesh Zombie Anthology, James Lowder ed.: Zombie story anthology. Nuff said?

The Retribution by Val McDermid: I really like this series. I'm not sure why I didn't give it four stars. The two main characters are quite compellingly fucked up.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen: Don't know why I didn't give this four stars either. Seems like the promising start of a series. Beat the living fuck out of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which I know came from Sweden, not Denmark, but still...)

Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, Nancy Kilpatrick ed.: What? I took a short break from zombie stories. It's allowed!

The Burning Soul by John Connolly: The best books in this series are stellar. It's really hard to do dark mystery where supernatural elements don't seem cheesy or just make the whole thing too unbelievable, but Connolly pulls it off. Without the hints of darker forces, Charlie Parker's life would just be too sad and fucked up to swallow. But it's okay - he's cursed. His gay, lethal friends Angel and Louis are worth a series all their own.

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud: family, loss, history, war, stories, water, boats. Most of it I really liked, but there was a part where the story about what happened with her father in the war really annoyed me - it was like the language, in trying to be poetic and beautiful and come at the events sideways, made it impossible to understand what actually happened. Maybe that was the point? I don't know, but it pissed me off.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher: I wrote on Goodreads: A little dated, maybe a little overly simplistic, but thought-provoking. Also, chilling in that it took a look at what human nature might really be pared down to when civilization is peeled away and the odds of survival become slighter. 

Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest: Reviewed on blog.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson: World War Z with robots, and not quite as good (they didn't get Brad Pitt for THEIR movie, did they?)

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood: There are some meandering observations about it in here.

Chasing the Dead by Joe Schreiber: On Goodreads I used that line about blending the supernatural into mystery again. I'm so derivative. This was cool - kind of different.

Spell Bound (Hex Hall #3) by Rachel Hawkins: I loved the first book in this trilogy. Once again, I could have done without the second and third, although of course I still read them.

Due Preparations for the Plague by Janette Turner Hospital: Wrote on Goodreads: Huh. Dunno. I used to be in love with anything by this author, but I was a word-enamoured university student. Now I think she's sometimes a tiny bit too in love with her own craftiness. Starts out interesting, gets a little marshy in the middle, ends nicely.

Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card: Wrote on Goodreads: Orson Scott Card is great at writing a thumping good yarn, and he's good at getting at the real crux of how people think and act, and he's good at pages and pages of mechanical detail and philosophizing. There may have been a TAD too much of the latter here. I liked knowing the end of Bean's story, this just didn't measure up to some of the other books in the series for me.

Everlost by Neal Shusterman: Wrote on Goodreads: I was a tiny bit disappointed, simply because I read Unwind before this and it was SO GOOD. I think this is probably targeted more towards readers aged 9-12, whereas Unwind was for older readers, so it's my fault for not paying attention. Still a pretty good read and a fairly fresh spin on the afterlife (between-life?).

Coincidence Detection by Selaine Henriksen: Reviewed on blog.

Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay: Wrote on Goodreads: Entertaining and fun. Also, allows me to say something I never thought I would, which is "the television show is a little deeper".

The Radleys by Matt Haig: Wrote on Goodreads: Meh. f Interesting premise, but couldn't quite seem to decide on a tone. Some of the vampire in-joke trying-to-be-funny stuff is just desperately awkward and sad. The rest is just...awkward, I guess. There's talk about emotions, but very little emotion is displayed. Unsatisfying, ultimately.

Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide by Linda Gray Sexton: Wrote on Goodreads: I think parts of this book should probably be required reading for anyone who has ever thought of suicide as a selfish act. Linda Sexton makes a pretty good case for the fact that she could no more avoid inheriting suicidal depression from her mother than she could avoid having the gene for breast cancer.

The Optimists by Andrew Miller: Wrote on Goodreads: I almost gave up after the first couple of chapters, probably chiefly because I was comparing it to Ingenious Pain, which is in my top ten of all time. It was a case of 'yes, yes, he's a photographer, he's witnessed atrocities, he's come home all scarred and disenchanted, wanders around, has an unsatisfying visit with a prostitute (duh) - anything else?' And yet, in telling the story of a man who thinks that to go on living is impossible and then proves himself wrong by, in fact, going on living ('I can't go on, I'll go on'), it ends up working. Also, there's the enjoyable touch of his friend Silverman who finds redemption by feeding the homeless in the 'bleakness' of Canada (the wild colonial wastelands of Toronto). It's still not nearly as good as Ingenious Pain - but what's going to be, right?

Allison Hewitt is Trapped by Madeleine Roux: Wrote on Goodreads: ** spoiler alert ** Probably more like 2 1/2 stars. Not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed. The concept sounded so fascinating, and...zombies! and...her name is Allison, with the right number of Ls! It might have been better to read as a blog. In a book, the style and character attributes were uneven and inconsistent, although I suspect in a blog it would have read too much like a story made into a blog - especially the chapters where Allison and Ned are kidnapped by the Black Earth Wives. Then there's the episode where Allison is The Avenging Heroine trapping down the guy who steals food from people. Okay, first of all, he's stolen enough food from the encampment at the university to be noticed, even with armed guards? And then he steals ALL the food from the apartment, and escapes on foot, his arms 'full of 20-pound boxes'? How many 20-pound boxes can one man run away with? And then when she catches him she chops his feet off - to teach him a lesson! Said lesson presumably being "there's a zombie apocalypse on and you have no feet - you're dead". 

It was all just a little shallow and contrived. I am eminently able to suspend disbelief for all kinds of nonsense if the writing creates a vivid enough world. That just wasn't the case here.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch: Since watching the movie about her life, I had been wanting to read some earlier Iris Murdoch (I read Jackson's Dilemma back when I worked at the bookstore in Toronto). It's a very vivid window into the workings of the main character's mind, with some enjoyable slapstick thrown in. It was an enjoyable, sort of serene and grounding reading experience.

The Burning by Jane Casey: Mildly diverting.

The White Devil by Justin Evans: Wrote on Goodreads: The character studies and the romance were well done. The horrifying mystery was... somewhat less so.

Shut Your Eyes Tight by John Verdon: see other book by same author

Blood and Ashes by Matt Hilton: Not sure what possessed me to pick this one up. Pretty good for what it was, but what it was is not something I need much of.

The Unwritten Vol 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey: Wrote on Goodreads: I don't have a lot of experience with graphic novels. I reserved this at the library not knowing it was a graphic novel. It was interesting, although it does the same thing that always bugged me a little in comic books, which is putting words IN BOLD, theoretically for EMPHASIS, but not ALWAYS appropriately, IN my opinion. I like the eerie atmosphere, the hint of the darker side of fantastic literature and its storytellers. I will probably continue the series if the library has it. Some of the sketches are really beautiful.

Forever (The Wolves of Mercy Falls #3) by Maggie Stiefvater: Good conclusion to a good series (okay, I have to say it though - the first book would have been JUST FINE without being turned into a trilogy).

The Baker's Wife by Erin Healy: Wrote on Goodreads: I didn't realize this was categorized as 'Christian' suspense before I bought it. I most likely would not have bought it if I had - I strongly dislike preachiness and didacticism. Happily, there was very little of that in this story. It was an interesting take on how people of strong faith deal with adversity, and the mystery works quite well (although one 'forgotten' detail was pretty unrealistic). I did feel that Jack was a bit lacking as a character - his dialogue especially was so un-nuanced he was almost more of a caricature than a fully developed character. The two teen-aged characters were written very well. I also liked Diane as a character, although the wrap-up of her story was a little clunky. The description of Audrey and Geoffrey's relationship, particularly the bread-baking, was lovely.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: Wrote on Goodreads: This was well-written and thought-provoking, but didn't entirely work for me. It read more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy of what people wish would happen after a teenager commits suicide, where everyone who was thoughtlessly or intentionally cruel gets schooled on exactly what they did to contribute to the person's despair. I find it somewhat hard to believe that Hannah could see her situation with such a clear eye and a level head and still be in the state to kill herself (I'm not saying I'm right - just how I feel). It's a sensitive and admirable attempt to address an important topic - just doesn't quite hit the mark for me.

Dark Delicacies III: Haunted, Del Howison ed.: Picked it up on clearance and was pleasantly surprised.

1222 by Anne Holt: Wrote on Goodreads: The main character was almost refreshing in her determined unlikability. This was interesting, although I much prefer Holt's other series

Leviathan (Leviathan #1) by Scott Westerfeld: Angus got this for Christmas last year, read it, then demanded that I read it also. Wrote on Goodreads: One of my favourites of the YA steampunk novels I've read. Both the male and female protagonist are sympathetic but not without flaws, the story moves along nicely, the history is engaging and I LOVE the Darwinian hybrids.

Friday, January 18, 2013

2012 in Books: The Turkeys

Why, some may ask, do I feel the need to make the books I reviewed badly part of the year end/year beginning book review posts?

I dunno - perhaps it's the completist in me. I read them, even if they weren't great, and attention MUST BE PAID. Also, I am always open to dissenting opinions; I am fully aware that, although some books are just objectively bad, with others it is entirely possible that what I brought to the reading experience was equally at fault.

So. In 2012, according to Goodreads, I recorded 144 books. It's likely that I missed a few - remember when this happened, and I had to spend an hour on the Ottawa Public Library website searching through mystery titles? There are books I can't bring myself to admit to reading, and books I just forget to log, which is incredibly dumb, because relying on my memory is like - insert razor-sharp Lance Armstrong joke, I'm too tired.

Seventeen books that got one or two stars for me - "I didn't like it", or the suitably tepid "It was okay".

Little Star by John Ajvide Lindquist: I think the biggest problem with this writer for me is that I read Let the Right One In first, and nothing he's published subsequently has remotely lived up to that one for me. This one started interestingly enough, and the story of the relationship that develops between two girls who don't fit in with the normal run of humanity kept my attention for a while, but (and here the frequent comparison to Stephen King holds up, because this happens in many Stephen King books as well) ultimately it devolves into an unintelligent gore-fest, which is really disappointing when set against the deliciously creepy subtlety of Let the Right One In.

After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh: With this one I really have to wonder if it was just my mood. The other reviews are almost uniformly positive and I generally love this genre. This just left me flat, though.

City of Whispers by Marcia Mullar: This is part of an extremely long-running series; the first one was published in 1977. It takes place in San Francisco, and the role of the city in the series is considerable - journal articles have been written about 'Sharon McCone's San Francisco'. I've long admired the series, particularly for the fact that the author lets her protagonist evolve and grow, unlike some series writers. But the last two or three books have been lacking; I find myself suspecting that Muller has grown tired of the series, or is rushing to meet deadlines. The writing seems to lack care, with short sentences and little spark. The dialogue is perfunctory. Characters act in ways that are out of...well.... character. It might be time to let this one go.

The Last Lie by Stephen White: Another series book, a series which, if I'm honest, I really only enjoyed the first two or three books in. Why do I keep going back? I don't request them from the library any more, but I still have trouble not sweeping the latest one into my bag if I see it on the shelf. Even though it's free, it's no longer a solid return on investment. But let me just take the opportunity here to complain about something that irritates me every time I read one of his books, to the point where I've considered emailing the author: he can't seem to give his female characters normal names. Apart from the narrator's wife and daughter, nearly every female in every book has a name that makes me raise an eyebrow, and would likely give Nan an aneurysm. Some of the ones I remember: Sawyer, Gibbs, Landon, Merritt, and one girl who is named Carmel at the beginning of the book and then demands to be called Cara later on. Okay, now that I'm typing it it sounds really stupid, but pet peeves don't have to be reasonable, right? I just don't understand why he names female characters like a ten-year-old cooking up possible names for her future fairy princess children.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami: I'd been meaning to read something by Murakami for years. How I wish I'd let it remain just a beautiful unexplored potentiality. I could say I read this for book club, which I did, but the sad truth is that it was MY suggestion. This is what I wrote on Goodreads: I feel like I should give this a rating based on how I think I SHOULD feel about it, but I just couldn't find a way into it. I put it on my book club list because I'd been meaning to read something by Murakami, but I wish I'd started with something else. The translation seemed clunky ("I never saw her again. That is, until many years later"), I've always disliked the device of the mysterious beautiful woman, infinitely desirable simply because of the mystery, and the whole thing seemed flaky and insubstantial.

Let's All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury: Years and years ago I read Death is a Lonely Business and A Graveyard for Lunatics by Ray Bradbury. I own both books, set in the 1950s in Venice Beach in California, peopled by a young writer, a surface-cynical cop with a heart of gold, and glamorous movie stars in various stages of their careers. They seemed impossibly magical and poetic, written with such a graciousness of spirit, and from then on I read everything by Ray Bradbury that I could get my hands on. One morning in high school homeroom, the girl who sat in front of me asked what class the book of short stories I was reading was for. I said I was just reading it for pleasure, and she looked at me like I had confessed to eating kittens for breakfast. This isn't supposed to be a 'Ray Bradbury made it okay that I was weird for reading books on purpose' story, it's just a random memory, and a way to delay having to describe what a dismal piece of dreck Let's All Kill Constance was, even though it was written by the same author and set in the same world with the same characters. It was like someone else tried to write in his style and failed miserably. Either he'd waited too long and grown too tired to muster up anything but a pale, perfunctory imitation or I was wrong about those earlier books. I'm honestly a little afraid to go back and find out.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth: Divergent was really good. This was quite bad. I will, of course, have to read the third book. Perhaps it will be just right.

Hide me Among the Graves by Tim Powers: I wrote on Goodreads:  I kind of hated this book, but I'm really not sure why. It just seemed to drag on and on with the same vaguely tiresome people running away from the same evil spirits that some of them sort of felt sorry for or loved even while being really afraid of them. It sounded good. It was very tiresome.

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers: Most of the other reviews on Goodreads were positive for this too, but I'm pretty confident in my assessment that is was crap. Whiny teen angst with zombies around the edges. Maybe teenagers would be the same puling little suckholes even in a crisis, but it seems like someone should be able to write about it in a more convincing manner.

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull: "Interesting plot, disappointingly mediocre writing" is what I wrote on Goodreads. My main plot beef was the fact that the brother keeps being forgiven for the dumbass things he does, which happens often in stories, but the thing is, the things he does aren't just goofy mistakes or problems with impulse control; they are flat-out acts of selfish and willful assholishness that keep resulting in near-disastrous consequences, and yet everyone keeps reacting like "yeah, okay, you detonated that nuke just because you wanted to see some interesting light patterns, but what the heck, we're family".

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: I wrote on Goodreads: I loved The Gathering, and found this intensely disappointing by comparison. Maybe I was missing something. It read like someone trying, and failing, to describe an adulterous affair as something less pedestrian or dull or self-indulgent as other people's adulterous affairs. Maybe that was the point, maybe Gina is meant to be read that way - weak and self-glamorizing - as a character. Either way, it didn't work for me.

The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks: Meh.

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub: I wrote on Goodreads: I keep trying. I love smart horror and writers I love seem to agree that Peter Straub does smart horror brilliantly. And yet, for me, he's always so close... and yet, not. (Starting to worry a little about my learning curve).

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick: I wrote on Goodreads: Story was interesting. Execution was somewhat lacking. (And yet, I remember this vaguely as being kind of different and pretty good. Huh.)

The Stone Child by Dan Poblocki: I think this suffered from the fact that I had read some very good YA literature around this time - and, to be fair, it's pitched to an even slightly younger audience. The story is cute but the writing is not terribly deft, and I was annoyed that clues or discoveries that should have been immediately obviously pertinent would take a while to sink in. I felt like Poblocki was talking down even to the younger audience.

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler: I wrote on Goodreads: Not bad, just overly hyped for what it was. The present-day story didn't really fit in with the in-the-past story, so it all seemed a little disjointed. The story of who really killed the family isn't resolved in a satisfactory way, it's just played for shock value and then to introduce another threat as a complication later on. None of the character's motivations seem really based in anything solid.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead: I wrote on Goodreads: I didn't like it. I don't know why, exactly. I love zombie books, and if they're thoughtful and insightful, all the better. This one just left me completely flat. I couldn't get a handle on any of the characters, often it was difficult to tell if things were happening or if Mark Spitz was just imagining them happening, and I had to force myself to finish it. Maybe it was just the wrong time or a bad mood.