Books 2016: Unclassifiable and Turkeys

My Goodreads book total for the year is 111, down two from last year. I was a little surprised at this, because I felt like there were longish periods where I only read a little bit of one book for days at a time. I still do feel like I stuck with easier reads this year - I just didn't feel up to tackling anything really dense or challenging. I've had Home by Marilynne Robinson on my bedside table for the whole year, and the little bit I've read about it is just as wonderful as I expected, and yet I can't bring myself to read any further. I thought about pushing myself, and then for a while I just didn't. This year I'm going to try to chart more of a course. I'm not sure exactly how - my to-read list is a giant unwieldy book-snake and I'm not sure if there's a way to renumber it so I can put more immediate things near the top - but I'm going to try.

All synopses are from Goodreads:

Four one-star reads, seven two-stars and one that I couldn't bring myself to rate. The latter was:

Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn: From the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves.
When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.
Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.
Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past. 
But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

WOW, this was messed up. I was blown away by her Charm & Strange, but this was an order of magnitude more challenging and troubling. I'm kind of impressed by her willingness to feature twisted characters and resist the impulse to redeem them or give them neat little endings. And her writing is stellar. I just can't bring myself to say I 'liked' it.


The Shadow Girl by Jennifer Archer: Sometimes I forget for an hour or two that she's with me. Sometimes I convince myself that she was only a dream. Or that I'm crazy.
For as long as Lily Winston can remember, she has never been alone. Iris, a shadowy figure who mimics Lily's movements and whispers in her ear, is with her always—but invisible to the rest of the world. Iris is Lily's secret.
But when Lily's father is killed in a tragic accident, his cryptic final words suggest that he and Lily's mother have been keeping secrets of their own. Suddenly, Iris begins pushing Lily more than ever, possessing her thoughts and urging her to put together the pieces of a strange puzzle her father left behind. As she searches for answers, Lily finds herself drawn to Ty Collier, a mysterious new boy in town. Together, Lily and Ty must untangle a web of deception to discover the truth about her family, Iris . . . and Lily's own identity.

Like a child who can't look away from bright shiny things, every now and then (more often than I like to admit) I still pick something up because the plot sounds intriguing. This is not really a sound strategy, because at this point in a reading life there really aren't many plots that are going to surprise you - you really need to go for characterization, dialogue and writing. Truthfully, the plot was kind of cool here. Everything else? Just really bad. Predictable and hackneyed and the plot-advancing events are clunky and the plot-retarding devices are idiotic and god, you guys, just really, really bad.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica: "I've been following her for the past few days. I know where she buys her groceries, where she works. I don't know the color of her eyes or what they look like when she's scared. But I will." 
One night, Mia Dennett enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn't show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. At first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia's life. 
When Colin decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota instead of delivering her to his employers, Mia's mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them. But no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family's world to shatter. 
An addictively suspenseful and tautly written thriller, The Good Girl is a propulsive debut that reveals how even in the perfect family, nothing is as it seems.

Just... just... why? Flat characters and predictable plotline, ridiculous amnesia 'twist' notwithstanding. Completely standard triangle of low-income low-class chip-on-shoulder cop plus rich desperate housewife plus rich horrible husband. Nothing special in the writing or the characters or the story.

The Cold Cold Sea by Linda Huber: A powerful suspense thriller inspired by the author's work with neurological patients.
When three-year-old Olivia disappears, her parents are overwhelmed with grief. Weeks go by and Olivia’s mother refuses to leave the cottage, staring out at the turbulent sea and praying it didn’t claim her precious daughter’s life. Not far away, another mother watches proudly as her daughter starts school. Jennifer has loved Hailey for five years, but the child is suddenly moody and difficult, and there’s a nagging worry of doubt that Jennifer cannot shake off. As she struggles to maintain control there are gaps in her story that even she can’t explain. Time is running out for Maggie at the cottage, and also for Jennifer and Hailey. No one can underestimate a mother’s love for her child, and no one can predict the lengths one will go to, to protect her family.

Oh Goodreads, how could you fail me so cruelly? This was on my Kindle on the strength of many, many glowing Goodreads reviews (and a low sale price) so I read it last night while I was insomnia-ridden, and it's TERRIBLE. How can you all think it's a good book? It's a VERY BAD book!
Okay, it's not the worst book ever. I guess it's less a mystery than some kind of psychological suspense thing. Because there is zero mystery (and very little suspense, as far as I'm concerned). It's completely obvious what's happened, and happening, and the writing is fine but there's nothing in it that makes the lack of tension forgivable.
Clearly a bunch of people have found something agreeable here. But if you read mysteries because you like, I don't know, MYSTERY, run fast, run far, preferably in the direction of Fred Vargas or Laura Lippman.

The Widow by Fiona Barton: For fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, an electrifying thriller that will take you into the dark spaces that exist between a husband and a wife.
When the police started asking questions, Jean Taylor turned into a different woman. One who enabled her and her husband to carry on, when more bad things began to happen... 
But that woman’s husband died last week. And Jean doesn’t have to be her anymore. 
There’s a lot Jean hasn’t said over the years about the crime her husband was suspected of committing. She was too busy being the perfect wife, standing by her man while living with the accusing glares and the anonymous harassment. 
 Now there’s no reason to stay quiet. There are people who want to hear her story. They want to know what it was like living with that man. She can tell them that there were secrets. There always are in a marriage.  
The truth—that’s all anyone wants. But the one lesson Jean has learned in the last few years is that she can make people believe anything…

Me whenever someone writes a review saying a book is bad: "You shouldn't say it's bad, you should say that you didn't enjoy the experience of reading it, or that it didn't work for you". Me when I read a book like this: "This book is just objectively awful".
Gone Girl was a good book - great, even. The Girl on the Train was a perfectly good book. This? This was donkeyballs. The whole thing consisted of Jean recounting her boring life with her boring-yet-slightly-sinister ass of a husband, summing up all of his dialogue in short lines with her name at the end: "Nobody's business but ours, Jeanie." "Too tarty, Jeanie." "Can you believe how bad this book is, Jeanie?" Then what you pretty much assume happened is revealed to have, in fact, happened. The end.

Two Stars:

Northwoods Deep by Joel Arnold: Deep in the north woods, two sisters become lost; one stalked by a murderous ex-husband, the other unable to rid herself of the leeches that appear mysteriously on her skin. All are drawn to an old, dilapidated cabin. Inside lives an old man with awful urges, accompanied by a Rottweiler possessed by something...unnatural. But it's what resides beneath the cabin that they should really be worried about. Please join award-winning author Joel Arnold on a ride over the river and through the woods straight into terror in his newest novel, Northwoods Deep. 

More meh than I'd hoped. Pretty simplistic rendering of an abusive husband. Had the germ of a good plot but nothing really head and shoulders above a lot of other horror. Characters were more than flat but less than fully realized. Plus everyone belches way too much.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: They had nothing in common until love gave them everything to lose . . .
Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has barely been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.
Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.
A Love Story for this generation and perfect for fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?

I had a "maybe it's just me" moment with this one. A lot of people really, really liked it - several people whose reading tastes often overlap with mine, whose opinions I respect. Personally, I found this really trite and simplistic. Characterization was desultory, plot was contrived and the writing style was underwhelming. It read like a Harlequin romance with more medical terminology.

The Unbound by Victoria Schwab: Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.
Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she's struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn't easy -- not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she's really safe. 
Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She's sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she'll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?
With stunning prose and a captivating mixture of action, romance, and horror, The Unbound delves into a richly imagined world where no choice is easy and love and loss feel like two sides of the same coin.

Ugh. I loved the first one so much. This one mostly made me wish it had been a standalone. Mackenzie was too much of a martyr/Job figure and I spent most of the book angry. It seemed weird trying to root out corruption in The Archive when a key authority figure was allowed to practice torture and assault on a sixteen-year-old girl. The new love triangle was forced and unnecessary also, and some interesting new relationships with girls were crowded out by the constant violence and misery. I understand that there were important things at stake, but there were in the first book too, and she managed the pacing better - this was almost farcical in the number of crappy things happening to the character in the shortest possible amount of time. I sort of wish I hadn't read it. Not sure what I'll do when the next one comes out. 

The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy: Eleven years ago, Stella and Jeanie disappeared. Only Stella came back.
Now all she wants is a summer full of cove days, friends, and her gorgeous crush - until a fresh corpse leads Stella down a path of ancient evil and secrets.
Stella believes remembering what happened to Jeanie will save her. It won’t.
She used to know better than to believe in what slinks through the shadows. Not anymore.

I have NO idea why I kept reading this, when I keep saying I'm going to stop finishing books that I'm not enjoying. I think I read some reviews that made me think it would get better. Everything from the writing to the characterization to the plotting just felt clumsy. Zoey was supposed to be the fake-bitchy friend with a heart of gold, but she comes across as way too actually bitchy and self-absorbed to actually be any kind of friend; the rehabilitation of Sam as a love interest is too fast and lacks any subtlety; Stella herself has very little in the way of nuance. And the old lady in the woods is just freaking annoying with her hillbilly dialect and her itchy trigger finger. The mystery wrap-up was halfway satisfying, but by then I was just desperate to be done.

Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll: Neil Gaiman praises as "Brain-smooshing work. As if John Updike were to write a Philip K Dick novel." A surreal apocalypse novel that tackles a world of domestic strife and fragile friendships. 
In Jonathan Carroll's surreal masterpiece, Bathing the Lion, five people who live in the same New England town go to sleep one night and all share the same hyper-realistic dream. Some of these people know each other; some don’t. 
When they wake the next day all of them know what has happened. All five were at one time “mechanics,” a kind of cosmic repairman whose job is to keep order in the universe and clean up the messes made both by sentient beings and the utterly fearsome yet inevitable Chaos that periodically rolls through, wreaking mayhem wherever it touches down—a kind of infinitely powerful, merciless tornado. Because the job of a mechanic is grueling and exhausting, after a certain period all of them are retired and sent to different parts of the cosmos to live out their days as "civilians." Their memories are wiped clean and new identities are created for them that fit the places they go to live out their natural lives to the end. 
For the first time all retired mechanics are being brought back to duty: Chaos has a new plan, and it's not looking good for mankind...

I don't know if Jonathan Carroll's best work is behind him or if I'm just too jaded and cynical now, but I found his earlier work (Bones of the Moon! A Child Across the Sky! Sleeping in Flame!) unutterably brilliant and original and wonderful. The last four or five books just seem tired and garbled rehashings of the same thing - some mystical world-spanning plot, random deus-ex-machina events that let people know what's going on, culminating in a bunch of new-agey silliness. I may just stick to rereading from now on.

Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante: Marin spends a lot of time avoiding things. She avoids thinking about her mother's suicide and what she could have done to prevent it. She avoids looking at people directly-because she can see their pain as bright, colorful shapes. And she avoids Cassie Jackson, who used her in a sinister ritual months ago, although Marin's not exactly sure why.
When Cassie stands up at school, screaming, raking her nails down her cheeks, and pointing a finger at Marin, whispering "YOU," Marin's days of avoidance come to an abrupt end. Cassie's older brother believes that Marin holds the secret to Cassie's illness. So they team up to solve the mystery of what Cassie has unleashed. But as they look deeper into the darkness and things begin to go bump in the night, can Marin trust what she sees?
Cecilia Galante, author of The Patron Saint of Butterflies, presents a chilling story with horror-movie thrills and nail-biting suspense. Perfect for fans of American Horror StoryParanormal Activity, and The Exorcist, and readers who love to feel goose bumps.

Started out promisingly - good conversational writing style, no clunky dialogue, smart and sarcastic protagonist. Devolved into a simpering, sentimental stew of platitudes and insta-love. Wholly unsatisfying.

Black Feathers by Robert J. Wiersema: Sixteen-year-old runaway Cassie Weathers is utterly alone, living on the streets of Victoria as winter sets in. She meets Skylark, a girl who draws her into a community of street dwellers, a rag tag group led by the charismatic Brother Paul.
Cassie begins to find friendship and a tentative sense of belonging within the group, though everyone is on edge when the city is rocked by the news that a number of young prostitutes have been murdered. Cassie is haunted by dreams and the secrets that she fled from at home. What is real from her past and what exists only in her night terrors? How did the darkness of her dreams slip into her life back then, and why does it seem to be happening again? Under the spectre of a serial killer and questioning her own violent nature, Cassie spirals into complex dreamworlds where her past blurs with her present and nothing can be trusted.
Reminiscent of the works of Stephen King, Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, Black Feathers is a mythic thriller that carries you in its grip right until its heart-stopping conclusion.

By far my least favourite of Wiersema's. The parts about "The Darkness" feel kind of pretentious and cheesy, and I didn't feel there was adequate explanation of why Cassie had so much trouble telling what was real from what wasn't. The parts about being homeless were very realistic and affecting, but it was supposed to be a scary story, not just a social commentary. 


StephLove said…
I'm trying to imagine a book in which it's necessary to chronicle the characters frequent belches.

I've only been on Goodreads for six months, but so far the lowest I've gone was two stars and that was for a completely unoriginal, derivative kids' book. I'm saving one star for books more horrible than I could have imagined, like Ayn Rand or something. Not that I'd voluntarily read Ayn Rand, so I may never have a one-star book.
Nicole said…

I *kind of* enjoyed Me Before You, but it wasn't this transformative experience that I had been led to believe it was. It was OKAY, like fine for airport reading or what have you, but really not that compelling. But I thought I was the only one! OMG SISTERSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

Okay, am looking forward to your more highly rated recommendations!
amyboughner said…
I keep thinking I should read Me Before You because so many people seem to like it, and then I pick it up and read the back and think 'nope.'

But actually I think you should read more bad books so we get reviews like The Widow.
I am with Amy, up there. I think you should continue to read substandard books, so we get to enjoy your reviews. :)

I was feeling compelled to read, Me Before You. Hmm. Maybe a good library read? I like to buy books, but my bedside table currently has a tower of books I've yet to make time to read. I have vowed to reassess and read what I have before even thinking about buying another book.

111 is amazing, imnsho.

I am aiming for 50 this year. I have not done that in a very long time. Life gets in the way. (Also, Twitter.)
Magpie said…
unless i really hate something, or really love something, i often can't bear to give a star rating on goodreads. because my rating is so idiosyncratically and subjectively mine - it seems irrelevant to award stars. just about half, i skipped a star. The Girl On The Train got two stars because it was just meh; i think i rated it mostly because it was so damned hyped.
Magpie said…
and i've read Me Before You, and failed to rate it, and can't remember anything about it. that's not a good sign...

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