Books 2017: Unfinished, One Star and Two Stars

126 books this year (although I've been having problems with Goodreads glitching and not adding books properly, so grain of salt), up from 111 last year. I set my reading challenge to read at least one more book than last year, and I confess that for a while I was reading with one eye on the numbers and feeling slightly anxious about meeting the challenge. Then I gave myself a smack because that is stupid, and stopped. I'm not sure if I'll set it as a challenge again this year - there's something kind of satisfying about that metre showing you what percentage of your challenge you've completed, but do I really need to give myself another thing to be neurotic about?

I read a lot less straight fiction this year - I was noticing it throughout the year, and the stats confirm it. Most of the fiction I did read was for a Book Bingo Facebook group I joined, and it was cool - sort of arbitrary prompts that led me to books I wouldn't otherwise have read, some really good. Otherwise, I'm not sure what happened - there were books I wanted to read, books I thought I should read, and somehow I just couldn't get through them. I've been a quarter or so of a way through Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien for weeks now. Normally this kind of thing stresses me out. Right now I'm just reading what I feel like and not worrying about it. These things are usually cyclical, I find, and fiction's time will come around again for me. Maybe it's the distressing nature of much of reality right now that's leading my reading consciousness to yearn for more make believe, or for quandaries that are decisively solved. I think that there are important things said in fiction, and I will keep trying, but I also think that genre fiction is often under-rated, and I don't consider it a guilty pleasure at all - just a pleasure.

Did Not Finish

The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan. Synopsis from Goodreads: Sarah Crowe left Atlanta, and the remnants of a tumultuous relationship, to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house's former tenant-a parapsychologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on a desolate corner of the property. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks her health and her sanity to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago.

I feel like I always want to like Caitlin Kiernan's stuff more than I do. I appreciate the feminist underpinning and the non-heteronormativity, and I'm not opposed to character-driven stories rather than plot-driven, but things tend to get to rambly for me. "Descends into a haze" is a phrase that I seem to remember was used for more than one plot synopsis, and it's very apt. I would read and read and then realize that there was really not much to hang onto in much of what I had read. Kiernan has been described as a Lovecraftian heir, and that would also explain it - I like my horror a touch more modern; I don't do well with long streams of horrifying images and adjectives such as 'eldritch' and 'unspeakable' (if it's unspeakable, then write about something speakable, I don't have time to read about something so bad that you can't even actually write about it). This book had several positive reviews, but one friend (HI AMY) shelved it as 'at-least-i-finished-it', so it wasn't just me. It is exceedingly rare for me not to finish a book, but this one gets that dubious honour. 

One Star

The Couple Next Door by Sheri Lapena. Synopsis from Goodreads: Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all--a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.
Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they've kept for years.
What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family--a chilling tale of deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

Holy Hell, what a bloody mess. I read the express e-book on a sleepless night, and if it wasn't immediately available and then short, I would have chucked it. The titular (snicker) couple next door doesn't really have enough to do with the story to merit top billing. The characters are flat, the dialogue is clunky, and the plot is meh. The 'shocking final twist' is basically a shocking final twist, in the way that it might as well have been ordered from the Shocking Final Twist Store. I was lured in by the lost-baby element. I have regrets. 

Two Stars

The Chalice: A Glastonbury Ghost Story by Phil Rickman. Synopsis from Goodreads: Glastonbury, legendary resting place of the Holy Grail, is a mysterious and haunting town. When Diane Ffitch returns home, it’s with a sense of deep unease. As the town becomes increasingly split by violence and death, Diane and her friends face up to the worst of all possibilities: the existence of an anti-Grail—the Dark Chalice.

This made me sad. I remembered that I really liked Phil Rickman - I read a couple of his books years ago and they were joyfully surprising in the way that unassuming horror paperbacks are when you realize that they are written with care and passion and packed with real, nuanced characters and you laugh and cry as much as you shiver. I decided to read the Merrily Watkins series from the beginning, but I found this at the library and gave it a shot. The set-up was good and I still found characters that I cared about, but the plot was all over the place, the middle dragged majorly, and when I finally sat down to plow through, the ending was rushed and unsatisfying. Try December or Candlenight instead. 

Once Every Never by Lesley Livingston. Synopsis from Goodreads: Clarinet Reid is a pretty typical teenager. On the surface. She’s smart, but a bit of a slacker; outgoing, but just a little insecure; not exactly a mischief-maker … but trouble tends to find her wherever she goes. Also? She unwittingly carries a centuries-old Druid Blood Curse running through her veins. Now, with a single thoughtless act, what started off as the Summer Vacation in Dullsville suddenly spirals into a deadly race to find a stolen artifact, avert an explosive catastrophe, save a Celtic warrior princess, right a dreadful wrong that happened centuries before Clare was even born, and if there’s still time— literally—maybe even get a date.

This is the kind of adventure that happens to a girl once every … never.

I saw this in a bookstore when it first came out and thought it looked interesting. Years later I gave it a crack. It was ... not that interesting. 

The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman. Synopsis from Goodreads: When Henry was a child, something terrible happened in the woods behind his home, something so shocking he could only express his grief by drawing pictures of what he had witnessed. Eventually Henry's mind blocked out the bad memories, but he continued to draw, often at night by the light of the moon.
Twenty years later, Henry makes his living by painting his disturbing works of art. He loves his wife and his son and life couldn't be better... except there's something not quite right about the old stone farmhouse his family now calls home. There's something strange living in the cramped cellar, in the maze of pipes that feed the ancient steam boiler. 
A winter storm is brewing and soon Henry will learn the true nature of the monster waiting for him down in the darkness. He will battle this demon and, in the process, he may discover what really happened when he was a child and why, in times of trouble, he thinks: I paint against the darkness. 
But will Henry learn the truth in time to avoid the terrible fate awaiting him... or will the thing in the cellar get him and his family first? 
Written as both a meditation on the art of creation and as an examination of the secret fears we all share, The Painted Darkness is a terrifying look at the true cost we pay when we run from our grief--and what happens when we're finally forced to confront the monsters we know all too well.

I got a Kindle edition cheap, possibly free, I can't remember. There were reviews comparing Freeman to Stephen King. One of the negative reviews on Goodreads actually said that he did write like Stephen King, in a negative way. I completely disagree. King does what he does, sometimes in a highly repetitive manner, but he does it masterfully. This was weak, and thin, and predictable, and 
just not very good. 

Her Darkest Nightmare by Brenda Novak. Synopsis from Goodreads: Evelyn Talbot knows that a psychopath can look perfectly normal. She was only sixteen when her own boyfriend Jasper imprisoned and tortured her—and left her for dead. Now an eminent psychiatrist who specializes in the criminal mind, Evelyn is the force behind Hanover House, a maximum-security facility located in a small Alaskan town. Her job puts her at odds with Sergeant Amarok, who is convinced that Hanover is a threat to his community…even as his attraction to beautiful Evelyn threatens to tear his world apart. 
Then, just as the bitter Alaskan winter cuts both town and prison off from the outside world, the mutilated body of a local woman turns up. For Amarok, this is the final proof he needs: Hanover has to go. Evelyn, though, has reason to fear that the crime is a personal message to her—the first sign that the killer who haunts her dreams has found her again. . .and that the life she has so carefully rebuilt will never be the same.

Meh. My fault - I thought this was a mystery that might be able to overcome its terrible title, when it was really a romance masquerading as a mystery (it looks like this is romance author branching into sorta-mystery, and If I'd known that I would have steered clear). Although it's just not my thing, the romance was actually not terrible, although it was a little weird. The subject of intimacy after trauma has to be approached sensitively and it sort of was, although some of the things said by both Evelyn and Amarok are just kind of strange - as if the author sort of knew some of the right psychological terms but wanted to get some hot sexy sex stuff in too, and the result was a cringy hybrid. The mystery bordered on ridiculous, with cartoonishly 'bad' people everywhere and some scenes verging on slapstick. Won't be reading any more by this author.

The Twenty-Three (Promise Falls Trilogy #3) by Linwood Barclay. Synopsis from Goodreads: Everything has been leading to this. 
It’s the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 23rd, and the small town of Promise Falls, New York, has found itself in the midst of a full-blown catastrophe. Hundreds of people are going to the hospital with similar flu-like symptoms—and dozens have died. Investigators quickly zero in on the water supply. But the question for many, including private investigator Cal Weaver, remains: Who would benefit from a mass poisoning of this town? 
Meanwhile, Detective Barry Duckworth is faced with another problem. A college student has been murdered, and he’s seen the killer’s handiwork before—in the unsolved homicides of two other women in town. Suddenly, all the strange things that have happened in the last month start to add up… 
Bloody mannequins found in car “23” of an abandoned Ferris wheel…a fiery, out-of-control bus with “23” on the back, that same number on the hoodie of a man accused of assault… 
The motive for harming the people of Promise Falls points to the number 23—and working out why will bring Duckworth closer to death than he’s ever been before.

Another big miss. Somehow missed that this was number three in a trilogy, not that it would have mattered a whole lot. Mediocre mystery. Pretty crappy writing. Striking this author off my list forever( or as long as I remember) also.

The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner. Synopsis from Goodreads: Thirty-four-year-old marine biologist Kyra Winthrop remembers nothing about the diving accident that left her with a complex form of memory loss. With only brief flashes of the last few years of her life, her world has narrowed to a few close friendships on the island where she lives with her devoted husband, Jacob.
But all is not what it seems. Kyra begins to have visions—or are they memories?—of a rocky marriage, broken promises, and cryptic relationships with the island residents, whom she believes to be her friends.
As Kyra races to uncover her past, the truth becomes a terrifying nightmare.

"For fans of Before I Go to Sleep?" Well, no, because, see, if we're fans of Before I Go to Sleep, that means we've already read Before I Go to Sleep, so a slightly-inferior almost-exact-copy is not really something that adds a great deal to our reading experience. I wasn't even that big a fan of Before I Go to Sleep, so, doubly annoying. Oh look, Marilyn (HI MARILYN) said basically the same thing. Marilyn is a smart lady. 

Final Girls by Riley Sager. Synopsis from Goodreads: Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout's knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media's attempts, they never meet. 
Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancĂ©, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.  
That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy's doorstep. Blowing through Quincy's life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa's death come to light, Quincy's life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam's truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

So much more could have been done with this, it almost makes me angry. I only learned the term 'final girl' a year or two ago, and it's an interesting concept and quite of-the-moment. This was just all kinds of surface. The baking blog was a weird but interesting conceit that gave the character something interesting to do as a recovery from trauma and a way to go about her life, but the effort wasn't really there to fit it into the story - it was like the author thought of it and was so impressed with it that she didn't bother to work at it any further. The way Quincy reacts to Sam's ever-more presumptuous and inflammatory actions seem unrealistic to me, but again, this could have been addressed by a more careful backstory or by describing her thought processes as something more than "I'm fine" and "I'm not a victim". The last third got a little more interesting, but that doesn't mean a lot when the work hasn't been put in to make the reader care. Huge missed opportunity. 

Our Little Secret by Roz Nay. Synopsis from Goodreads: The detective wants to know what happened to Saskia, as if I could just skip to the ending and all would be well. But stories begin at the beginning and some secrets have to be earned.
Angela is being held in a police interrogation room. Her ex’s wife has gone missing and Detective Novak is sure Angela knows something, despite her claim that she’s not involved.
At Novak’s prodding, Angela tells a story going back ten years, explaining how she met and fell in love with her high school friend HP. But as her past unfolds, she reveals a disconcerting love triangle and a dark, tangled web of betrayals. Is Angela a scorned ex-lover with criminal intent? Or a pawn in someone else’s revenge scheme? Who is she protecting? And why?
Twisty and suspenseful, Our Little Secret is an intense cat-and-mouse game and a riveting thriller about the lies we tell others—and ourselves.

Clearly in the minority here - tons of positive reviews  Whenever I start reading a 'hot new mystery of the moment' I'm always braced for clunky, unimaginative writing. I was therefore delighted by the first few pages of this - the writing was supple and clever, with several delicious turns of phrase that made me instantly optimistic. Unfortunately, I forgot to be apprehensive about the actual story, which I soon realized was sorely lacking. It was a case of too many characters doing things without any obvious motivation - so much telling instead of showing. The instant closeness of Angela and HP is inexplicable and gimmicky - there's no precipitating exchange of clever dialogue, no bonding event, just hey, his locker is close to hers, his house is close to hers, guess we're soulmates. I don't require main characters to be likable, and Angela isn't. The thing is, it's not at all uncommon for teen-agers to think that their tortured inner lives and travails are deeper and more important than anyone else's, but it's baffling when an author seems to think the same thing. The one thing that did make an impression on me was the rendering of Angela's parents. Overall, really disappointing - and the 'shocking final twist' is neither shocking nor a twist. Bleah


StephLove said…
I am having trouble setting a Goodreads goal, too, because this fall North decided they didn't want me to read to them any more and those kids' books were a considerable part of my total. I actually counted how many I read with North, subtracted from this year's total and rounded up a bit to get this year's total. Then, having done that, I got sad about all the books we won't be reading together, even though I know it's totally normal not to read aloud to your middle schooler. Still reading to the high schooler, but that's partly because of his processing issues, and while it's sometimes fun things like the Dark Tower series, it's also things like his world history textbook. Ask me about Ghengis Khan, go ahead.

Hmm, that's a long comment that has nothing to do with any of your reviews.
Nicole said…
126!!! That's amazing! I read The Couple Next Door and...I would probably give it one and a HALF stars :) No, you're probably right. I haven't read any of the others but frankly I'm going to wait for your higher-reviewed posts to make up my library list!
DaniGirl said…
You read 126 books last year and the number of unfinished books is ONE? Wow. Also FWIW, I find Goodreads is really glitch lately. Drives me a little nuts, because I've come to rely on it more and more.

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