Thursday, January 3, 2019

Books Read in 2018: Unrated and Two Stars

First, about comments from yesterday's post:

HI NICOLE. The Book Bingo was started by a friend of a friend who very sadly died of breast cancer this past year. Every year people make suggestions such as "written before you were born", "with a weather term in the title" or "by an Aboriginal author" and someone makes up a bingo card. It's a fun exercise searching out books to fit the terms (or doing mental gymnastics to make a book you've already read work) and, like book club, leads me to books I wouldn't have read otherwise, as well as giving me another great reading community. I've also read a lot of library ebooks, then stopped for a while when my app started glitching, then resumed when there was a new app that works well again. The only downside I've found is that I'm increasingly reluctant to go to the actual library now, so if there's a book that isn't available in e-format I'm too lazy to go get it, or when I do, I'm too lazy to return it. Which is really more of a downside to me than to the app, now that I think about it.

HI MARY LYNN. Thank-you for commenting twice! I wholeheartedly agree that most everyone should get a few more to several more days off. Forty books with a full time job? That's amazing! I wish you didn't feel the need to "confess" that some books were audio format. Anyone who's snobby enough to think that listening is a lesser form of reading is a snobby snob and we don't hold with that nonsense here (I'm trying to swear less this year. Ha ha, fuck that sideways, kidding). I actually really liked The Goldfinch, which surprised me hugely considering how much I disliked The Secret History, but it was indeed a tome.

HI MARILYN. I adore the bizarre asymmetrical symmetry of you commenting right under Mary Lynn. WORD about the two weeks off at Christmas. I work in the public school board - I'm surprised and dismayed to hear that your public schools don't have library staff. The schools here are fairly desperate for them at the moment.

HI SHANNON. It's easy to slip into a weird non-reading rut, and you are a busy busy woman, so it's natural that something would have to give. I'm glad you're not feeling the need to soothe your anxiety with books - now you can decide to read for pure pleasure!

HI CHM. Same total as Mary Lynn! I'm going to go all semiotic on this comments section and find the secret to the universe or a demonic plot or something. I did in fact find that having a reading goal this year sent me a little batty, as much as I told myself it was arbitrary and meaningless. I even had a weird and unlovely stab of jealousy when my lovely friend Nicole (HI NICOLE AGAIN) read as many as books as me while teaching a bunch of yoga classes and having children younger than mine and generally being one of THE nicest, sweetest, smartest, most wonderful people in the world. Then I got over it because I don't own reading and I'm working on my self-esteem, but clearly the book goal does not bring out the best in me. TWO book clubs? That is something! I do also love book club for pushing me out of my reading comfort zone, but I'm not sure I could handle two - in my experience, long-running book clubs tend to hold some strong personalities. I'm sorry to hear about the Christmas anxiety - it is a fraught time of year and I'm always aware of things being susceptible to tipping one way or another under the smallest of stresses.

HI STEPH. Angus was home on December 14th and goes back on the 7th, so a nice long break. We've had family movies and dinners, he's seen friends and came to our friends' annual Christmas party - he even played a BOARD GAME with the cousins on Christmas Day. It's been really, really nice. 64 is a great total, and I like the simplicity of 52 as well. It will be interesting to see how your reading life evolves when you only have to decide what you want to read, and yes, I do feel like crying when I think that Noah won't be there next year to read books with, so I can't even imagine how it makes you feel, HUGE HUGS.

The Actual Book Review Part

As always, I`m aware that just because I don`t like a book doesn't mean it's inherently a bad book. Several of the books I gave one or two stars to had multiple multiple-star ratings on Goodreads. Sometimes I'm just in the wrong mood for it, sometimes it`s just not the right fit for my reading taste, and sometimes, well, I do think it's an objectively bad book with few to no redeeming qualities, but other people inexplicably disagree so I let it go because I'm just gracious like that.

Unrated/Did Not Finish

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley: Synopsis from Goodreads - One of our finest SF writers moves closer to home. London is devastated. New worlds are being explored. And the aliens have arrived...
The aliens are here. And they want to help. The extraordinary new project from one of the country's most acclaimed and consistently brilliantly SF novelists of the last 30 years.
The Jackaroo have given humanity 15 worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients.
Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could for ever alter humanity - or even destroy it.
Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.
And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.
Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence.

This was one of the most profoundly disappointing reading experiences I had this year. I'm not even sure if I'm disappointed by the book or myself. I saw this book advertised even before it was published and thought it sounded fascinating. Even the title seemed deliciously mysterious, perhaps a touch foreboding, rich with promise and gravitas. I waited and waited for it to become available at the library or for the price to be lowered on Kindle, but neither happened so I finally popped for full price. But reading the synopsis, which of course I did, it's obvious that the Jackaroo (which is kind of a dumb unmusical name for an alien race, isn't it?) had already arrived. What did I think I was going to get? I don't know, but what I got made reading feel like wading through treacle. I would swear I had read a hundred pages and it had been, like, six. There were journalistic politics and murder investigations, both of which I am generally here for in literature, but here they just went on and on and never resolved or even escalated and there was no actual, you know, alien stuff. I finally gave up a little more than halfway through. I might go back to it.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley: Synopsis from Goodreads - "If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney - that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest"
It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.
I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn't stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget...

I think I mistook Andrew Michael Hurley for Stephen Graham Jones, another triple-named author of dark fiction that I have always enjoyed. This wasn't bad - it was very slow-paced and very bleak but clearly that was the intent. It's just that my mood was also bleak at the time, and I eventually had to give it up in self-defense. 

Two Star Reads

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli: Synopsis from Goodreads - A celebration of nonconformity; a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity--and the thrill and inspiration of first love. Ages 12+
Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don't stand out--under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes--for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.
But the delicate scales of popularity suddenly shift, and Stargirl is shunned for everything that makes her different. Somewhere in the midst of Stargirl's arrival and rise and fall, normal Leo Borlock has tumbled into love with her.
In a celebration of nonconformity, Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity--and the thrill and inspiration of first love.

Both my kids read this, and what they said about it sounded interesting, so I read it at work while library subbing. I really thought I would like it. Stargirl was a little too Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though, and many of the ways she 'stood out' seemed too contrived. I loved the idea, and this would probably still be great for middle-graders to read just to see an example of someone who dares to be different, but for me it's not a standout book that speaks to different readers at different levels; it's a great concept executed a little clunkily.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Charles Sheffield: Synopsis from Goodreads - A man from Earth's distant past is humanity's only hope for a future...
Drake Merlin's wife, the love of his life, is dying of a rare, fatal disease for which there is no cure. Not now, in the 21st century. But surely in the future...
For Drake there is only one solution: have Ana's body frozen until she can be cured. And he will go with her into the cryowomb. It is a desperate gamble born of folly, obsession...and love.
Thus begins an epic journey across eons, as Drake is revived again and again, only to find that Ana is beyond help. Millions of years past his first sleep, he learns there is hope for her restoration--at the Omega Point, where the universe collapses, merging past and present. But first he will be awakened to become humanity's unwilling savior. For an alien menace is laying the solar system to waste, and only an anachronism from the days of human barbarism can save an enlightened race....

I'm really disappointed to find that I didn't write a proper review for this on Goodreads - I could have sworn I had. I had good, wide-ranging, coherent thoughts - I swear I did! Why didn't I write them down? All I remember now is thinking that this wasn't really hard enough to quality as hard sci-fi - the concepts are hard but the science doesn't seem to be explained all that well - but it was too hard and plot-driven with not enough character development to be anything else. You can say "my wife was the love of my life" but you have to show in addition to telling or the reader doesn't really feel it. The biggest annoyance, as I recall (which I wouldn't have had to if I'd just freaking written it down, am I harping on this?) was that at one point in the narrative Merlin wonders if he might be unable to fit in well with future humanity because he keeps sleeping through thousands of years, and then when he is he seems to forget that this was a possibility, if not a certainty, and be thrown by it. This is one instance where the book has many fans and I'm sure I just wasn't the right reader for it, but I can definitely envision this concept being done in a way that would speak to me more effectively. This opens up a bunch of can-of-worms-type questions about the intentions and limits of hard sci-fi. 

Playing With Bones (Joe Plantaganet #2) by Kate Ellis: Synopsis from Goodreads - Is the Doll Strangler back? Or is a copycat killer on the loose...?
Singmass Close has a sinister past. Reputedly haunted by the ghosts of children, in the 50s it was the hunting ground of the Doll Strangler, a ruthless killer who was never brought to justice. Now DI Joe Plantagenet wonders whether a copycat killer is at work when the strangled body of teenager Natalie Parkes is found in the same close, a mutilated doll lying by her side.
With the recent disappearance of a young female model and an escaped convict at large, this new, horrific murder stretches Joe's team to their limit. But as the bodies start mounting up and Joe's questioning brings him closer to the real strangler, he comes to suspect a shockingly creepy connection between all three cases.

This came in as a hold at the library and I can't remember why I requested it. I kept it until it was overdue to finish it, and I have some regrets. The writing style feels very un-modern to me - information dumps about characters, very little subtlety - even though it was written in 2009. The superior-ranked female policewoman "smiles shyly" at her subordinate male officer a little too often. Numerous mention is made of suspects who "seem to be telling the truth" or "are clearly lying", which in the context of police work seems utterly ridiculous to me. An effort is made to outline the officers' lives outside of the case, but it's perfunctory and issues are too easily resolved. Nothing here worked really well for me. Although, having said that, I did find myself thinking the other day about a couple of sub-plots that dovetailed together neatly and unexpectedly, and were actually more enjoyable than the main plot, so there's that. 

Westlake Soul by Rio Youers: Synopsis from Goodreads - Westlake is in a permanent vegetative state. He can’t move, has no response to stimuli, and can only communicate with Hub, the faithful family dog. And like all superheroes, Westlake has an archenemy: Dr. Quietus—a nightmarish embodiment of Death itself.

I read this because there was another book by the same author I thought sounded interesting, but it was too expensive on Kindle and not available at the library and this was. Maybe it's just me. This sounded cool, and had some nice qualities, but ultimately was too sentimental for my taste - more a sweet meditation on what might be happening inside a locked-in person's brain than a legitimate fantasy story. Looking at the other reviews made me worried that my soul is more shriveled and blacker than I had previously thought. 

Snowblind (Dark Iceland #1) by Ragnar Jonasson: Synopsis from Goodreads - Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, as curtains begin to twitch, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness – blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose.

I always find descriptions of the landscape and culture of Iceland fascinating, so I was excited to read a mystery set there. Here's the thing - a crappy  mystery set anywhere is still a crappy mystery. The setting was great, but the characters were flat and the mystery was stale. It's quite a feat to have an avalanche and a closed mountain pass and still be pretty much lacking in suspense. 

Little Girl Gone (An Afton Tangler #1) by Gerry Schmitt: Synopsis from Goodreads - In the first Afton Tangler thriller, the unforgiving cold of a Minnesota winter hides the truth behind an even more chilling crime...
On a frozen night in an affluent neighborhood of Minneapolis, a baby is abducted from her home after her teenage babysitter is violently assaulted. The parents are frantic, the police are baffled, and, with the perpetrator already in the wind, the trail is getting colder by the second.
As family liaison officer with the Minneapolis P.D., it’s Afton Tangler’s job to deal with the emotional aftermath of terrible crimes—but she’s never faced a case quite as brutal as this. Each development is more heartbreaking than the last and the only lead is a collection of seemingly unrelated clues.
But, most disturbing of all, Afton begins to suspect that this case is not isolated.  Whoever did this has taken babies before—and if Afton doesn’t solve this crime soon, more children are sure to go missing 

I liked the name Afton Tangler. That was the best thing about the book. Eminently predictable and forgettable. 

Blame by Jeff Abbott: Synopsis from Goodreads - Sometimes the person you thought you knew best...Turns out to be someone you never really knew at all.
The crash that killed him
Two years ago, Jane Norton crashed her car on a lonely road, killing her friend David and leaving her with amnesia. At first, everyone was sympathetic. Then they found Jane's note: I wish we were dead together.
A girl to blame
From that day the town turned against her. But even now Jane is filled with questions: Why were they on that road? Why was she with David? Did she really want to die?
The secrets she should forget
Most of all, she must find out who has just written her an anonymous message: I know what really happened. I know what you don't remember.

I'm almost a big a sucker for amnesia as a plot device as I am for time travel - both being pretty much equally unlikely, as I understand it, at least as amnesia is usually depicted. This wasn't unreadable and I could probably have given it one more half star for sheer audacity. But it suffered from many of the usual pitfalls - Jane seems unable to meet a boy that she isn't irresistible to, the clues come too neatly and regularly, and the ending? Hoo boy. Still probably a solid beach read. 

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris: Synopsis from Goodreads - Cass is having a hard time since the night she saw the car in the woods, on the winding rural road, in the middle of a downpour, with the woman sitting inside—the woman who was killed. She’s been trying to put the crime out of her mind; what could she have done, really? It’s a dangerous road to be on in the middle of a storm. Her husband would be furious if he knew she’d broken her promise not to take that shortcut home. And she probably would only have been hurt herself if she’d stopped.
But since then, she’s been forgetting every little thing: where she left the car, if she took her pills, the alarm code, why she ordered a pram when she doesn’t have a baby.
The only thing she can’t forget is that woman, the woman she might have saved, and the terrible nagging guilt.
Or the silent calls she’s receiving, or the feeling that someone’s watching her…

I liked Behind Closed Doors well enough, but I might be out after this one. A device like possible hereditary dementia needs to be used more responsibly to be effective (from a literary standpoint, I mean, not a good taste one). Everything felt forced rather than organic. 

Keep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah: Synopsis from Goodreads - She's the most famous murder victim in America. What if she's not dead?
Pushed to the breaking point, Cara Burrows flees her home and family and escapes to a five-star spa resort she can't afford. Late at night, exhausted and desperate, she lets herself into her hotel room and is shocked to find it already occupied — by a man and a teenage girl.
A simple mistake at the front desk... but soon Cara realizes that the girl she saw alive and well in the hotel room is someone she can't possibly have seen: the most famous murder victim in the country, Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving natural life sentences for her murder.
Cara doesn't know what to trust — everything she's read and heard about the case, or the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see Melody? And is she prepared to ask herself that question and answer it honestly if it means risking her own life?

Sophie Hannah writes well enough, but her uniqueness derives from one key element - a set-up that seems completely impossible, and then a plot that brings about a resolution to that set-up, that is convoluted and yet believable - but only just. When it fails, it leaves a bit of a godawful mess. This... was a bit of a godawful mess. 

One of Us Will Be Dead By Morning (Hater #4) by David Moody: Synopsis from Goodreads - In One of Us Will Be Dead by Morning, David Moody returns to the world of his Hater trilogy with a new fast-paced, and wonderfully dark story about humanity’s fight for survival in the face of the impending apocalypse.The fewer left alive, the higher the stakes. Kill the others, before one of them kills you.Fourteen people are trapped on Skek, a barren island in the middle of the North Sea somewhere between the coasts of the UK and Denmark. Over the years this place has served many purposes—a fishing settlement, a military outpost, a scientific base—but one by one its inhabitants have abandoned its inhospitable shores. Today it’s home to Hazleton Adventure Experiences, an extreme sports company specializing in corporate team building events.Life there is fragile and tough. One slip is all it takes. A momentary lapse leads to a tragic accident, but when the body count quickly starts to rise, questions are inevitably asked. Are the deaths coincidental, or something else entirely? Those people you thought you knew, can you really trust them? Is the person standing next to you a killer? Will you be their next victim?A horrific discovery changes everything, and a trickle of rumors becomes a tsunami of fear. Is this the beginning of the end of everything, or a situation constructed by the mass hysteria of a handful of desperate and terrified people?
The lower the population, the higher the stakes.
Kill the rest of them, before one of them kills you.

I got this from the library, having read the synopsis hastily. I don't think I would have bothered to read it if I'd realized it was in the Haters universe, since scanning the first book in that series didn't grab me. Like any book involving a zombie apocalypse or similar contagion, much depends on the characters. If this had been a group of island-bound people comprised of diverse personalities and reactions, it could have been interesting. It was, instead, a group of barely distinguishable self-absorbed, shallow, petty, extremely unlikable twats, so it was hard to get exercised about their collective fate. There was an available sub-plot here about what distinguishes the human instinct for self-preservation from a blind need to kill, but it wasn't capitalized on in any meaningful way. Formulaic and forgettable.


Mary Lynn said...

The book bingo idea sounds awesome. I’d love to do something like that.

Steph Lovelady said...

Well, I will still have book club telling me what to read so I won't need to make all my own decisions... Wouldn't want to go crazy with free choice.

Nicole MacPherson said...


Also, super fun book bingo.

Did I mention I love you?

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

Book bingo does sound fun! I'm sorry to hear that the lady who started it for your group passed away though.

I notice that you don't always review your books after reading them on GoodReads and I was wondering if you note reviews for your year in review in a notebook or do you just remember what you thought? I can barely remember what I think of books that I read last month so if it's by memory that is impressive! Last month, I borrowed a book that I thought sounded interesting from the library, and when I picked it up I thought it seemed familiar, and then I read it and it seemed familiar, but it wasn't until I went to log it in GoodReads that I realized the reasons it seemed familiar is because I had already read it two years before. My mind! Is slipping!!