Books Read in 2022: Zero, One and Two Stars and Unrated

118 books this year, down significantly from the past two years but up a little from the two years before that. It's not often that I can say I'm a happy average in something, but I feel okay about this, because I used quite a few reading hours on my house-decrapifying project, which I consider time well spent. 

I'm accustomed to being 'the reader' among my friend group. The other week at bar night I was complaining about the Indigo check out woman who was bitchy to me and one of my friends said "but...but doesn't she know who you are? Don't you just call up your friend, the head of Indigo, and get her fired?" Since hanging out on line though, I have a bunch of friends who read as much or more, which is simultaneously delightful and sometimes a bit threatening to my sense of self, but only because I tend to insecurity, and I shake it off pretty easily. My friend Julie (HI JULIE) read me under the table this year, and I think Nicole (HI NICOLE) slams back about three a week, so I'm guessing she's at 150-ish or so for the year, and Suzanne put up some impressive numbers as well as my new blog friend NGS (HI SUZANNE AND NGS - I think Nicole calls her Engie, but I'm not sure we're there yet).

Truthfully, ever since I started caving to the Goodreads prompt to 'set a reading goal', it's been harshing my reading buzz a little. Eve joined Goodreads this year and it's been really fun, not least because she shows me all the features I can never find, and she says things like "my least shelved book was shelved by like 5000 other people - yours had only forty. You're so underground!" But she also has a healthy skepticism about people who make their whole personality how many books they read and give tips on how to read faster, as if speed is the most important thing. If I don't read as much, though, I'm a little concerned that I have to have something else to show for all my time, and I'm so bad at knitting and sewing, you guys, so bad.


My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: Synopsis from Goodreads: At 14, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall. She knows how to snare a rabbit, sharpen a blade and splint a bone. She knows that her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him. But she doesn’t know why she feels so different from the other girls at school; why the line between love and pain can be so hard to see. Or why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever done. Sometimes the people you’re supposed to trust are the ones who do most harm. And what you’ve been taught to fear is the very thing that will save you.

I don't feel like I can really assign a star-value to this. I wouldn't have read it if someone didn't put it on my Book club list, while snarkily opining that content warnings aren't necessary because 'we're all adults'. I didn't need a content warning for this, but some people definitely would.
I found the first half or so incredibly propulsive and couldn't stop reading, while also being repulsed. The depiction of the abuse was horrific, obviously, and effective, and then a couple of times I felt like it went over the line into exploitive and borderline titillating, and although I hesitate to use terms like 'victim porn', because I do think there's a place for abuse being portrayed in literature, if there is victim porn this read like victim porn to me. 
I read one review where someone didn't love the setting because 'using five adjectives for everything isn't good writing' or something like that. My experience was different - I absolutely loved the description of the landscape, it completely brought the variety and range of lush and prodigious vegetation into view for me.
I'm not sure what, if anything, we're meant to take from the fact that Turtle's upbringing has made her fiercely independent, self-sufficient and capable in the outdoors - presumably a child could be made so without all the incest and beating and burning. Maybe it's just another way that she finds it difficult to ask for help. The second half of the book kind of devolves into a borderline-ridiculous thriller-movie type scenario (or two). As far as the people criticizing the teenaged boy characters with 'teenagers don't talk like that', meh - people in books don't often talk exactly like real people, and also, do you know many teenagers? Because I do, and some of them absolutely talk like that.
Full disclosure, I did end up staying up until four in the morning to finish this the night I started it. So yeah. I still don't know how to rate it.

The Best of Me by David Sedaris: Synopsis from Goodreads: For more than twenty-five years, David Sedaris has been carving out a unique literary space, virtually creating his own genre. A Sedaris story may seem confessional, but is also highly attuned to the world outside. It opens our eyes to what is at absurd and moving about our daily existence. And it is almost impossible to read without laughing. Now, for the first time collected in one volume, the author brings us his funniest and most memorable work. In these stories, Sedaris shops for rare taxidermy, hitchhikes with a lady quadriplegic, and spits a lozenge into a fellow traveler’s lap. He drowns a mouse in a bucket, struggles to say “give it to me” in five languages, and hand-feeds a carnivorous bird. But if all you expect to find in Sedaris’s work is the deft and sharply observed comedy for which he became renowned, you may be surprised to discover that his words bring more warmth than mockery, more fellow-feeling than derision. Nowhere is this clearer than in his writing about his loved ones. In these pages, Sedaris explores falling in love and staying together, recognizing his own aging not in the mirror but in the faces of his siblings, losing one parent and coming to terms—at long last—with the other. Taken together, the stories in The Best of Me reveal the wonder and delight Sedaris takes in the surprises life brings him. No experience, he sees, is quite as he expected—it’s often harder, more fraught, and certainly weirder—but sometimes it is also much richer and more wonderful. Full of joy, generosity, and the incisive humor that has led David Sedaris to be called “the funniest man alive” (Time Out New York), The Best of Me spans a career spent watching and learning and laughing—quite often at himself—and invites readers deep into the world of one of the most brilliant and original writers of our time.

I adore David Sedaris. I read Me Talk Pretty One Day first and literally laughed my husband out of bed. I thought this would be a surefire smash hit. Most of the essays were hilarious as usual, but there was also fiction and ... wow, it was just mean and unfunny and terrible. It even put me off the next few essays, when the fact that he skates right up to the line and sometimes a little over is part of what makes him stand out and surprise sometimes-slightly-horrified laughter out of me. The "full of joy and generosity" from the description makes me raise an eyebrow a bit, because quintessential David Sedaris seems a bit more full of (maybe joyful) bitterness and snark, but your mileage may vary. I returned this to the library unfinished.

One Star

We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen: Synopsis from Goodreads: Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility. Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that's when things begin to fall apart. Park's patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.

This one-star review is very much literally "I didn't like it" and not "it's not a good book". My whole reason for not liking it was that it was extremely slow and very cerebral and and although the sense of claustrophobic was probably intentional, it just didn't work for me at the time of reading, although I literally four-starred another slow, cerebral space book a few months later.

Two Stars

The Color of Lies by C.J. Lyons: Synopsis from Goodreads: High school senior Ella Cleary has always been good at reading people. Her family has a rare medical condition called synesthesia that scrambles the senses—her Gram Helen sees every sound, and her uncle Joe can literally taste words. Ella’s own synesthesia manifests itself as the ability to see colors that reveal people’s true emotions…until she meets a guy she just can’t read.

Alec is a mystery to Ella, a handsome, enigmatic young journalist who makes her feel normal for the first time in her life. That is, until he reveals the real reason why he sought her out—he wants to learn the truth behind her parents’ deaths, the parents that Ella had always been told died in a fire. Alec turns Ella’s world upside down when he tells her their deaths were definitely not an accident.

After learning her entire life has been a lie, Ella doesn’t know who she can trust or even who she really is. With her adoptive family keeping secrets and the evidence mixing fact and fiction, the only way for Ella to learn the truth about her past is to find a killer.

Nooooo, so dumb. I am so intrigued by synesthesia - I find certain words a little chewy (autopsy, in particular), but I am no synesthete. I do not believe this is an accurate portrayal of synesthesia but I would have given tons of leeway for that if it was compensated for by great characterization or a not-idiotic plot or literally anything else. I believe I literally rolled my eyes a number of times reading this. Never mind the curiously colorless male character who Ella can't synesthize (or whatever) which makes him intriguing to her, which is a blatant rip-off of the Sookie and Bill thing from True Blood. Fortunately when I looked up the author I found out she's also a doctor, so she's got that to fall back on.

Color Blind by Colby Marshall: Synopsis from Goodreads: There is something unusual about Dr. Jenna Ramey’s brain, a rare perceptual quirk that punctuates her experiences with flashes of color. They are hard to explain: red can mean anger, or love, or strength. But she can use these spontaneous mental associations, understand and interpret them enough to help her read people and situations in ways others cannot. As an FBI forensic psychiatrist, she used it to profile and catch criminals. Years ago, she used it to save her own family from her charming, sociopathic mother. Now, the FBI has detained a mass murderer and called for Jenna’s help. Upon interrogation she learns that, behind bars or not, he holds the power to harm more innocents—and is obsessed with gaining power over Jenna herself. He has a partner still on the loose. And Jenna’s unique mind, with its strange and subtle perceptions, may be all that can prevent a terrifying reality…

Aaaand I immediately leapt on yet another obviously-bogus book about synesthesia because I am such a fast learner. Does 'reading micro-expressions' even qualify as synesthesia? There was a decent mystery in here, and virtually everyone else on Goodreads seems to disagree with me, so maybe I'm just the asshole (I am definitely just the asshole, but I still think "his confession sounds purple to me, he is a serial killer" is not based in sound science. 

(I have actually read at least one book featuring synesthesia that I liked, so stop looking at me like that). 

The Glass Demon by Helen Grant: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Glass Demon is a thrilling young adult novel filled with mystery and the supernatural from Helen Grant, author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, in which Lin Fox is about to discover that not all fairytales are fiction. The Glass Demon bridges the world of the traditional Grimm fairytale with the darker world of Angela Carter's adult fairytales. The first death Seventeen-year-old Lin Fox finds a body in an orchard. As she backs away in horror, she steps on broken glass. The second death Then blood appears on her doorstep - blood, and broken glass. The third death Something terrible is found in the cemetery. Shards of broken glass lie by a grave. Who will be next? As the attacks become more sinister, Lin doesn't know who to trust. She's getting closer to the truth behind these chilling discoveries, but with each move the danger deepens. Because someone wants Lin gone - and won't give up until he's got rid of her and her family. Forever.

I quite enjoyed The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by this author, so maybe it was just my mood (I read it in February, the mood was... not good), but after thoroughly enjoying the opening passages and European setting of this book, I suddenly realized that almost everything about it was terrible. Lin is perfectly justified in her grievances against her terrible father and her terrible stepmother, but from the moment Michel shows up she treats him like absolute crap without any good reason, while still using him for transportation and information. The description of the Allenheiliger glass is interesting initially, but the same ground is gone over repeatedly, the villain could not be more obvious, people are forgiven who shouldn't be, and generally it all fell annoyingly flat. 

Scarred by Nick Oldham: Synopsis from Goodreads: Henry Christie has never forgotten the day he was brutally assaulted as a young constable while chasing a teenage shoplifter down a Blackpool alley. Tommy Benemy went missing soon after his arrest, but although Henry promised Tommy's mother he'd keep an eye on the case, her son was never found. Now retired, Henry reluctantly agrees to join the Cold Case Unit as a civilian investigator, teaming up with the volatile DS Debbie Blackstone, who's carrying scars of her own. When an old case leads them to a serial rapist, and a gruesome scene takes Henry back to his old promise - and failure, the pair find themselves confronting their demons as they unearth a deadly criminal conspiracy spanning decades, and chilling secrets desperate individuals will go to any lengths to keep hidden.

I think I requested this from Netgalley, not realizing that it might be a bit tough to leap right into a mystery series with TWENTY-SIX PREVIOUS ENTRIES. Many of the other 21 readers on Goodreads who read this enjoyed it. It didn't break any new ground for me, and I was confused by the references made to the OTHER TWENTY-SIX BOOKS. 

Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: Synopsis from Goodreads: NATURE IS CALLING—but they shouldn't have answered. Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything. He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps. He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone. He remembers: something was waiting for them... But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him…It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.

I can't even say I was just disappointed by this book. I feel like I was held hostage by it. My own damned fault, of course, but please bitch slap me if I ever decide to read another horror novel about mountain climbing (not that I decided to read this because it was about mountain climbing, I was just excited to read the next book by the author of Hex, but still...) I fall prey to the lure so many times, and they're always about how exhilarating and rewarding and impossible-to-describe it is scaling a mountain and then also there is something icy and threatening and formidable and so on for three or four hundred pages - or five hundred, in this case. The beginning was intriguing. Then it seemed like the big reveal (which was decently creative and frightening) was made with three hundred or so-odd pages still left to go and then there's a bunch of ridiculous dithering about what is to be done, and occasional fake disbelief when no one actually disbelieves. Nick and Sam's relationship was lovely as far as it went. The translation for Sam's American 'slang' was extremely annoying - 'cuz' this, 'cuz' that, 'hadda', 'gotta' - is this some Dutch person's rendering of how American's talk? In that case, the translation AND the editing needed work. And yet I could not bring myself to DNF because I am a bloody idiot, and also now that I think of it, there was at least one mountain climbing horror novel that turned out satisfyingly. I can't remember which one it was. It was not this one. I feel kind of crappy about that because it seems that Heuvelt is an avid climber with a boyfriend - maybe the subject matter was just too close and he couldn't bring himself to cut out anything. I will give him another shot but I fervently hope I have gained the ability to abandon a book that's going nowhere before then.

What We Both Know by Fawn Parker: Synopsis from Goodreads: In front of me are hundreds of pages of work. Already I feel it leaving me. He will obliterate what is there, replace it, deny I ever wrote a word. But, he cannot take the words I write on my own. Hillary Greene's father, once a celebrated author and public figure, is now losing his memory and, with it, his ability to write. As her father's primary caretaker, each day begins with two eggs, boiled and Charlie Rose or some other host on the iPad screen. Her father compulsively watches himself in old interviews, memorizing his own speech, trying to hang on to who he was. An aspiring author herself, Hillary impulsively agrees to ghost-write his final work--a memoir spanning his career--and release it in his name. Diving deep into her father's past, and in turn her own, a horrifying truth begins to piece itself together. With full control over her father's memoir, Hillary is faced with a stark choice: reveal her father as a monster or preserve his legacy as a respected literary figure. But she wonders what writing the truth will do to her and if it will damage her own prospects for a career. Whichever option she chooses, Hillary has to deal with the significant pain writing the memoir has re-surfaced--specifically, how the truth about her father adds to her grief over the death of her enigmatic sister, Pauline. For the first time in her life, Hillary holds the power. Set in the wake of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, What We Both Know is a visceral, intimate, and complex novel about confronting the personal and professional consequences--and potentially devastating fallout--of revealing the truth about a famous man.

-"Pauline put her arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek and I felt something that shook me and that I never revisited again." (what?)

-"He likes to sit a minute and relax before going into the house. I heard somewhere that entering a doorway refreshes the mind, explains why often when a person goes into a room to do something or retrieve something they immediately forget their reason for being there, and I mistakenly told this to Baby, instilling in him a new resistance to entering a place without first collecting his thoughts, assuring himself that he won't lose anything on the way through" (okay, I liked that one)

The Giller Prize short list came out and this was the first one I could get from the library. I didn't really like it. No, that's not it - I really didn't like it. It's by far my least favourite of the four or five Giller nominees I read. I'm not sure I can articulate precisely why. In a way the writing style seems dated to me - like Canadian fiction a couple of decades ago where everything was kind of dreamy and detached and there always had to be weird sex and incest somewhere. The main character is annoying - bumbling, insecure, indecisive - but I understand that she's entitled to be, given her past trauma. I do understand the reason for the father being called Baby, but it still icked me out and I can't make myself agree that it was a successful device. The synopsis I read made it sound like Hillary was going to make some big discovery in the course of trying to put the memoir together and then make a decision about what to do about it. None of this actually happened in the book - the knowledge seems to have always been there, and there isn't really any decision made about what to do. It was all annoyingly vague and foggy. Clearly it worked for a lot of people, just not for me. Oh, and the dogs - everything involving the dogs was off-putting, added nothing and made me sick. I am aware that much of this makes me sound prudish or strait-laced or stuffy, which I didn't think I was. Maybe I'm wrong.

Stay Awake by Megan Goldin: Synopsis from Goodreads: Liv Reese wakes up in the back of a taxi with no idea where she is or how she got there. When she’s dropped off at the door of her brownstone, a stranger answers―a stranger who now lives in her apartment and forces her out in the cold. She reaches for her phone to call for help, only to discover it’s missing, and in its place is a bloodstained knife. That’s when she sees that her hands are covered in black pen, scribbled messages like graffiti on her skin: STAY AWAKE. Two years ago, Liv was living with her best friend, dating a new man, and thriving as a successful writer for a trendy magazine. Now, she’s lost and disoriented in a New York City that looks nothing like what she remembers. Catching a glimpse of the local news, she’s horrified to see reports of a crime scene where the victim’s blood has been used to scrawl a message across a window, the same message that’s inked on her hands. What did she do last night? And why does she remember nothing from the past two years? Liv finds herself on the run for a crime she doesn’t remember committing as she tries to piece together the fragments of her life. But there’s someone who does know exactly what she did, and they’ll do anything to make her forget―permanently.

This is the second book I've read by the author of The Night Swim, which was one of my favourite mysteries of last year (I think, whatever year I read it, time's lost all meaning) - it was a wonderful mystery coupled with an incisive social commentary and it's about a podcast, which we all know I like to read about rather than listen to (oh shit, if I'm not reading as much I'm going to have to actually listen to podcasts, aren't I?) I had some trouble believing it's the same author. And do NOT believe the description comparing this to Memento. Everything was clunky and annoying and even less believable than you'd expect a novel about a woman who can't remember anything every time she wakes up and is being framed for murder to be. 


StephLove said…
This made me think about how I almost never rate books below three and it used to be pretty rare for me to rate books five-- so it was all threes and fours-- but I got better at deciding a book didn't have to be life-changing to be a five. I've always had in my mind, though, that a book would have to be as bad as The Fountainhead to be a one, and I haven't read a book that bad since I joined Goodreads.
Nicole said…
Okay, that first book, I think it is the only book in recent memory that I did not finish. IF it's the same one, which if it is, basically the father was raping his daughter and that was revealed in the first chapter? If that's the one, as soon as that reveal happened - so, the first chapter - I was like, well, I am OUT. I immediately took it back to the library. Someone had recommended it IF THIS IS THE BOOK which, now that I'm writing this, I have no idea. But it looks familiar and "horrific violence" kind of sounds appropriate. This was YEARS ago, like way pre-pandemic, so I am fuzzy on the details.

I haven't read that Sedaris, probably because it has fiction in it. As I just mentioned, love his essays, really don't love his fiction.

NGS said…
You can absolutely feel free to call me Engie! Nicole coined it, but anyone can use it!

I used to really like David Sedaris, but we read Holidays on Ice for a book club book in late 2020 and it just seemed mean, so now I'm worried that Sedaris is forever ruined for me. Was it just a bad time to read a humor book? Did the pandemic make me humorless? Who knows? Maybe I'll go back and reread some of his classics.

I just want to touch on the fact that I know someone in real life who read over 250 books this year, so my reading, while prodigious, is not even remarkable in my friend group. I am a reader and it is part of my identity, but I don't even really think about myself as an ALL-STAR reader, you know? Anyway, I don't think that reading books should be a contest (I read more pages than you!), but should be about enjoyment and immersion and reading stupid books for book club that you yourself might have picked out, but now because it's homework it feels like the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to you.
Tudor said…
Every time I see the first of your book rating / review posts go up it's like a little forgotten surprise / treasure and once you get to the four- and five-star ones I go along with my library app open and put holds on everything that sounds good.

I'm particularly excited for your four-star mysteries this year BECAUSE I'M WRITING A MYSTERY RIGHT NOW and I want to read examples of good books, but not five-star ones because the last thing I need when I'm trying to hit my word count is a bout of book-comparison despair.

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