Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Books: 2017 Quarter 1

As you probably already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore. You can find my past reviews by clicking on the "books" tag at the end of this post, or be my friend on Goodreads. (You can also just go to the site & hunt down my review feed without being my friend, if that's more your speed.)

ICYMI, the classics I selected to read in 2017 are here.

On to the reviews!


January: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (1974, 278 pages). 4 stars. Towards the end of the 20th century, humans are engaged in an interstellar battle with a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans; the book follows the military career of Private William Mandella, who enlists to help fight the mysterious enemy. Both races have light speed travel, though, which makes the logistics of planning and fighting a war extremely interesting if you think all of it through to its logical conclusion. For example, Mandella and his fellows may travel weeks to fight a particular conflict, only to find when they arrive that many years have passed and not only are their knowledge, skills, and equipment potentially outdated and useless, but the very situation itself may have changed as well. As a result, Mandella's years fighting Taurans in space equate to centuries passing back on Earth. I'm not usually much of a hard sci fi fan, but I really enjoyed how well thought out the story was, particularly the issues around light speed travel. It was also decently well written. Some spots felt a bit dated 43 years later, but it actually surprised me how much of it didn't. Worth reading.

February: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (1994, 386 pages). 4 stars. This book was worth a read for the sheer entertainment value. It's less of a story and more of a brilliant, hilarious--and mostly true, as I understand it--character portrait of a collection of Savannah residents between roughly the mid-70's and mid-80s. In it we meet an eccentric lawyer, a glamorous drag queen, a voodoo witch, a dodgy socialite-cum-antique dealer, & many others. At the heart of the book lies the mystery of what really happened to Danny Hansford, a young man with a rough reputation who ends up with a bullet in his chest. Definitely one of the most unique books I've ever read, and extremely entertaining. I'm not usually much for character studies but I enjoyed this one & I can see why it's become a classic.

March: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002, 328 pages). 4 stars. I'm not really sure what took me so long to read this, but it was an enjoyable and lovely read, in spite of the fact that it begins with a (somewhat graphic) depiction of the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl. The story is told from the perspective of the dead girl, watching her friends and family from her own personal heaven as their lives go on and they attempt to deal with her death, each other, and everything else. Sweet, heartbreaking, and beautifully written.


It has not been a terrible quarter for good reads. Also, as I reread this, it's clearly the quarter of "Mmmmm that's all I can say without getting into spoilers," so if you like those sorts of books, oh man. Go to town.

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle. (2017, 214 pages) 5 stars. In a rural town in Iowa, circa 2000, a woman returns a video to the clerk at Video Hut. "There's something on this one," she tells him uneasily. "You might want to take a look at it." So he does. And finds some bizarre, mildly disturbing footage spliced into the middle of the film. A few other videos with similar scenes show up as well. The clerk informs the store manager, who starts looking into it. And that is just about all I can tell you without spoilers, and I would highly recommend that if you're going to read this one, you avoid learning anything else about the story. (And no, it's not like The Ring.) At barely over 200 pages, it's a short read, but the writing itself is utterly masterful, wringing out every last drop of meaning from every sentence, without a wasted word anywhere; taking my time over the poetry of the writing was as much a treat as the story itself. That said, it's definitely not for everyone. Some people will finish it & go "I don't get it," & others will outright hate it. But if you like cerebral, hazy, edge-of-your seat, what-is-going-on fiction in the vein of Paul Aster, Haruki Murakami, and David Mitchell, it might be for you.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters. (2016, 327) 5 stars. The premise of Underground Airlines asks, What if instead of becoming our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated soon after his election? As the story opens in the early 21st century, we learn that four states known as the "Hard Four" still have legal slavery, and we get a vision of what legalized Black slavery could have looked like in the modern age. The protagonist was born a slave on a livestock farm but is now a free man--a free man who works for the US Marshals as a bounty hunter, using his considerable talents to locate "Persons Bound" (or P.B.s) who attempt to escape slavery via the Underground Airlines, because {reasons which are spoiler-ey}. But something about his current case feels off, and suddenly our protagonist is in deeper than he bargained for. This was just an amazing, brilliant book on so many levels. The writing is excellent, the characters rich and three-dimensional, the logical conclusions of the Crittenden Compromise so deftly and methodically thought out. Yes, it is dark and horrifying on a number of levels, but I raced through it anyway, unable to put it down. Highly, highly recommend as long as you're not going through a beach read/escapism kind of phase at the moment (because it is definitely, definitely not that).

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. (2010, 290 pages) 5 stars. And hey! As long as you're eschewing beach reads in favor of socially conscious reads, you might as well move right along to The New Jim Crow, which is just as dark and disturbing, except real. Personally, I put this one up there with "books you should have to read in order to stay a citizen of this country." This is one of those subjects where I knew a lot of the facts (though certainly not all), but having someone place all those facts in a historical and sociological context and spell it all out for you is utterly horrifying. If you're one of those people who thinks racism is over, or that "sure, we still have racism, but it's WAY better than it used to be," this book is probably for you. Do your civic duty & read it (or listen to the audio book like I did).

The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp. (2016, 336 pages) 5 stars. Guys, you're going to love this one or hate it. Basically this book is like if David Mitchell and Paul Tremblay had a creepy and amazing book baby. The book is presented as the last work of (kinda-sorta) journalist and (kinda-sorta) author Jack Sparks before his mysterious and troubling death at the age of 36, with a foreword, epilogue, and annotations by his (skeptical and defensive) older brother. After writing several stunt books like Jack Sparks on Drugs and Jack Sparks on Gangs, he'd begun working on Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, openly approaching the subject as a non-believer. (Indeed, the book opens with our narrator basically chortling his way through an exorcism in rural Italy.) And then...Things get weird. Like. Really, really weird. But in the way I find chilling and entertaining and creepy but also *incredibly* clever and imaginative and well-written. But like I said, it will definitely NOT be to everyone's taste, particularly if you have issues around the religious/supernatural/paranormal. (But if you do enjoy it, may I humbly recommend Paul Tremblay and Grady Hendrix.)

Use of Weapons (Culture #3), by Iain M. Banks. (1990, 411 pages) 4 stars. The Culture are looking for a particular man to stabilize a dangerous political situation, and that man has as his price the location of a particular woman. While extraordinarily gifted in some ways, he's also much, much older than he seems, and much more broken, with a back story that's anything but straightforward. In the universe of Culture novels, for me this one fell in between Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. Brilliant writing and character development as always, a bit more abstract and less strictly plot-driven than PoG, but not quite as bleak and WTF as CP. The structure was cool (though I didn't notice exactly how it was laid out until more than halfway through, and that would have clarified some things), and I absolutely 100% did not see the "big reveal" coming until, like, less than a page before. Not giving up on the Culture yet!

The Girl Before, by JP Delaney. (2017, 320 pages) 4 stars. My quest to read all psychological thrillers with the word 'Girl' in the title continues. This book follows the story of two women, woven together chapter-by-chapter although the events of each woman's story occurred a year apart. Both are similar in age and appearance, and both have suffered a personal trauma, and as a result both have moved into the shockingly minimalist, smart-house architectural wonder at One Folgate Street. In both cases, the women are only able to afford the house because the sober, austere architect rents it cheaply to those who are willing to open it to the public occasionally and live by its 200+ draconian rules ("No personal effects," "Wash, dry, & put away dishes immediately after using," "Wipe the shower dry immediately after every use," "No pets/children," etc.). Erie similarities emerge as both women find themselves enmeshed in trying to make sense of what is happening and who they can trust. The use of symmetry is interesting, and I have to admit that I did not see the vast majority of the twists and turns coming. The end felt a bit sappy, but it was still an entertaining and well written read. (And yes, if you liked Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, All the Missing Girls, etc., you'll probably enjoy this one as well.)

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. (2016, 264 pages) 4 stars. (While we're on the subject of girls.) Not exactly my usual cup of tea, but still a really excellent, well-written debut. After a horrific (and mysterious) accident, Rachel--the daughter of a Black GI father and Danish mother--comes to live with her (rather strict) paternal grandmother and aunt. Having mostly grown up in Europe, Rachel has never particularly thought of herself of as Black, but in 1980s Chicago, she is quickly forced to confront her racial identity while also dealing with the emotional fallout of the accident. Short, insightful, & beautifully written. To me this reads a lot like older, literary young adult; file in the same mental bucket as Number the Stars and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill. (2013, 448 pages) 4 stars. I don't know how to explain the premise of this book without writing paragraphs and paragraphs, so I'll just say that it's what the kids I think call "urban fantasy," set in present-day Austin which hides a secret world of faeries and monsters and what have you, including cigar-smoking, leather jacket-wearing genies and whiskey-drinking fallen angels and returned-from-the-dead changelings that live off the pain and anguish of their unsuspecting foster parents. This type of book isn't really my bag but it was well written and sort of imaginatively brilliant in terms of weaving together the modern world and a bunch of old folklore, and I agree with the reviewers who said that it might be just the thing for fans of The Magicians or Neil Gaiman's more adult works.

Dear Mr. M, by Herman Koch. (2014, 400 pages) 4 stars. I didn't LUUUURRRV everything about this book, but I thought it was extremely well-written and cleverly structured. The story revolves around a Dutch novelist (Mr. M) and is mostly written from the perspective of his downstairs neighbor, a younger man with shall we say strong-ish opinions about M's work. As the book unfolds we learn more about M and the downstairs neighbor, their pasts, and mmmmmmm to say more would really just spoil everything. There is a bit of a twist at the end and I did NOT see it coming until maybe that same page. If you like long-game, character-driven mysteries with subtle bits of cleverness, you might enjoy. If you like more heavily plot-driven books where Things are always Happening and the story proceeds in a clear, chronological fashion, it may not be exactly your bag.

Alice (The Chronicles of Alice, #1), by Christina Henry. (2015, 291 pages) 4 stars. This was a good, if not earth-shattering, read. The story begins with early-2os-perhaps Alice locked in a mental hospital, with disturbing, fragmented memories of a rabbit and a tea party and a missing friend. "She and Dor went into the Old City for Dor's birthday.... Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn't hers." I'm a fan of sinister re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, and this one was well written and entertaining. My only real complaint was that it felt a bit rushed and the conflicts too easily resolved (especially given how dark and graphic it is, definitely DEFINITELY not for children). I was glad to see it's actually the first in a series, which may give the story and characters more room to play out. Fans of Gregory McGuire should enjoy.

Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1), by Jeff VanderMeer. (2014, 195 pages) 4 stars. It's hard to really say anything about this book without getting into spoilers, but let's see. #1) There is a place called Area X, which is top secret or highly restricted, or something. #2) It's kind of in a coastal area, with a swampy, jungly sort of vibe. #3) An agency called the Southern Reach is in charge of periodically sending small teams of scientists on "expeditions" into Area X to...investigate? #4) Strange and/or concerning things happen when people go there. It is the twelfth expedition, a team of four nameless women: a psychologist (the leader), a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist (the narrator). Essentially the book tells the story of the twelfth expedition, which gets really, really weird. But the writing is excellent, and the suspense and intrigue made me desperate to learn what happened and get the whole story.

* * *

Currently Reading:
Tell The Wolves I'm Home
, by Carol Rifka Brunt

Currently Listening To:
The Wanderers
, by Meg Howrey

Up Next:

And who knows, whatever else tickles my fancy. (Taking future suggestions as always!)

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