Reading Bingo: 2017

I was pondering the best way to do a 2017 wrap-up post when I saw this awesome bingo card over on Cleopatra Loves Books. She says anyone can join in, so here’s my list and I hope to see many other lists pop up in my Reader. 😀

Most of my 2017 reads fit into multiple categories so I had to mush them around a little, especially since I haven’t yet finished 50 books this year.

(Links lead to my reviews.)

Bingo!

 

A book with more than 500 pages

At 1,116 pages, It is the longest book I read this year. Given how well my attempts to read The Stand have gone I didn’t expect to enjoy it. However, there were some excellent scary moments and the friendship between the kids was a heartwarming through-line.

A forgotten classic

This is the toughest square because no matter which book I pick someone will say: I’ve never forgotten that one! I’ve listed She because it’s not usually the first Haggard book to come up in conversation.

A book that became a movie

Let the Right One In has two film adaptations: the Swedish original and an unnecessary remake. Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen either, they’re both solid even though the original better captures the book’s vibe. This book was more thoughtful and terrifying than expected and I plan to write a full review.

A book published this year

I started with NetGalley this year and read many more new releases than usual. I wasn’t sure which to pick, but House of Names is the one that prompted me to sign up for NetGalley in the first place. I’m in the minority for rating it so highly, but it’s still the best ARC I’ve gotten.

A book with a number in the title

…There’s a number on the cover, does that count? Goodreads lists the title as “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” so I’m going with that. I haven’t gotten my review together yet but the title story (link) is superbly done.

A book written by someone under 30

Mary Shelley was 21 years old when she wrote Frankenstein which makes me feel old and unaccomplished. When I looked up the ages of authors for this square I also learned that Colson Whitehead wrote The Intuitionist at 30. Wow.

A book with non-human characters

Gulliver’s Travels has a whole cast of non-human characters. The tiny Lilliputians and giant Brobdingnagians are most memorable but there are also immortals and talking horses.

A funny book

Best satire ever! The Sellout may also be the first Man Booker Prize winner that didn’t remind me of homework. Beatty’s prose has the rhythm of great stand-up comedy and he even writes a joke in proper APA format. My quest to read all the Booker Prize winners is going to hit a snag next year when I read Lincoln in the Bardo (which sounds awful).

A book by a female author

Daphne du Maurier has been one of my favorite authors since I first read Rebecca in high school. Jamaica Inn felt a little campy in places but it was an excellent read on a stormy night. Why are so many books better when it’s raining?

A book with a mystery

I’m really enjoying the Miss Marple series and The Moving Finger is my current favorite. Each mystery has had a different narrator and occurred in a different place (all in small towns, though). I don’t often like books where a regular person solves mysteries in their immediate vicinity, but Miss Marple has travelled a bit and nicely sidestepped this particular pitfall.

A book with a one-word title

I don’t like this book. At all. However, it’s my most recent review and has a one-word title so… Artemis has a place here.

A book of short stories

I still don’t entirely know what to make of The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Ferris’ writing quality was quite varied, even within a single story, but there were a few I really enjoyed. Mostly I’m just excited to have finished one of his books. He’s one of those writers whose short fiction I much prefer to their novels.

FREE SQUARE

My review for The Gathering was a lot of fun to write even though I didn’t finish the book. I will read another by Enright, but it’ll be a long long time before I return to this one.

A book set on a different continent

My Name Is Red takes place in Istanbul and the setting is a major part of the book—it becomes a character.

A book of non-fiction

I read so little non-fiction that Dead Wake is my only option for this square. (Technically, The Glass Castle is also non-fiction since it’s an autobiography, but I’ve always understood “non-fiction” to be research-based with an index/bibliography at the back.)

The first book by a favorite author

This one is a little bit of a stretch because it’s the only Colson Whitehead book I’ve read. I don’t think I can say he’s a “favorite author” based on one book. That said, The Intuitionist is a strong debut and he’s one of the few authors on my “to read more of” list for the year. I can see him becoming a favorite.

A book you heard about online

I haven’t reviewed The Lodger yet, but when I do I’ll link to FictionFan’s blog because I only picked it up after she named it the Best Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller.

A best-selling book

Sometimes I worry I don’t pick enough popular books so I read Big Little Lies to be cool.

A book based on a true story

I’m not saying The Glass Castle isn’t strictly true by putting it in this category. Saying it’s “based on” a true story doesn’t mean it isn’t a true story—just that it has been balanced and curated to craft a linear “plot” and “characters” for the reader to follow.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile

My copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring was purchased at a book sale for $1.00 almost 15 years ago. While I heard good things about it, I thought it was going to be much drier and more like a history book. It sat on the shelf until I read New Boy from NetGalley. Surprisingly, many of the things I disliked in New Boy were on display here though to a lesser degree.

A book your friend loves

The Shape of Water was recommended by a friend who was kind enough to let me keep it for the two years it took me to pick it up. My inability to read books on a deadline is why I’m not the best with challenges. Of course, this won’t dissuade me from signing up for challenges in 2018.

A book that scares you

Not conventionally scary, but the book with the greatest number of jump-scares (Stephen King’s It) is filling the “500 pages +” square. This one gave me a shiver though because The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s lead character, Tom Ripley, has got a real dark side. His entitled air and willingness to take whatever he wants is chilling. Though a lot of the book is darkly funny, there are some brutal moments that are made more effective by how they slice through the humor.

A book that is more than 10 years old

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde holds up well for something written in 1886. I plan to pull together a full review at some point. Maybe for next October…

The second book of a series

I read 80% of the second book of a series but I didn’t finish it because I just needed a refresher before book 3. Next time, I’ll read the whole book and complete this square.

A book with a blue cover

Scrolling through Goodreads, I realized I’ve read a number of blue-covered books this year. I picked The Ballad of the Sad Café for this square because it’s almost entirely blue and it has blue content to match. (The Goodreads cover of Breathing Lessons has just as much blue, but that book made me see red.)

I hope everyone had a great year of books! I can’t say “see you in 2018” just yet though because I’ve got a few NetGalley reviews I need to post first. It would be great to start the new year fresh (and not behind)!

Review: Artemis

Andy Weir’s Artemis has the same vibe as The Martian so I expected to enjoy it for all the same reasons, but many of The Martian‘s strengths become pitfalls when they are repurposed in Artemis. Summary from Goodreads:

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.
Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.
Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Jazz is Mark Watney (the main character in The Martian). Not only does Mark’s voice make for a poorly-written woman, but his personality doesn’t suit Jazz’s situation. His endless internal chatter worked for someone alone on Mars—he didn’t have anyone to talk to—but why does Jazz speak the same way when she’s surrounded by others? Her long tangents, musings, and science lessons interrupt dialogue and reduce the supporting cast to yes-men. There’s little for anyone else to do but sit back while Jazz banters with the reader.

If Artemis preceded The Martian, it would be easier to evaluate Jazz without thinking of her as Mark-lite. Unfortunately, she suffers for the comparison because she’s half as clever and relies on her feminine wiles at all the wrong times:

In this scene, Jazz has just been asked to sabotage some machinery in exchange for more money than she’s ever had in her life. The machinery is new to her, but she studies it to discover its weakness. And then:
“Okay,” I finally said. “I have a plan.”
“Yeah?” Trond dropped a socket driver and scurried over. “Do tell.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about the details.”
“I like details.”
“A lady’s got to have her secrets.” I stood up. “But I’ll completely destroy their harvesters.”
“That sounds great!”

That sounds great is what I say when someone says, “I’ll have that report for you after lunch.” It is not what anyone would say in response to I know your entire fortune is riding on this, but A LADY’S GOT TO HAVE HER SECRETS.

The real reason Jazz has secrets is because Weir is hiding her cards from the reader to build suspense. He partially succeeds. The sabotage scene is briefly suspenseful when Jazz brings the wrong tools for the job (darn details) and can’t spark a flint in a vacuum. Don’t fret, Dear Reader! She remembers in time to lecture about oxidation while building a workaround.

Question: Why does Jazz forget to bring proper tools for her secret plan?
Answer: Artemis doesn’t have a plot. It’s an after-school special where the host says things like “Look at this flint, boys and girls, it won’t make a spark and I’m going to tell you why.”

Unlike in The Martian where all the experiments worked toward one goal (leaving Mars), the end goal in Artemis isn’t immediately clear. There are some machinations by power-hungry rich people, some techno-babble, and a whole lot of contrivances built around Jazz’s awesomeness—no joke, most of the climax is caused by her welding abilities being too perfect.

I liked the concept of Artemis, the international city on the moon that uses weight as currency, but this idea has more wasted potential than payoff. Jazz tells us it’s the first truly international city, but it’s written to feel less multi-cultural than a midsize city in the U.S. Weir’s reliance on cultural stereotypes makes Jazz’s world narrow. He gets points for a diverse cast, but it feels less like representation and more like pandering when the characters’ actions are governed by shallow assumptions. This criticism extends to Jazz—Weir can say she’s a woman as often as he likes, but she never stops being Mark. Fortunately, every time I slipped up and started imagining Mark in her predicament, there was a reference to her sex life or something like: “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.”

If you read the first couple of chapters and it doesn’t bother you that a 26-year-old woman speaks like a 15-year-old boy—keep reading, you’ll have fun. But if it bugs you then bail early—it doesn’t get better.

Overall: 1.5 (out of 5) Every book gets at least a point. No matter how badly a book is written, the author still wrote an entire book. It’s like how everyone gets points for writing their name on the SAT.

This means Artemis joins the ranks of North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Russell’s Sleep Donation, and Chabon’s The Final Solution as one of the lowest-scoring books on this site. Every time I think about the low scorers I consider shaving a point from The Night Circus because that actually is my least favorite book here.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Girl in Snow

If I had not received this book free via NetGalley, I would not have finished it.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka sounds promising, but the reveal is badly paced with obvious red herrings. Even though the mystery lost my attention, there’s potential in Kukafka’s prose—it’s occasionally lyrical with unique imagery. Summary from Goodreads:

When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.

My biggest gripe is that too much time is spent on descriptions and redundant flashbacks. Because the book starts after Lucinda’s death and the sections are titled “Day One,” “Day Two,” and “Day Three,” most of the character-building moments happened before page one. Kukafka flashes back to the core moments of each relationship instead of relying on the strength of her present-day scenes. It’s not satisfying to be hit over the head with expository matter after carefully picking out the same information from well-crafted clues in an earlier scene.

The flashbacks aren’t the only distraction. There’s a curious fixation on gross/unsightly things. As an example, a description of Lee as “clean-shaven” is chased by a paragraph that describes the nicks around his mouth and how he must have looked with toilet-paper squares stuck to all his bloody cuts. There’s nothing wrong with describing a clean-shaven face this way—it’s certainly vivid—but no one is ever described without taking them down a few notches. The vast majority of characters have bad skin, smeary make-up, dripping sweat, pimples around their mouths and sprinkled across their sagging cleavage… Not even inanimate objects are safe! Misshapen beads are described as “tumorous.” I think this is all to contrast with Lucinda Hayes’s beauty, but it’s emphasized to the point of silliness. The more over-the-top descriptions are funny when I don’t think they’re meant to be.

This grossness reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I stopped reading Flynn’s book after a background character was described as having dried scrambled eggs in her hair. (I admit this is a weird place to draw the line.) In college, I ran across an article that suggested every character should have something ugly about them. This was to warn writers against creating physically ideal characters that are hard to relate to and hard to imagine. It’s easier to picture a crooked nose than a “perfect” nose—what does a perfect nose look like anyway? It’s a good piece of advice, but Kukafka takes it too far.

These two points are the kind of complaints that would have been less noticeable if the overall story had been more compelling. A taut mystery provides a lot of cover for errors in craftsmanship. Since I wasn’t particularly concerned about who killed Lucinda Hayes, the energy that should have gone into asking whodunnit all went to nitpicking.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5)
Taking on three points of view to solve a murder is ambitious and two of the characters (Cameron and Jade) have unique, if unlikeable, voices.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Dinner Party

I requested a collection of short stories by Joshua Ferris from NetGalley months ago (I’m running behind). I was familiar with Ferris from two of his earlier books: The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End. In both cases, the premise was sound but the main plot was rehashed repeatedly until I throttled the book and said: “I’ve got it. Can we move on with the story now?”

My experience with Ferris’s long fiction is what made me excited to read a collection of shorts. He’s a witty writer who goes for dark humor (which I like). My hope was that the limited page count would leave room for his originality but not his tendency to wax on. Yet most of the stories in The Dinner Party follow a similar arc despite the range of subjects.

Adding to the repetitive feel is that most of the stories examine a deeply-flawed or unhappy person and the same flaws keep cropping up: insecurity, self-loathing, dishonesty, and an inability to connect with others. The actual writing is quite good; whenever I thought I might set the book down permanently I’d run across a little gem. Ferris can put his finger on a thing/emotion exactly and make the reader feel it with surprising clarity.

The highlights for me are:

“The Dinner Party”
One couple waits on the arrival of another for a dinner party. The longer they wait, the more it seems like the other couple is staying away for their own reasons. Because it’s first, its hooks and twists are the most effective in the collection. It sets the tone for those that come after.
Here is “The Dinner Party” as originally published in The New Yorker, August 11, 2008.

“The Pilot”
An insecure writer is invited to a party thrown by a successful acquaintance. He wonders whether he was invited intentionally or accidentally and, to cope, he hides behind an alter ego and tells everyone that his pilot is almost finished. The tension that comes from his writhing insecurity and problematic drinking is skin-crawling. Come to think of it, most of this collection is uncomfortable so it stands to reason the best stories are those that nail discomfort most efficiently.
Here is “The Pilot” as originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010.

“More Abandon, or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope”
Points awarded for absurdity. “More Abandon” follows another self-loathing man, Joe Pope, as he leaves an embarrassing series of voicemails on a coworker’s phone. He then explores the empty offices in his building and does a little redecorating…

Overall: 3.5  Ferris can write and he’s a little more interesting than average so The Dinner Party can’t slip below a three even if the redundancy is tiring. Many of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker—which makes sense, they have that New Yorker vibe—and they’d be better if read months apart instead of in a collection where their similar themes and tones are obvious.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads