Book Year in Review 2014

I read a lot of books this year and I’ve written a little bit about each one.

Yeah, I know – this is an anime blog. None of the books on this list have any relation to anime or manga, but I read them all, and I wrote a little bit about each one, AND this is my blog, so here we are. In 2014, I read seventy-five books. In the past, I’ve had people wonder why I don’t really do video games, and now perhaps you have your answer: when I’m not using my spare time for anime, I’m most likely reading. And, the fact is, I love anime, but I don’t think my love for anime or the time spent on it comes anywhere near to how I am about books. I am compelled to read in a way that I am not compelled to watch anime.

Please be aware: I originally intended to edit this (primarily for where I couldn’t think of an author’s name off the top of my head), but I haven’t. I wrote a few bullets for every book I read this year, and I did so over the course of the entire month of December. It was a fairly substantial project. I hope you can abide my lack of editing.

The Wars

  • One of the few WWI books that didn’t do much for me. I can’t help but feel that I was missing something while reading it. It’s the sort of book that those who think well of likely tell those who don’t that its because they couldn’t possibly understand war – invariably uttered by a reader who hasn’t been in the military themselves, and the likelihood of it being stated goes up fivefold if the person expressing a dislike of it is a woman.
  • As far as WWI books go, I would only suggest it perhaps worth reading since it follows a Canadian while much of English language WWI literature and memoir follow British or French folk. Not that the Canadian heritage means much in the narrative, honestly.

River of Darkness

  • Fairly decent “serious” crime novel. Much better than nearly all the other mystery or crime book I read this year, although with the competition considered, this isn’t saying much. I enjoyed it enough at the time to make an attempt to read its sequel, but when difficulties presented themselves, I didn’t follow up so it clearly didn’t light my world on fire.
  • I’ll admit I’m fairly bored with the whole “tough detective happens across pretty and sharp younger woman who falls wholly in love with him and rapidly” in mystery/crime fiction. The female doctor in question here is a perfectly fine character in her own right but her continued involvement in the narrative requires a bit of oddity to the proceedings.

The Bird’s Nest

  • Of all of Shirley Jackson’s novels, this one is the most complicated. It feels like a more fully developed version of Hangsaman (which I didn’t really like, as much as I hate to admit that). It was alright, but I think The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are much better. About on-par with The Road Through the Wall, but lacks the pervasive creepiness and unease that novel has… so maybe actually just a little short of that one. It’s been about five or six years since I read The Sundial, so hard to compare it with that, although The Sundial was what drove me to seek out the rest of Jackson’s works.
  • I suppose ultimately this is the least creepy of Jackson’s novels. What instills a sense of dread in her works is generally that one can relate to it in some fashion, even if the circumstances are a bit out of the ordinary (taking part in paranormal research, converting one’s home into a shelter against an apocalypse prophesied by the family matriarch). As odd as it may sound, a dissociative personality disorder is more beyond relation to most readers than is the possibility of a haunted house. Of course, as a person reading fifty plus years after publication, too, it may be that part of the lack of dread that the narrative instilled was that dissociative personality disorder has gone out of vogue as a thing in fiction and is typically found only in soap operas today as its considered too extraordinary to be taken seriously by and audience.

The Room-mating Season

  • Much like Rona Jaffe’s much more well-known (and much more popular) The Best of Everything; the arcs of a couple of the characters are nearly identical. These two were written about fifty years apart, for the record, and that big gap means that where The Best of Everything ended with its primary protagonist still fairly young, here we watch women who entered the workplace in the early post-war era deal with a changing world and the stuff of life past age twenty five.
  • I like while also hating that Jaffe’s characters often do things that make me hate them. Jaffe gets a bad rep as being an author of melodrama, but the characters here deal with things that many women did, and make some terrible choices like so. One character in particular carries on a decades-long affair with a married man and I reallllllly hated her while also recognizing that she reflected real-life women.
  • Really, though, if you want to read something of hers, stick to The Best of Everything, which was written when Jaffe herself was a young “career girl”. You could pick this up later if you like that one.

The Little Stranger

  • I enjoyed roughly the first three-quarters of the book before it felt like the book… well, unraveled is too strong a way of putting it, but it felt like it got too heavy-handed where it had earlier been quite methodical in building things up. The narrator also went from being sympathetic and likeable to being fairly loathsome. Characters don’t need to be “likeable” but here the narrator’s shift from likeable to not repelled me strongly. Plenty of men pull the whole “poor pathetic me!” act while trying to pressure women into doing something they don’t want to in real life, and plenty of men pull the “she doesn’t want what I want so she is clearly crazy!” thing, and I didn’t really feel like dwelling in the mind of a narrator who was doing the same.
  • I keep putting off the author’s more famous book, Fingersmith, despite finally grabbing a used copy of it earlier this year because this one left such a sour taste in my mouth. I’ll admit it didn’t make it into my luggage when I moved across the world, so it’ll have to keep waiting.

Death in Holy Orders

  • The first P.D. James I read, and the best of hers that I’ve read so far. Solid murder mystery helped by its fairly unusual setting – a small, isolated seminary set on the English coast.
  • That being said, the attitudes expressed by characters about a priest who works at the seminary who got into trouble for molesting underage boys feel really jarring and archaic; this book was published originally in 1997 but the Catholic sexual abuse scandal that broke wide open in 2001 makes it feel like this hails from ancient times. It doesn’t help that this is one of those cases where the book itself is clearly in agreement with the characters saying it wasn’t a big deal.

Bad Blood

  • I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s other travelogue, Travels in Catholic Europe, a lot, but it was a little hard to track this one down since its out of print, so there was a gap between when I became aware of this and when I actually read it. TiCE is much better, likely because this is one of his earliest book-long efforts whereas TiCE came after about a decade and a half of writing experience. However, its lack of impact, too, is largely to do with the fact that although it purports to be about the tensions of the Irish border during the Troubles, it spends some truly dull space on boat rides and beers with friends who don’t have much to say about the region and the socio-political realities. I was pretty disappointed.

The House Next Door

  • One of the most loathsome books I’ve ever read, about a malicious house and the horrible pair of people who live next to it and watch it destroy the lives of three different couples. One of those books where if you told the author it was extremely sexist, she would respond with shock, saying, “But the protagonist is a successful businesswoman with a happy marriage and good social life!”. Too bad said protagonist is in the habit of frequently referring to other women as “brood mare” and “walking pair of tits you call a secretary”, etc., always when the other woman is of a lower social/socio-economic class (she’s really nasty about two of the women who appear who are in her economic class but whom she considers her social inferior). One woman in particular I ended up sympathizing with even though her own actions made her seem unpleasant because the protagonist was so unrelentingly rotten about her that I could only conclude she was actually not bad at all.
  • I’m sort of angry with myself for borrowing this from the library as its clear it hadn’t been in a while so it might’ve been on the potential pulp list before I made it a non-inactive book.

Unnatural Causes

  • Utter crap. In Death in Holy Orders, P.D. James had a character sneer, “This isn’t Agatha Christie.” when someone suggested a convenient coincidence to explain something but James routinely utilizes coincidences and conveniences that Christie would never had dared use. Here it all ends neatly in a dead murderer who was helpful enough to leave behind a recording explaining everything they did, why they did it, and how they did it.
  • James also thoroughly demonizes a woman who has mobility difficulties because of dystrophy of the legs by having one of her mouthpiece-characters outright state that the woman is weak and uses her disability to make men pity her and help her when she doesn’t actually need help. More generally, James writes nasty portraits of female characters who clearly do not comply with her view of what is appropriate behavior and character for a woman.

More Tales of the City

  • Extremely funny. I also love how tangled Maupin makes the narrative while it still remains easy to keep track of the characters and their various relationships that tie them all together. He also resolves quandaries in the funniest and most satisfying ways possible. I’m so glad there are so many books left in this series!

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

  • I love fairy tales so no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I was surprised at how little Philip Pullman altered the tales themselves – they remain fully as fairy tales (i.e. pretty simple with little narrative embellishment or depth). I was anticipating more a re-imagining of tales rather than a cleaning up of or consolidation of them.

Well-Schooled in Murder

  • I’m surprised I remember as much as I do of this. The writing quality is quite good, but I remember recoiling from some of the ideas in it having to do with teenagers, sex, and gender roles. Not a murder mystery that breaks any new territory.

The Lighthouse

  • Fairly ridiculous. Someone ends up developing SARS, and from that point on I marked every occurrence of it with inverted and regular exclamation points like is done in Spanish. Also, the tough female subordinate of the lead character is revealed to be in love with him. Of course! Blech.

The Group

  • A lot like the previously touched on books of Rona Jaffe, but concerning the lives of primarily upper middle and upper class graduates of Vassar College in the 1930’s (i.e. when it was still a women’s college). Had a similar reaction in that I couldn’t stand how bad some of the decisions made by the characters were even as I appreciated that it reflected the reality for many women in 1930’s America. Wow, am I glad I did not live in the 1930’s.

Luck in the Shadows

  • I’m not much of a fantasy reader, so much so that I’m actually completely unable to say what was the last fantasy novel I’d read previous to this – do Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books count? If so, one of them was, but I can’t remember when that was. However, the e-book was on sale and someone recommended it, so I figured I should try it. I ripped through it in a couple of days.

Stalking Darkness

  • …and immediately picked up its sequel, which I in turn whipped right through. At this point I forced myself to not pick up the third book immediately because I was wary of whipping through the series. I didn’t want to be done with a series I loved so much so quickly.
  • But why did I like it so much? Well… I liked the characters a lot, and I enjoyed how Lynn Flewelling, the author, took the time to fully characterize even fairly minor characters. The world she crafted was fully fleshed out and intriguing. And then there’s the fact that the world she’s created does not hew to the sexism and homophobia that ours does. Great! (Well, the villains are sexist, but that’s part of what makes them villains!)

An Ice Cream War

  • This book was hilarious. I kept telling people that it was the funniest book I’ve read that contained a beheading. While not concerned solely with military folk or the military itself, this to me is what I was hoping for from Catch-22 and never got from it. It got at the absurd aspects of being in the military while also showing that those absurdities are just a reflection of the larger fact that life is frequently absurd itself.
  • The vast bulk of WWI literature is fairly grim. It also primarily takes place in Europe. This is extremely funny, takes place in the oft-ignored African theater, and doesn’t flinch from being honest about the horrors and atrocities of warfare. Would’ve been nice to have had a more diverse cast racially, although I wonder if the fact that WWI was itself such a European conflict (even in the African and Asian theaters of war, it was definitely a matter of Europeans guiding/inflicting conflict, although there were some localized rebellions against European colonizers in Asia) [etc]

All At Sea

  • First two stories in this collection were great! The rest felt mediocre and incomplete, as if they were included to fluff up the length of the book. The good stories were worth the price but I resent having wasted my time on the rest.

A Long Long Way

  • I didn’t like the writing style much. It wasn’t bad, but for whatever reason it just made me feel tired every time after I read from it. I did adjust to it after a while, but I was still uneasy about it.
  • Kind of a standard WWI novel but with an Irish flavor. The ending seemed to have been lifted from All Quiet on the Western Front. It wasn’t bad but there’s really little to differentiate it from other WWI fiction.

Beautiful Creatures

  • I wasn’t expecting this to be good, but I did expect it to be better. Despite possessing a lot of power, heroine felt kind of useless. There was also a pretty strong undercurrent of Madonna/Whore going on that was completely unnecessary. On the plus side, at least this YA paranormal romance featured a guy who was a fairly good person, and that’s so much more than can be said for a lot of books from this genre.
  • Actually, I also was expecting it to have a strong Southern gothic flavor; just felt like window dressing ultimately, even with tragic flashbacks to the Civil War.

The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories

  • I picked this up mostly as a way to hold myself over before Monica Nolan’s Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlady came out, as I never really had a horse phase, nor am I particularly interested in them now. I’m glad I gave it a try, as I more or less liked all of the stories, although I would’ve liked a couple of them to have been expanded upon.

The Sinking of the Bounty

  • Not a full book, exactly – an expansion of a New York Times article about the sinking of a boat that was built in the style of the wooden ships of old and used in a bunch of American movies set in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was an interesting article, and it made me want to re-read The Perfect Storm.

The Perfect Storm

  • This was my fifth or sixth time reading this, the first time in at least six years (and probably more). I first read this as a sixth grader when it was one of the books that our school librarian put out as a recommended book. Looking back, I don’t think it’s really a book that many middle schoolers would enjoy or appreciate – not a difficult book, just don’t think it’d be of interest to most kids that age. Obviously I enjoyed it then, but I also was a bit precocious.
  • It’s hard to react to a book that one has read this many times. It held up, but, well, there wasn’t any reason it wouldn’t.
  • The paperback copy I picked up used was one of the ones released after the movie version came out. I removed the stills from the movie, and, honestly, it seems disrespectful to the folks who died to have included them at all. I’d much rather see photos of the actual people.

A Mind to Murder

  • I don’t remember much of this. I know there was a lot of content I sneered at, and, as usual for P.D. James, an undercurrent of sexism that pervaded the entire book. She seems to be more or less incapable of writing female characters; some of her later books have one or two female characters who are alright, but you won’t find any here.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

  • The strongest recollection I have of this is that the heroine gets stuck in a well after doing something truly stupid. I think this was one of those books where it was hard to understand how the heroine untangled the mystery at all. The resolution was a bit pat.

The Murder Room

  • Ok, this is the one I really rolled my eyes over. You may wonder why I kept reading stuff by James given that I don’t seem to have enjoyed them much. I’ve been hatereading her stuff; it wasn’t my original intent, but while reading the second book I read of hers, it just started happening.
  • Reading James was an attempt to find something that would satisfy my enjoyment of Agatha Christie books, as obviously those do eventually run out. I haven’t found anything that scratches the same itch yet, and I tried Dorothy Sayres last year (I was bored nearly senseless by the endless junk about train timetables and theories about how long it’d take to get from one point to the next, then followed by an overly detailed description of testing these theories).

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

  • One of my favorite books, this was the first time I re-read it. It was even better than I remembered.
  • A lot of people were super snippy about this when it first came out – the usual crowd of naysayers whenever a historically-set novel pops up that dares to do something which the white male crowd deems impossible. Here, some readers were mad that Stephen L. Carter centered his book around an African-American woman who is training to be a lawyer in the late 1860’s. Is it unlikely? Certainly! But who cares? It’s not as if he plopped her down and then pretended racism was nonexistent at the time, nor that a war that ended up being over slavery had recently ended. And it isn’t as if it’s the only, or even most, extraordinary thing in the book. No one’s complaining about the grand conspiracy underlying the narrative being extremely unlikely, I notice.

Traitor’s Moon

  • Third book in the Luck in the Shadows series. A slower book than the previous two, but probably the best in the series of what I’ve read so far. Lot of politicking going on here, which is just the sort of thing I like.

Shadows Return

  • Not as good as the books which precede it. I wasn’t terribly comfortable with the whole “Alec gets captured and enslaved” thing – Flewelling doesn’t use it very exploitatively, which is a relief since that is often what happens in fantasy books, but I still felt uneasy about it. I’m also not too thrilled by the introduction of a would-be surrogate child.

The Bone Doll’s Twin

  • Read this to slow myself down on Flewelling’s other series. Weirdly, I wasn’t that interested in it based on the description, although I can only assume now that it was that I was so mad about the other series that I couldn’t see past it. Really glad I gave it a try anyway, loved being able to spend more time in [country] and reading about people who lived there well before the time of the other series.

Hidden Warrior

  • Read it immediately after I finished the above. Had to force myself to not pick up the final book in the trilogy; hated the idea of finishing it all off too quickly, as I felt (and feel) about the other series of Flewelling that I’ve been reading through.

The War That Ended Peace

  • An excellent examination of the path that lead to WWI, covering roughly 1900-1914, but with material about earlier matters like the Franco-Prussian War, as that itself had an impact on some of the decisions made in the years preceding the Great War. Very thorough, but also written very clearly; there are a lot of names involved in this, but [author] does a good job of reminding readers who people are if it’s been a while since they appeared in the narrative.
  • I was, however, a bit irritated over the author’s refusal to draw conclusions – she’s very fond of saying things like, “Whether this had an effect or not is debatable, but…”, and while I realize history is an imperfect science (what a funny phrase, huh?), it felt weirdly… immature? Childish? Juvenile? Intellectually to have these sorts of statements littering the book.

Leave Myself Behind

  • I’d been wanting to read this for years – my local library didn’t have a copy – and it finally came out in digital so I grabbed it. Not worth the wait! I was expecting it to be a bit more atmospherically moody. I also wasn’t expecting both adult women in the novel to be depicted as utterly deranged, one of them so much so that she was incapable of operating as an independent adult. Blech.
  • Maybe I would’ve liked it better as a teenager. Another thing that grated on me was how much of a pain in the ass the protagonist was; whiny, cranky, entitled, quick to cast aspersions on others. Yeah, he had reasons to be less than happy with his situation, but I was so glad to be done with him when the book ended. Not really sure why I finished it.

The One

  • Things were resolved quite handily in this, which is the final book in The Selection Trilogy, a trilogy that is great for anyone who liked the Hunger Games but would’ve also liked it if it had involved more dresses and dancing. In a different series I think I would’ve been irritated at how thoroughly all the problems were solved, and part of me would’ve liked a deeper examination of the dark history that lead to America having a monarchy, but in a light read like this, I was fine with it.
  • If you’re thinking of trying this series yourself, please note that the protagonist is named America Singer. If you can’t live with that, this is not the series for you.
  • Should probably caveat that this isn’t going to win any feminist gold stars which is probably not a surprise when you learn that the series is based around a competition to be the wife of the crown prince of post-apocalyptic America. There are some pretty cringe-inducing moments, and the romantic interests have some pretty big issues when it comes to some of their behavior and beliefs.

The Cranberry Hush

  • Pretty good book, and I liked that it took place on Cape Cod in wintertime – not too common a time of year for books in that setting. I liked how the central conflict was managed; I was expecting it to wrap up in a fairly predictable fashion, but the author had the guts to take a left turn with it. In doing so, too, the author took a common trope – best friends, one gay, one not, gay one has a crush on the straight one – and fleshed it out much more. In doing so, too, we avoid having the whole tragically unable to have crushes on other men who like men thing, even if we do have a crush that’s gone on way too long.
  • It is weird, though, that the author doesn’t seem to be terribly familiar with his setting when the action moves to Boston. Some of the details of the T are completely wrong, and not in a way that seems to be borne of artistic license. I suspect the author went to school in Boston quite a few years ago and hasn’t spent any or much time since then.

Palace Council

  • The second weakest of Stephen L. Carter’s novels that I’ve read (of his novels, I will not touch Jericho Falls with a ten foot pole given how bland and derivative the description is, and the fact that no one likes it, but have read all the rest), although this means its leagues ahead of most other mystery/thrillers. And, even as I think it’s a weaker work of his, I liked the arc of the female protagonist a lot more than the female protagonist’s arc in New England White, even if New England White feels more substantial than this one.
  • It is worth noting that Carter’s works, excepting the aforementioned Jericho Falls, all take place in the same timeline and have at least some links to one another, as slight as those links are (this features a supporting character who can be presumed to be a descendant of one of the main characters in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln). I recommend reading this after The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White, but before Back Channel.

Fatherland

  • Without even checking the publication date, I knew this pre-dated the only book I’ve read of Robert Harris’s prior to this, The Ghost Writer (perhaps more familiar to you as the movie that fugitive rapist and pedophile Roman Polanski directed, The Ghost), by quite a number of years. It had the advantage of a being set in an alternate history, but it really did check off just about every single box possible for political thrillers/mysteries without going beyond those strictures other than in terms of setting.
  • I will give it credit for ending as it did, though – wasn’t particularly novel, but I was expecting it to have a deus ex machine moment and it did not.
  • The Ghost Writer is a much better book.

The Return of the Soldier

  • I felt maddened by this – the prose was excellent, but the classism on display was ugly and repellant. I could certainly say that it was a matter of perfectly writing a novella from the point of view of a snobby as hell upper middle class woman circa 1916 but that doesn’t change how troubling I found the classist attitude. It doesn’t help, either, that I suspect Rebecca West was echoing her own sentiments in that regard, either. I really liked it while also wanting to kick the narrator’s teeth in. I suppose that is probably the sign of a good book.

Free Air

  • A weirdly shallow novel from Sinclair Lewis, one of my favorite authors; basically, Lewis does the roadtrip novel. Felt some serious dissonance from the pleasant, primarily happy tone versus the fact that upon any reflection it’s all pretty creepy – young man glimpses young woman across an auto repair shop’s garage, falls in love at first sight, and decides to pretend he is driving westward to the same place as she so he can follow her and pursue her romantically.
  • Lewis’s portraits of his female characters can be fairly… well, I hate to repeat the word so soon, but maddening is the best way of putting it. It is clear that Lewis actually considered women to be human beings (unlike a lot of men of his era!) (best examples in his writing are probably The Job, and Main Street), but he still misses the mark in some of his novels in fully depicting his female characters. This is absolutely one of them, as the heroine manages to be even less fleshed out than the hero.

The Daughters of Mars

  • There’s two pieces of this book, sort of – the larger piece is that of following the lives of a pair of Australian sisters who volunteer as nurses during WWI, and the subsidiary piece is a sort of meditation upon reality and the seemingly out-sized affects decisions and little instances can have upon it. This second bit raises its head early on, only to seemingly vanish before playing a big role right at the end. Given the poor integration, it’s a good thing the primary piece is quite good!
  • One of my favorite books from the whole year.

Not So Quiet…

  • Instead of nurses in WWI, this time its female ambulance drivers in WWI, but not THAT book about female ambulance drivers in WWI (a.k.a. The Well of Loneliness). A fairly blunt read; [author] conveys the lack of time her characters have in the fact that the narrative itself doesn’t meander around. Disastrous things happen, and the characters get on with their lives; even when our heroine ends up out of the field due to the trauma of an air raid on evening, she spends barely any time dwelling on it before shoving off to her next endeavor.
  • I read the digital edition released by The Feminist Press at SUNY, and the essay following the novel is a great resource for other books focused on women in WWI. I do think, however, that it is too quick to dismiss the nasty homophobia displayed by one of the characters, whose rotten actions are approved of by other characters and implicitly the author herself. Allegedly this occurred because The Well of Loneliness had made Britain at large suspect the women ambulance drivers of all being homosexual. The essay writer thus more or less assigns guilt for the author’s action to larger social forces, even as the author herself in writing such an unvarnished novel about female ambulance drivers in the war is bucking a lot of societal opinions and expectations. Hard to have it both ways.
  • Decline and Fall
  • It was on sale and I’d been told it would be funny… and, well, it is, from time to time, but much less so than it was probably thought to be when it was published. Evelyn Waugh’s works on the whole haven’t aged particularly well, largely because they are very much of an era that has dropped by the wayside, and good chunks of the humor is reliant upon archaic ideas (the entire sequence involving a character of color was simply painful). It also tends to punch down rather than up, as the whole story is begun when a fairly poor Oxford student is expelled for being a pervert after a bunch of wealthy drunk students with connections set upon him and strip him naked one evening as the young man is walking back from studying all evening.
  • I kept reading it expecting it to get funnier as I’d heard good things about it, but it never did. I’d had Brideshead Revisited on my list of books to get to eventually for ages, but this neatly dropkicked it off of that.
  • Early Autumn
  • Gave this a go after a debate with my mother and brother about the accuracy and/or usefulness of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, in which I argued that its not a guide at all of things that will have staying power. This involved going over the books that had won since the prize’s inception, most of which prior to about 1970 no one had heard of. I then decided I should probably give some of them a go, beginning with this because I liked the title chiefly, although I thought the premise possibly promising (but, really, it was the title).
  • I’m glad I did take the effort of tracking it down; despite living in a major metropolitan area, the public library system only had one copy and it took a while for it to make its way to the central library where I picked it up. Loved it! Struck me as the sort of book Edith Wharton would’ve written had she been concerned with the wealthy of Boston instead of those of New York City (although the setting’s isolation from the city proper was vaguely reminiscent of Ethan Frome’s Starksville). I was also impressed, quite frankly, with author Louis Bromfield’s ability to write convincingly from the point of view of a woman, something which many, many male authors still struggle with and flub up to this day.

South of Broad

  • Read because a co-worker gushed about the author and offered to lend me a copy, and this was a co-worker whose literary taste I actually trusted. Hated it! Even with co-worker stating that he thought that its one of Pat Conroy’s weaker efforts, I seriously distrust his taste in books now.
  • Felt a bit like what you’d get if a light novel author decided to write something more ambitious and serious, and also took a few writing courses. Book stars a Nice Guy who describes himself as not being attractive, who suffers most beautifully throughout (mentally unstable and physically wayward wife, brother commits suicide, father dies young, mother is nasty and cruel), and who also somehow ends up with a massive inheritance from a local old crab, and who repeatedly finds himself solving all manner of Big Problems (racism in his high school, old friend who has AIDS is held hostage for their welfare check by criminal, etc., etc.). And did I mention that he manages to be romantically involved at various points with three women from his group of friends? And he is a big fancy deal at the local newspaper?
  • Kept struggling with the fact that a lot of the characters we’re supposed to sympathize with and view as being good are actually awful people with awful ideas and opinions who do awful things. The crappy wealthy white boy who gets expelled from his la de da high school for a drug offense and who years later endlessly cheats on his wife (including trying to seduce a mutual friend whom his wife has kindly offered use of their guesthouse to) keeps being flung back into the narrative in ways where we’re supposed to understand he isn’t actually that bad. Yeah, uh, okay.
  • And, finally, the whole thing is underpinned by a conspiracy-level thing involving the terrible serial rapist father of two of the characters who somehow keeps being mistakenly reported as dead only to resurface and leave threatening notes for his famous and successful children nationwide, something which goes on for decades. I realize that there are diabolical people out here, but this was ridiculous.

Back Channel

  • I have a new-ish theory that Stephen L. Carter in more recent years is on a cycle wherein he switches off between writing extremely good and fairly serious books, and writing solid books that touch on some serious things but contain a lot of silly/hard to believe elements. Back Channel is of the latter category, and it is the book which he wrote most recently, and after doing The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. I liked it but the whole premise is pretty silly – somehow a young Cornell student ends up as the go-between for the world powers of the Cold War, thus helping to avert nuclear war.
  • I will admit, though, that I could do with a heroine from Carter who is something other than fairly prim, proper, and somewhat easily scandalized. I understand why this type keeps popping up in the novels he is writing, and there is some variation on the theme across the books in which these are our protagonists (Palace Council’s Aurelia doesn’t start this way and is instead fairly wily before becoming more like this and then slowly working her way away from it again, and Impeachment of Abe Lincoln’s Abigail doesn’t have so much of the easily scandalized aspect to her), but, please, Mr. Carter, someone a bit different next time, ok?

Storm of Steel

  • A memoir of WWI from a German who was a soldier in it, which remains a fairly rare bird whether in English translation or not. Ernst Junger is fairly controversial in Germany, as there isn’t a sure consensus on whether he was or was not actually a fascist…ish. It’s a little complicated; he was part of fascist organizations but then he wasn’t, and he also never joined the Nazi party, but he did seem to have some sympathies with them in the late 1920’s and in the 30’s. He certainly wrote fascistic things in those time periods, but he also later on wrote some books that seemed critical of the rise of Nazi governance. Anyway, all of which is to say I read this quickly partially because I didn’t want to be seen reading it in public after moving to Germany.
  • However, I did like it, too. It is also worth noting that Junger came out of all of this thinking that the war experience was a good thing for himself, and also was a good thing/would be a good thing for others. He doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of the experience, so its a bit amazing to think that he suffered like that and then came to the conclusion that it was a positive thing to have undergone. I have yet to have encountered this interpretation in any of the memoirs or fictionalizations of experience that came from the English or French who were involved with the war – but, of course, their countries weren’t completely destroyed by the experience like Germany was… but, of course, not all Germans reacted this way, either.

The Crime of Black Dudley

  • Thought I was getting a murder mystery. Got a stupid story involving wealth English people being shut up in a house in the countryside by some gangsters that also had a murder involved. Complete waste of time; writing wasn’t very good, story was even worse.

Some Must Watch

  • Excellent psychological thriller that Alfred Hitchcock later adapted as The Spiral Staircase. It would’ve been nice to have had a slightly less frazzled and nervous heroine, and I could’ve done without the implicitly transphobic material concerning a masculine-looking nurse in the story, but the tension was wonderfully built up. As the climax approached, I honestly could not put the book down, even as I began to strongly suspect which character was the murderer.

The Circular Staircase

  • Despite similarity to the title of the movie adaptation of the above book, so, so inferior to that book. I was pretty disappointed since I’d read this was a pretty tense book as well. I wonder if some of the issue here is the age since some of the stuff that goes on that I would expect any half decent cop to leap upon as suspicious gets waved away with financially secure young men smiling a lot and stating that there’s been a terrible mistake. I realized the justice system isn’t exactly a simulacrum of perfection in 2014 and that powerful people do get away with a lot, but what goes on here is flat-out absurd, and the people getting off the hook for weird actions and statements aren’t even rich or powerful, either.

The Yellow Wall-paper

  • I liked it in that it was very upfront about the poor treatment of the protagonist after she experiences post-partum depression, but I also wanted to like it more than I actually did.

The World Unseen

  • I reallllly liked it but felt that it ended very abruptly. We did get a form of climax, but at the same time I felt frustrated since I was expecting there to be more to the narrative ultimately. I do get that expecting more from it was asking it to develop in a way unlikely to have been the case in its time and place, but, well, I was still frustrated!
  • While reading, I kept wanting to go have South African food. I only recently tried that type of food last summer, and I became a fan very rapidly. Sigh, I would love some peri peri right now, but I sure as hell am not in the right place for it, sadly.

Undertones of War

  • I connect this with Storm of Steel in my mind because they are both WWI memoirs I really wanted to read that weren’t available digitally; luckily, Junger’s memoir was at least stocked in a local bookstore, but Edmund Blunden’s effort I had to order online. Its interesting to me to connect the two in my mind, since beyond some obvious similarities (fought in WWI, wrote for a living, wrote WWI memoirs, came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds), the two have little in common. Blunden walked away from his experiences with anti-war, anti-militaristic sentiments, whereas I’ve addressed Junger’s much more positive feeling about the matter.
  • I’ll admit that I didn’t really take to the poems included in this particular edition though. Guess I lack erudition.

The Secret Place

  • A stylistic departure for Tana French, as the novel switches between present and past, and from first-person to third-person. It works for the material here.
  • This is the sort of book I’ve liked more the longer I’ve had to reflect on it. I liked it while reading it certainly, but in comparison to her other novels, I would’ve ranked it fourth out of five (I’ll admit to being an odd one out in that I really was not crazy about Faithful Place although a lot of folks think it’s her best work to date). Even having an increased appreciation for it, I feel conflicted about some of the elements. On the one hand, French does a very good job of depicting how carelessly awful teenage boys frequently are to teenage girls. On the other hand, I was disturbed by the allegations and direct implications that the male detective had more to fear from the dangerous budding sexuality of underage girls than said underage girls had to ever fear from him. I realize there was a class element involved but it made me extremely uncomfortable and I simply can’t buy it to the extent the narrative wanted me to. There’s also so much cultural noise about how dangerous teenage girls are supposedly to fine upstanding men that adding to it seems flat out irresponsible.

Quaker Testimony

  • Like with most cozy mysteries, this one stars a flawless woman surrounded by a narrative frame that is apparently incapable of sniping about how much more inferior the remainder of the female cast is to the lead. The only women allowed to escape unscathed are those depicted as much too much older to be considered a potential threat to the status, usually romantic, of the lead. Every other woman gets stuck whining, yelling, shrieking her way through the story, typically with sanctimonious inner thoughts from the lead. This one is no different.
  • Best part? The murderer is a sterile woman who wants to steal the child of her victim. Didn’t you know that sterile women are the #1 threat to your child?

Agony of the Leaves/Sweet Tea Revenge

  • Putting these together since I actually cannot recall what events happened in which of these. Laura Childs writes junky cozy mysteries that have a few different flavors (these involve the proprietor of a tea room, the others involve a trio of victim-blaming women who run a café, and a woman who has a crafts’ store) but which each have a structure that makes it quite easy to guess the culprit every time after you’ve read two of her books.
  • As you may’ve figured out, these books weren’t very good. These are firmly in my snark read category, a category which houses all books I read or continue reading so I can scoff at the text frequently. It probably isn’t a good habit, but it is enjoyable every so often.
  • Heroine Theodosia gets increasingly obnoxious as the series proceeds, and I found myself here, as in previous books, feeling sympathetic toward characters I was clearly supposed to disapprove of for being too irritated over being accused of murder/too blonde/too interested in their own business/too irritated that their boyfriend’s ex was hanging around constantly/too pretty/too convinced of their own worth despite not being the heroine.
  • Hilariously, one of the murder victims in one of these books was an ex-boyfriend of Theodosia’s whom she’d suddenly become uninterested in in a previous book. A lot of Theo’s exes end up this way, and it’s funny what that says about the author’s thought process.

All Quiet on the Western Front

  • Yea, verily, come; watch me slay a sacred cow.
  • I’m convinced that the reason this novel is so famous has much to do with the fact that it was one of the first works of German WWI literature to have been translated into English. English-translated German WWI novels remain to this day a fairly uncrowded field, too, which doesn’t hurt at all. It isn’t a bad book by any means, but it also isn’t particularly unique as far as novels about men serving in the trenches of WWI go. Maybe if I’d read it before I picked up a lot of other WWI books I’d feel differently – and that it is for most people the only one of its type they will ever crack the cover of certainly contributes to their lauding of it.
  • I sound like a crab probably. Again, I did like it. Erich Maria Remarque touches on the privations of the German homefront, and while it isn’t exactly an obscure fact that the German people suffered a great deal during the war due to shortages of every stripe, there isn’t much of this done in literature.
  • By the way, the ending is so predictable. I had to actually restrain myself from rolling my eyes at it.

Allegiance

  • Pretty damn good, especially for a Smashwords book. If you’re unfamiliar with Smashwords, it’s an online collection of self-published books of various types that, as to be expected from anything like that, tends to contain a lot of poorly-written fiction, especially among the offerings for free. This was free but I find myself wishing I had paid for it as the author certainly deserves to make money off of it.
  • A gay romance set in the turbulent Ireland of the final years prior to independence where the setting doesn’t feel as if it’s just window-dressing for the true star, the romance. I mildly suspect Heather Domin of being one of those American writers who has a sort of fetishistic affection for Ireland (primarily because these are the American writers who tend to set things in Ireland in the first place), but she does a good job of treating her setting and her characters seriously.

The Sojourn

  • One of those books where I was enjoying it for the most part and then I suddenly smacked into a wall and felt like I’d been under a spell of sorts. The introduction of a stupid storyline involving the lead falling in love with a Romany woman is as cringe-inducing and cliché-ridden as it sounds.
  • The description is pretty misleading, as it makes it sounds like the lead undertakes some quest to get his brother back. I won’t spoil it completely, but he truly doesn’t, and it isn’t fair to claim to the audience that he does since I think that’d be a fundamentally different book.

The First World War

  • I cannot say for sure, but I believe that John Keegan’s book is probably best read after you already have some familiarity with WWI. His descriptions of battles are clear and easy to follow, and he’s clearly got a good sense of tactical matters, but having some background helps with all the place names and people’s names running around. I’m looking forward to reading some of his other work.

Death of an Expert Witness

  • Blah blah blah, what haven’t I said about P.D. James’s books to this point that apply to every book she’s written? At least it had a decent mystery at its center, and I was genuinely dismayed over the murder of one of the characters. James also manages to give us a gay couple that, while not perfect by any stretch, suffers from the same problems that plague the straight couples in her works. This probably does not sounds too terrifically impressive, but it was also published in 1977, and mainstream mystery writing wasn’t exactly on a leading edge in that regard – hell, neither was most mainstream writing of any sort.
  • However, that it all turns on the fact that someone’s sister was such a slutty slut slut was both typical and disappointing. It’d be so lovely to read some book by James in which a woman who isn’t dating the male lead is allowed to enjoy sex and not be either a horrible human being or implicitly responsible for murder. Or, well, it’d be lovely if that were so and if James actually wrote good mysteries.

Dolly Dingle

  • Another great book from Monica Nolan. I love how she perfectly sends up the lesbian pulp writing style of old. I always come away feeling cheery from these books, and the latest was no different. I just wish I could’ve lived at the Magdalena Arms myself sometime!

Mrs. Dalloway

  • It tired me out to read this. I don’t think I’m much a fan of Woolf’s writing style, ultimately, something which scandalized my mother. I still want to check out Orlando, though.
  • I’ve gotten the feeling from others that I’m not supposed to like the titular woman much but I did… well, sort of. When male characters are dismissive of women and casually sexist about them, I can’t help but sympathize with the woman, even if there are elements of her character that I really don’t like. Mrs. Dalloway is a product of what her family and society believed was proper and right for a woman to be, have interests in, etc. This doesn’t make for a necessarily enjoyable persona, but it isn’t truly her fault that she’s like she is.

Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front

  • Unlike Rhinehart’s turn at mystery, I enjoyed this book. Rhinehart actually had a fairly interesting life herself, and here she’s writing as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune who has been sent forth to report back on the situation on the Western Front of WWI. She writes about a lot of people who don’t tend to show up in the literature and histories of the time, chiefly of Belgians. While certainly a lot of writing to do with that war mentions the Belgians, Rhinehart actually spent a lot of time with the Belgians of the military, as well as of civilians in military hospitals and trying to eke out an existence in a war-shredded environment.
  • I could’ve done without her sentimental treatment of the Belgian royals, though – it wasn’t surprising how laudatory and uncritical her treatment of them was, but it still felt overly idolatrous at points. Rhinehart also tends to be very uncritical of military members whom were later removed from their positions for their failures (it should be noted that she frequently leaves out names, likely due to censoring practices of the war years, but I found it easy to work out who many of the more powerful men were simply through my own body of knowledge about the war).
  • However, even considering the downsides of the book, I highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the war given the attention paid to aspects and people glossed over or ignored in other works. Where she does speak with more well-known personages, she gives some insights not given elsewhere, often simply in reporting the way in which a person spoke of a topic.
  • It is worth noting that women were officially unallowed to go anywhere near most of the Western Front. The Belgians didn’t have the same policy as did the French and British, likely because they were in such dire straits that they were hardly going to turn down offers of assistance due to a person’s gender (and studies indicate that preventing female nurses from going near the Front lead to a lot of potentially preventable fatalities). Rhinehart openly worries about being able to get past the French even with a pass from the Belgians, and she nearly is turned back at one checkpoint due to a strengthening of the prohibitions.

We That Were Young

  • I quite liked this novel that followed several young women throughout the war, and then a bit following it, although it felt a bit weirdly superficial in its treatment of its subject. We don’t really get inside the heads of the characters very much past things we could likely guess just from their interactions. Ultimately, the characters are stand-ins for overall experiences of women of their time rather than exactly their own individuals.
  • A good companion for Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and Brittain herself would likely approve of my saying so, as she herself said she considered this one of the vital books about WWI.
  • The unique item in all this versus any other books concerning young women in WWI is the presence of women who work in a munitions factory.

The Lost History of 1914

  • I was expecting this to be a lot more engaging than it turned out – more speculative about how things would’ve gone if some matter had happened differently or hadn’t happened at all. Instead, it’s basically Jack Beatty saying, “Well, if this whole thing hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t’ve had a war!” and then stepping back to wait for a reaction. Why, goodness, yes, it is possible that, for example, Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated, the war wouldn’t’ve happened! But what then? What does that mean, and why should we care?
  • The editing was on the indifferent side, too, given some typographical errors and a couple factual mistakes.
  • The lone plus is that I did learn quite a bit about Herbert Hoover and his Herculean efforts to prevent the Belgians from starving to death during the war. Hoover is pretty much just known for having his name on a dam and not handling the Great Depression’s opening years well, so it was eye-opening to read about his determination and work to provide a way to survive for the Belgians.

A Diary Without Dates

  • The short diary of a young woman who volunteered as a VAD in a military hospital in Britain. As the name implies, it doesn’t have any dates; in fact, it has nothing to demarcate one time period from the next. I have very little to say about it other than that I enjoyed it, which sounds like a negative, but, well, how does one react to another’s diary?

Oracle’s Queen

  • A fine end to the series that started with the previously mentioned Bone Doll’s Twin. I’m glad I made myself hold off on reading it since after I was done I mourned the fact that the series was over. After all is said and done, although I loved the Nightrunner series, I believe I liked this even more. Hoping that Lynn Flewelling will bring us some more tales from Skala, although this was the perfect stopping point for Tamir’s story.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  • A friend of mine recommended author N.K. Jemisin’s other series, Dreamblood, but I decided to give this series a try since it’s complete whereas Dreamblood is not. It was ok; I liked the writing style better than I did the actual contents of the book. I’ll be giving Dreamblood a chance eventually, although I doubt I’ll keep on with this series.
  • For some reason I kept picturing the heroine as Himari Takakura from Mawaru Penguindrum even though the physical description of the heroine, , doesn’t match Himari’s appearance at all.

The Curse of the Narrows

  • Did you know that the tree that Boston lights up for their Christmas season tree-lighting ceremony comes all the way from Nova Scotia and has for nearly one hundred years? I certainly didn’t even though I’ve seen the tree hundreds of times over the course of my life (I used to work nearby). It’s a gift that Nova Scotia started giving after Massachusetts sent a shit-ton of aid and assistance after a munitions ship completely destroyed Halifax in 1917.
  • This is a decent if uninspiring account of that particular disaster that is marred by a massive cast which is exceedingly difficult to follow from one chapter to the next. This book could’ve done with a guide to all the personages who make appearances here.
  • Author Laura McDonald also displays a weird need to make implicit moral judgments about women’s sexuality that is puzzling given the book’s subject. Instead of, for example, simply noting the disheveled clothing of female victims (both survivors and the dead) as she does with male victims, she makes statements about the propriety of said garments. She also makes unnecessary remarks about sex workers, more than once talking about how “once respectable but poor” women frequently became sex workers in Halifax – the implication that in trying to support themselves and their families, they’ve become beings whom should not be respected. That there was absolutely no reason to include this in the text was what baffled me, since it really required that the author go out of her way to include it.

The Innocents

  • It feels odd to describe a novel which charts the steady degradation economically of an older American couple circa 1915 as being one of Sinclair Lewis’s lighter and cheerier works, but it is the truth. This was a fairly funny novel following a hapless couple with bad business sense as they made increasingly bad decisions before trying to escape from semi-imprisonment with their suburban daughter and her unpleasant husband.
  • Although I liked it I did feel that some of the content while the leading couple (who call each other Mother and Father) either walked the very edge of poverty romanticization/fetishization or fell over it completely. However, the resolution of it all suggests that the seeming rosiness of some of it may’ve been more a matter of the naïve point of view of the couple rather than an external viewpoint.
  • At the very least, though, I liked it a hell of a lot more than Free Air.

Hemlock

  • It was time for some junky YA, so I turned to Hemlock. Do you know how hard it can be to find decent junky YA? Beautiful Creatures was a miserable flop for me, so I was a bit leery of touching supernatural romance YA again but, hey, it was on sale for $2.99 – how much could it hurt to try it? And it turned out to be pretty darn good, and not even just in a junky YA sort of way.
  • It helped that the lead Mackenzie was fairly decent herself. She’s no Katniss Everdeen (but who is?) but she’s leagues ahead of the Bella Swans of the world, including the heroine in Beautiful Creatures.
  • It bears mentioning, though, that even after managing to steer clear of the usual trope about female characters other than the heroine being characterized as “sluts” and “skanks”, Hemlock starts flubbing it about halfway through. At least Mackenzie has a close female friend who plays a role in the storyline other than the one filled by her murdered best friend.
  • Actually, speaking of murdered best friends, is this enough of a plot device in YA for girls at this point that it could use some analysis? Something about taking a plot device of very masculine, male-gaze fiction (dead pretty girl!) and bringing it into a context where the characters who gain empowerment are teenaged girls/young women themselves… I don’t have an idea wholly gelled, though.

The Book of Killowen

  • I sort of liked it, or, rather, I would like to have liked it more than I did. It’s a pretty solid mystery until about halfway through, and then it starts piling on nearly anything it can get its paws on – international book thieves, human trafficking, pedophilia, an artifact conspiracy, blackmail, a mole, fugitive terrorists… it also has that problem that some murder mysteries suffer from in that it becomes much too fond of killing off more and more members of the extended cast, and attempts to murder more and more of the extended cast. It gets rather silly after a while, which is unfortunate since the core story is fairly good and [author] seems to be a good writer.
  • It also was for much of the narrative honest about and sympathetic to women professionals who have to deal with unsupportive spouses and skeptical peers before one of its subplots went weird – policewoman gets involved with someone who turns out to be a waste of time and then a neat little ribbon is tied on with her reuniting with her estranged husband (who has been trying to leverage their teenaged daughter against the policewoman and has also been cohabiting for a while with a much younger woman… but apparently saying he misses having drinks with his wife is enough to bring her back).

Shadow and Bone

  • It took forty pages for a female character in the same age group of the lead to show up who wasn’t characterized as a mean bitch or stupid bitch. In the entire book, only one other female character who was in the age group of the heroine was characterized in anything other than an extremely negative fashion, and only two total female characters weren’t clearly meant to be repulsive to the reader. I wanted to find the author and backhand her for giving us yet another piece of toxic pop culture that reinforces this idea that boys are the bestest and other girls are just bitches who are trying to get your bestest boys. Ugh.
  • The author also doesn’t seem to get that if you define the awfulness of other characters largely in terms of the lead’s judgment with little external evidence to underlie it, the lead just looks like a judgmental asshole. Alina, our heroine, spends so much time internally denigrating the two girls who befriend her when she reaches her super special training school that one cannot help but assume that these girls are actually decent human beings. Alina repeatedly makes snide internal comments about the nature of their conversations and their interests, all while the two girls continue to go out of their way to include a girl who apparently repays them only with sullenness and inattentiveness. She generally pays no attention whatsoever to their conversations because she’s too busy thinking about how wonderful her two romantic interests are (and then snipes at the two for their own romantic interests!) or about how much the two girls suck.
  • Can you tell I hated the lead? Wow, did I ever hate the lead. She’s hypocritical, whiny, and mean. But I didn’t like most of the cast, either – her romantic interests are the typical light and dark types and bring nothing fresh to their archetypes. I felt sorry for the two girls saddled with the crappy Alina but not enough to exactly like them. The only characters I liked were the older woman who trains Alina, and the female servant who befriends Alina and helps her out (although there were definitely aspects of her characterization that bugged me to do specifically with her servant status). I also liked the hand-to-hand combat trainer but WOW there was a lot wrong with his depiction in terms of really ass-backwards racist speech patterns (he’s of the in-world’s version of Chinese background and speaks like someone out of a Charlie Chan film).
  • I also hated that Alina gets to have her cake and eat it, too, as far as the luxury of the palace goes – she observes that, ugh, these rich people draining the coffers with their extravagances! even as she herself is fully enjoying the extravagances.
  • In case you couldn’t tell, despite the decent setting (an imperial-style fantasy Russia that has been torn in two by a mysterious void full of terrifying creatures that makes it borderline impossible to cross the country), this is a horrid book and you should skip it.

The First of July

  • Had a hard time getting going with this; I realized as I started reading that I’d actually made an attempt to read this earlier this year as after a few pages it suddenly seemed quite familiar. Once I got past the opening chapters, I had a lot more luck in remaining interested in the book.
  • I was irritated that my least favorite of the characters was the one who ended up with the most amount of time devoted to his particular storyline. Figures. I also got increasingly annoyed with the amount of “random” linking points between the four characters’ storylines that became more common as the narrative progressed. I get that six degrees of separation and everything, but it came off just feeling too terribly convenient.
  • Spoiler for the ending; I HATED the ending. Or, rather, specifically, I hated how it ended for one of the characters. For a book published in 2013 to go for homosexual character with unrequited crush to end up dead rather than get a chance to actually move on from his hopeless love and poor example of a human being love interest is obnoxious. I nearly stopped reading right there, even with two of the other storylines still to close out, it was that repulsive to me.
  • So was it worth reading? Yes. And I really did honestly like most of the book! Just that clunky, archaic trope being trotted out in such a recently published novel was truly galling!
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