mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: recent stephen king reads

Continuing on my recap of scary books… in the last year I read FOUR Stephen King books! Well, three novels and one short story collection 🙂

I listened to The Lawnmower Man and Other Stories from Night Shift last October as an impulsive, last-minute attempt to participate in Dewey’s Readathon… I’m the worst readathoner! But these short stories were fun enough. “The Lawnmower Man” was nothing like the terrible movie… but honestly I’m having a hard time remembering anything about the story! “Quitters, Inc.” was probably the best and most intense, with “The Mangler” probably had the highest “classic scare” factor. Funny story: a few years ago I was up late at my gramma’s house with my cousin watching TV; she only had 4–5 channels. We landed on this ridiculous, terrible movie where a guy was driving around and getting freaked out by ghosts of dead people he knew in high school. It was so bad and cheesy! I had no idea it was a Stephen King story until I heard “Sometimes They Come Back” in this collection. Bottom line, it’s a decent, standard, old-school collection from King.  [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

I bought this copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in October 2015 on a road trip to Denver and finally got to it a year later! What can I say about ‘Salem’s Lot. It didn’t hold my interest and imagination the way that King’s other work has, like Pet Semetary11/22/63, and It. ‘Salem’s Lot is kind of a play on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the whole arc of the story or the ending, but here’s the gist… Ben Mears, a writer, returns to his hometown to exercise his personal demons. There, he connects with a priest, a woman, and a boy. A stranger has also moved in to the mysterious Marsten House in the town, and eventually strange things start happening and people start dying… or are they really dead? It’s old-school horror and the violent fight scenes were excellent and action packed. I love how King writes kids—they have potential as characters and heroes that King brings out wonderfully, although I do wish he wrote women as strongly as he writes kids and men. [Read in October 2016.]

When I was a kid, I watched the godawful miniseries based on The Stand, so I knew this iconic, religious good-versus-evil tale set in post-apocalyptic America. In April this year, I started getting pretty excited for the new It movie—that one wasn’t available on my library app but The Stand was at the time. I’m just always blown away by King’s world- and history-building in his novels, and how fleshed out he makes every single character, whether major or minor. The beginning was fantastic—when the world goes all to hell thanks to to the deadly virus Captain Trips. The climax was a let-down for me… but as is often in King’s chunksters, he devotes so much time and energy to the characters and world-building that the story itself gets neglected and he “phones in” the climaxes. But this is still an epic, classic King book! Randall Flagg is easily one of the greatest villains in literature. Just because I like torturing myself, I rewatched the miniseries after finishing the book. Just as bad—no, way worse than—as I remember. UGH. Terrible production quality! Too literal! Costuming/music instantly dates it! I can’t believe that it was produced the same year as cinematic achievements such as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

Another great, classic King story in all its cheesy, creepy, page-turning glory is his 1986 masterpiece It. This is another good example of King’s astonishing attention to character development and world-building. By now most everyone should know the synopsis: in 1957, kids start dying gruesome deaths or disappearing in Derry, Maine at the hands of the mysterious, demonic clown Pennywise. Four kids who call themselves The Losers’ Club have a showdown with Pennywise, and vow to return to Derry if his evil ever resurfaces. Almost 30 years later, it does, and they do, in an attempt to end Pennywise’s terror once and for all. Steven Weber’s audio narration was FANTASTIC, one of the best I’ve ever encountered on an audiobook. While I think King is a masterful storyteller and I’m always captivated, I did have a problem with Beverly. This goes back to my earlier comment about King’s archetypal interpretation of women and girls in his writing. OF COURSE Beverly is a victim. She’s also the love interest of EVERYONE. That said, she DOES kick some butt in the book, sadly not so in the new film (which I did really like!). Again, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I rewatched the 1990 miniseries. Again… terrible! Except, of course, for the inimitable, genius Tim Curry as Pennywise. Anyway, despite the female characters being clichés as usual, It is super memorable, with many legit terrifying scenes, and I’m looking forward to the second movie! [Read book and listened to audiobook in August 2017]

mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

mini-reviews: psycho, deviant, and the monster of florence

It’s almost Halloween! I love watching scary movies all month and reading spooky books to get me in the mood, even if I don’t actually do anything on the 31st (except, of course, have a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon 🙂 Here are three books on serial killers I listened to on audio this year:

I’ve been enjoying classics lately on audio, so I went with Robert Bloch’s seminal horror novel Psycho last March. Thanks to the iconic Hitchcock film, you all know the story: Woman skips town with a wad of cash from work, ends up at Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, whose secrets go deeper and are more upsetting than some stolen money. She’s never heard from again, and her boyfriend and sister go looking for her. Even though this was short and I knew the plot already, Psycho is still a tight, suspenseful read that has quite a bit of depth left out of the movie. Bloch was inspired by the capture of Ed Gein (see below). It’s very short—just over five hours on audio—but it packs an intense punch. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

I’m not sure why I decided to listen to Deviant by Harold Schechter last March/April… maybe I was homesick, as weird as that sounds! (Well, I’m always homesick.) Anyway, it popped up in my recommendations after I finished Psycho and I decided why not. The life of Ed Gein is truly one terrifying, disturbing nightmare. Gein was a low-profile farmhand in Plainfield, Wisconsin, often helping out neighbors as a babysitter or handyman, basically regarded as a harmless “town simpleton.” But beneath the innocuous facade was a depraved murderer, whose behavior and actions behind closed doors was unimaginably gruesome, each discovery unearthed in his farmhouse by authorities in 1957 more strange and chilling than the last. He was the inspiration for PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Silence of the Lambs, and more. As a sucker for true crime and Gein being serious lore in my home state of Wisconsin, this book kept me intrigued and captivated throughout. It is definitely NOT for the faint of heart; Norman Bates is positively quaint compared to Ed Gein. Fun fact: Gein spent the last years of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, just a couple miles from the street I grew up on! [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

***Both Psycho and Deviant are fascinating, gripping books, but I have to mention that the discussions of mental illness and the way the term transvestite is used in both books are dated and problematic. Deviant (1989) would be easy enough to edit and update, and anyway I’d even bet there are more recent books on Ed Gein.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston was recommended to me by one of my oldest, best friends back home in Madison last summer, and I was excited to see it was available on my library app! Author Douglas Preston discovered the olive grove in front of his family’s new Italian home was the location of one of Italy’s most notorious double-murders. Preston, with the help of a local investigator Mario Spezi, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, known simply as the Monster of Florence. They end up interviewing the man they believe may be the killer, but then end up the focus of a police investigation themselves. I liked the first part of the book better (the second half dragged somewhat, and was more about Preston than the murders), but it still reads like a suspense-thriller in the vein of Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Larson’s Devil in the White City. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

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reading recap: may 2017

I read 13 books in May! Even though several were short and several were on audio, this might be a personal record for me. I also already hit 50 books (currently sitting at 51)! I can’t believe it. I guess this is what happens when you listen to audiobooks all day while you draw.

  • The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler, read by Adam Verner
  • Frankenstein (audio) … Mary Shelley, read by various
  • The Leavers (audio) … Lisa Ko, read by Emily Woo Zeller
  • The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn, read by George Newbern
  • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (ebook) … Morgan Parker
  • The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein
  • Men Without Women: Stories (audio) … Haruki Murakami, read by various
  • Life’s Work (audio) … Dr. Willie Parker, read by Caz Harleaux
  • The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore, read by Angela Brazil
  • Drinking: A Love Story (ebook) … Caroline Knapp
  • Parable of the Sower (ebook) … Octavia E. Butler
  • Bitch Planet, Book One … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions: The Road to JonestownThe Teacher WarsLife’s WorkThe Radium Girls, and Drinking: A Love Story. I was fascinated by Jonestown and Radium, while Teacher Wars and Life’s Work are important pieces to understanding where we are on the topics of education and abortion today. Drinking was personal and raw, and made me think more deeply about my own use and relationship with alcohol.

Of the fictions, The Hearts of Men and What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky really stand out to me, as well as a few stories from Men Without WomenParable of the Sower and Bitch Planet were recent picks for my international book club with my friend Anthony, and it was so great to read these along with him.

This last month I made a detailed plan for catching up on book posts here. I want to write a little bit about everything and I WILL get to it all! I’m traveling for several weeks in June and July, so I’m not sure how many posts I can write up and schedule ahead, but I’ll try my best to keep this space active a bit while I’m away.

I’m currently listening to Going Clear on audio, the exposé on Scientology that came out a few years ago, and it’s riveting so far. I also recently purchased Van Gogh’s Ear and Pachinko, which I’ve had my eye on for weeks! I also would like to pick up Chris Haye’s A Colony in a Nation and Roxane Gay’s new one, Hunger, while I’m on the road this summer. What are you planning for summer reading?
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