reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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mini-reviews: you should have left and the strange bird

I’m definitely out of my reading slump! These two novellas came through my library holds on audio at the same time, and they’re short enough that I was able to listen to both in one day while drawing.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann is a taut, unsettling psychological horror novella. Kehlmann handles classic haunted house, ghost story, and existential madness tropes well—a creeping dread is palpable here. Easily read in one sitting, too—the audiobook is just about two hours long. A couple and their 4-year-old daughter stay at an AirBnB in the mountains for vacation, but they’re also there so the husband (our narrator) can work on his screenplay. You spend the entire book in his head, as strange things start to happen (they easily get lost in the house, optical illusions and issues with depth perception abound, doors appear in places there wasn’t a door before, phrases mysteriously appear in his notes, etc., and then the nightmares start), all the while something is up with his marriage. People online have compared it to House of Leaves and The Shining, and I’d agree, although this is much, much shorter! [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

Jeff VanderMeer is an author I like to follow. I enjoyed his Area X trilogy (so excited for the movie adaptation of Annihilation!) and loved Borne last summer. I saw The Strange Bird on my library browse and borrowed it right away. This adds a chapter to Borne, from the perspective of another of the Company’s hybrid creatures, the Strange Bird. She is part bird, part human, part… other stuff(?). The biotech lab where she was created, the Company, has devolved into chaos and she, as well as other experiments, have escaped. The sky and land are full of creatures and technology and debris making this near-future world a very dangerous place to be, where humans are now struggling to survive. I do think you need to read Borne first, as that book does all the world-building and set up for The Strange Bird. I kind of wish I had read it on paper or ebook instead of listening to the audio, though—the narrator read in a tortured tone that could be a bit much for me at times. There isn’t quite the level of mystery and tension I felt while reading this one as I did with Borne, but it’s a great expansion of this imaginative setting. [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

fire and fury

I had to see what the hype was all about, of course. I mean, he tried to have Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff banned! Edited from Goodreads:

With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Michael Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Never before in history has a presidency so divided the American people. Brilliantly reported and astoundingly fresh, Fire and Fury shows us how and why Donald Trump has become the king of discord and disunion.

Well, it’s not great. The book or its subject matter or the state of the Union. But that’s not to say I don’t think this book is worth reading… at least maybe as an act of protest and dissent since he was trying to squash its publishing and have it banned. And while we still are allowed to read <eyeroll>. I’m fine with having borrowed it from the library instead of purchasing a copy.

Reading Fire and Fury affirms that it’s both exactly as bad as and worse than we think it is inside this administration, even if just half of the content of this book is true. No one is qualified for any of these positions, least of all Trump himself. Everyone is trying to keep their jobs and avoid prison; attempting to reign in Trump, which is impossible due to his unpredictable behavior; sucking up to him while simultaneously badmouthing him behind his back; pushing their own agendas; and fighting amongst themselves. It reads like a sensationalist piece of tabloid gossip, so it’s shamefully entertaining in that way, but there’s nothing new or revelatory as far as what’s covered in the book. If you’ve been paying attention, you know about all the scandals and tweets and disfunction. But there is a little more backstory to some of these scandals that I hadn’t heard before. Wolff is preoccupied with Steve Bannon, painting a somewhat sympathetic portrayal (which was unsettling to me), and much of what we read is based off interview(s) with him. There’s also a lot of focus on Ivanka and Jared’s roles and actions taken in the last year. Mike Pence is conspicuously absent…

I do believe it’s worthwhile to have a piece of concise documentation on this part of American history… but maybe this book is a little too rushed, too “unauthorized,” too speculative. I experienced this on audiobook, so I’m not sure if there was a reference list in the back or not. I’m hopeful that in the future after we’ve overcome this horrid moment, a more reliably factual account will exist.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]

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]