reading recap: december 2016

Happy new year! I hope 2017 will be better in many ways and on many levels than 2016, and I’m going to do my part here in Singapore any way I can. December was hard; being away from my family during the holidays for basically the first time ever. But it was also weird since my routine is basically non-existent and the weather is perpetually summery, so it doesn’t exactly feel like “winter” and “holidays” here to me so much.

I managed to get a little bit of reading done last month. Here are my books for December:

december-recap

  • Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light … Cyril Wong
  • Phenomenal Woman (ebook) … Maya Angelou
  • We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation … Jeff Chang
  • A Life in Parts (audio) … Bryan Cranston, read by author
  • Children of the New World: Stories … Alexander Weinstein
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ebook) … Iain Reid

Except for the Cranston memoir, everything was on the short side: essays, short stories, poetry. I liked all these, not a bad one in the bunch, but probably my favorite reads for the month were We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang and I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. The essays in We Gon’ Be Alright include deeper looks at Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, current segregation in K-12 education, and much more. It was short, timely, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, also very short, took a little bit to get into and was slightly plain at first, but piqued my curiosity more with every chapter that I couldn’t put it down by the end and had to read the last few pages twice. This one was a library ebook I put on hold back in October for Halloween and it finally came though!

Children of the New World was overall very good, with only a couple of sleepers in the collection. I loved the premise of the through-line—an imagined near-future where technology is even more prevalent in the daily lives of humans. The stories that stood out to me in particular were “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.”

Bryan Cranston’s new memoir, A Life in Parts, was another library hold come through. It was fantastic on audio, hearing the actor himself talk about his many personal and professional experiences, including his most famous roles as Hal (Malcolm in the Middle) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). Nothing too deep or earth-shattering, but a solid celebrity memoir. I was inspired to re-watch Breaking Bad after reading this one!

I’m not normally a poetry person, but I ended up reading two more collections to close out 2016! Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light was written by a local Singaporean poet, and I picked it up as a Christmas gift for my mom, but ended up reading it first before I mailed it home. It’s a beautiful collection about love, with additional themes of time, death, and distance. Phenomenal Woman is, of course, by the indomitable Maya Angelou. I’ve read this before, it’s only four poem, but I felt after what happened in November, it was time for a revisit. “Still, I Rise” is an all-time favorite.

My “best of 2016” posts are coming soon!
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reading recap: october 2016

I had a great month of reading in October! As you can see, I was mostly consumed by Halloween-appropriate books, with a few library holds that just happened to come through:

october-reading

  • The Fire This Time (ebook) … Jesmyn Ward, et al
  • House of Leaves … Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Troop … Nick Cutter
  • Men Explain Things to Me (ebook) … Rebecca Solnit
  • Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar
  • Black Earth (audio) … Timothy Snyder, read by Mark Bramhall
  • Stories from Night Shift (audio) … Stephen King, read by John Glover
  • ‘Salem’s Lot … Stephen King

I have to say, as someone who is generally chunksters-averse, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through three (!) this month: House of Leaves (709 pages), The Troop (507), and ‘Salem’s Lot (653). Black Earth is pretty much a chunkster too, but since it was on audio it felt less daunting. Something about seeing the bulk of it intimidates me, so it usually takes a lot of pep talk to get myself to read anything longer than about 350 pages.

While I enjoyed House of Leaves overall, I may have bailed/DNF if I didn’t have so much free time at the moment—getting through this one is a real time commitment, and you have to pay close attention with all the different tangents and footnotes. It had a great premise and some genuinely creepy moments, but generally didn’t quite live up to the mythical hype for me. The Troop and ‘Salem’s Lot were perfect to get me in the Halloween mood—between the contagious gore in Troop and vampire mischief in Lot, I felt the spirit here in Singapore despite the hot, sunny weather. The audio for Stories from Night Shift was an impulse borrow from the library, to finish out the last few hours of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readthon, the first time I’ve been able to participate! Next time, if I can join again, I’ll plan ahead more (joining this time was also on last-minute impulse).

Men Explain Things to Me and Black Earth were my library holds that came in. Both were excellent, but very real and heavy material. Neither was quite what I was expecting, but I learned a lot from them and both were thought-provoking. I’m glad I was able to finally get these two books.

My favorite books of the month were The Fire This Time and Dead Mountain. EVERYONE should read The Fire This Time. This anthology is full of powerful, moving essays by several writers in a variety of styles, all different perspectives on the experience of being black in America. I will read anything Jesmyn Ward touches. Dead Mountain interested me because I’ve had a fascinating with this case for a while, ever since I saw the movie it inspired, Devil’s Pass. What exactly happened to these nine young hikers in a remote area of Siberia, resulting in their mysterious deaths?? Donnie Eichar has a compelling investigation here.

I’m thinking I might try to go back and do full reviews of the books I’ve read since my last real review post, all the way back in March! Or maybe I’ll just continue the monthly posts. We’ll see. Otherwise… I think I’ll be able to meet my 50 book goal for 2016, with only 16 books left to go. And now that it’s November, I’m going to focus on non-fiction to hopefully jump in on some Non-Fiction November fun.

What were the best books you read in October?
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authority

Last week I drove to Wisconsin for my family reunion and decided on Authority by Jeff VanderMeer first, to listen to on the way up there. From Goodreads:

For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.

I read Annihilation last year and thought it was great—a mind-bending and gripping slim fantastical sci-fi novel that sparked my imagination and kept me turning pages. Authority wasn’t quite on the same level, but I was compelled enough to listen all the way through. The characters in this one weren’t as intriguing as the expedition members in Annihilation. In general, I’d say Authority was long on words and short on action, especially in the middle section. The audiobook version I listened to was narrated well, by Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, for all you TGIF early 90s kids!)

I like that VanderMeer doesn’t go with white males in this trilogy—from the women in the first book to a Latino character as the protagonist in this one. In Authority, you start to wonder more about Area X’s wider effects on humans: physical, emotional, psychological? The interviews between Control and the biologist were great, and that ending! No spoilers, but it was a nail-biter and a good cliffhanger setting up the next installment, Acceptance (which I have, hoping to get to it by the end of the summer).

Authority is not a stand-alone novel the way Annihilation is. This second book is a slow, creeping mystery and (hopefully) a good bridge between the first and last volumes. I wanted this to be as good as Annihilation, but I still can’t wait to dig into Acceptance soon to find out what Area X is really all about.

Listened to audiobook on July 8, 2015.

horrorstör

Here’s one I picked up on a whim from the library, after hearing from a friend he recently enjoy it: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. From Goodreads:

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking. To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

Obviously a play on our big-box IKEA stores, Horrorstör is part horror, part satire. And the design on this book is fantastic! It had the exact look and feel of an IKEA catalog, complete with graphic diagrams and enthusiastic copy for each featured furniture item. The first and second halves are starkly different—Hendrix starts it off as a humorous, sarcastic take on the daily grind of working retail. The characters are fairly stereotypical, but they do show some growth and you find yourself rooting for them. I enjoyed the mystery part in the middle that bridges the satire to the straight-up paranormal horror in the second half. I loved the “ancient burial ground” inspiration for this one.

Horrorstör is a bit on the predictable side and not the scariest thing I’ve ever read, but it’s a fun and quirky spookfest if you’re looking for a quick, entertaining read.

Read from June 18 to 28, 2015.

the girl on the train

Had to see what the hype was about with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins! From Goodreads:

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

The Girl on the Train, for me, does live up to the hype, and does jive with certain aspects of Gone Girl (to which it has been frequently compared), but while The Girl on the Train wasn’t 100% a Gone Girl redux for me, I did enjoy this fast-paced psychological drama. I had a similar reading experience for both these books—the suspense, the unreliable narrators, and the need to keep going after every chapter to find out what happens. Gone Girl was more shocking and The Girl on the Train a little more predictable, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the novel.

The characters are not exactly likable, or even necessarily sympathetic. With the shifting narrative perspectives it’s hard to know whom to believe at times. Everyone has their version of the truth or how things happened (in this book and IRL!). The Girl on the Train is full of assumptions that lend themselves to the suspense and twists and turns of the book well. I had an inkling of what was going to happen in the finale, but not all figured out ahead of time. Everyone’s just so messed up—anxiety, insecurity, guilt, paranoia—any one of them could be capable of anything.

Read from May 2 to 8, 2015.

the farm

For my final round of orchestra rehearsal commutes this past month, I listened to Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm on audiobook. From Goodreads:

“If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son.”

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden. But with a single phone call, everything changes. “Your mother… she’s not well,” his father tells him. “She’s been imagining things—terrible, terrible things. She’s had a psychotic breakdown, and been committed to a mental hospital.” Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: “Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow.” Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother’s unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.

I picked this up on a whim browsing my local library last month. I recognized Tom Rob Smith’s name from the Child 44 movie info that’s all over the place lately, and decided to give this one a shot when I saw it on the shelf. The Farm‘s premise is great, with awesome potential for a suspenseful drama.

While there is quite a lot of drama, I’m not sure it was quite as suspenseful as I was expecting. Most of the book is in “tell” mode rather than “show”—more than half of it is Daniel’s mother Tilde recounting events leading up to her fleeing Sweden and ending up at Daniel’s apartment in London. Her account is engaging and rather convincing, but I do wish there was more of a balance—we’re supposed to be wondering whether she’s telling the truth or not, but there’s little to counter her story.

The Farm is a slow, steady, intense burn with some twists and turns, and Smith is a talented storyteller. I was just hoping for more action in this psychological drama. I’ll keep Child 44 on my radar, though—people love it and the movie looks like it could be great!

Listened to audio from April 17 to May 5, 2015.