2016: My Year in Books

I set a reading challenge of 50 books in 2016 (I include graphic novels but NOT audiobooks) and squeaked in by the skin of my teeth during the last week of the year!

Books I enjoyed the most:

The Robert Galbraith series – The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil. I love a good mystery and extra points if it is British and has a totally engaging, complex, interesting pair of leads.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter – I liked the series but the book is SO.MUCH.BETTER. Mainly because they are so damn funny. I followed this book up by listening to a couple of the others on audio and they were addictive, especially with the author’s quirky, quietly menacing voice narrating. Gory, though, so not for the faint of heart.

Americas’ First Daughter – about Martha Jefferson Randolph, extra points for history lessons.

The Miniaturist – I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did, it’s a bit of an odd tale about 17th century Amsterdam and hinges on a mysterious family, a fortune in sugar, a reluctant marriage, and a lot of commentary on gender and race mixed in.

City of Mirrors – Love Justin Cronin’s “Passage” trilogy of vampire pandemic and I can never resist a good post-apocalyptic yarn.

Books I enjoyed the least:

I like to focus on the positive so I won’t dwell on this – I’ll merely say that Julian Barnes’
“The Sense of an Ending” didn’t do much for me and neither did Kate Morton’s “The Forgotten Garden”.

I’ve set a goal of 52 books for 2017 – same rules apply, graphic novels count but audiobooks don’t. I’d love to hear any recommendations, comments, or links to your own reading lists.

Happy Reading!

2016: My Year in Books

book review: The Likeness, Tana French

I’ve been a big Tana French fan for a few years now, and when I had some credits available on Audible, I spent one on an audiobook of “The Likeness”, which is #2 in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I’d enjoyed the first Dublin Murder Squad novel, “In the Woods”, and had jumped around to read #3 and #4, “Faithful Place” and “Broken Harbor” – both of which I also really liked. French is an engaging author, and writes complex, flawed characters in an easy to read, conversational tone. Her works are set in Ireland, as the series name would imply, and are as much glimpses into a country and a culture as they are tense, suspenseful thrillers. I can’t remember how many of her novels are written in first-person, but “The Likeness” is, for sure. Cassie Maddox, the main character, is a female detective whom we first met in “In the Woods”.  Currently somewhat dissatisfied with her work in domestic violence, she is recruited to return to her roots as an undercover officer – investigating the murder of a young woman who also happens to be her doppelganger. Physically identical, the victim has also adopted the name that Cassie herself used as an undercover officer – Lexie Madison – an identity that is long gone.

How is it possible someone could be her dead ringer and also adopt Cassie’s previous identity? At the coaxing of Frank Massey, a cop who is also a recurring character in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie is quickly immersed in Lexie Madison, and leaves behind her lover, also a cop, to drop undercover into Lexie’s life and former home, a history-laden mansion occupied by a quartet of eccentric university students. However, the case soon proves very difficult for Cassie, who finds it almost impossible to detach herself emotionally from Lexie and her new roommates. Intrigued and enchanted by their quirks, their isolation and their bonds to one another, as well as by the history of the gothic mansion, Cassie’s grasp on her identity begins to waver, as does her commitment to her job.

French is skilled at creating characters that resonate and speak with a genuine voice – but she is equally capable of creating characters that are irritating and unlikeable because of their flaws. With the housemates, I felt as though she was trying for a group reminiscent of the Greek scholars of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” – intellectuals, old souls, perhaps supernaturally so, hearkening back to a deep, rich, meaningful history. Excluded and bonded tightly to each other for mysterious and fascinating reasons. But unfortunately they just didn’t interest me. Their eccentricity was forced. Embroidery and arch intellectual wit and adoration of antiques – but I couldn’t tell the difference between any of the male housemates, except that Daniel was written almost as a pale echo of Henry in “The Secret History”. They seemed pretentious and pedantic and one-dimensional.

French sketches out an explanation that Cassie’s attraction to the house and the housemates is balm to a soul that has been wary and detached, without family, finding pain in most interpersonal relationships. She wants us to recognize why and how Cassie falls for them. Readers see her hypnotism with them unfold slowly, almost agonizingly, and here is where the book fell far short for me. The story bogs down with this and the pace lags; I COULDN’T understand why she was so absorbed in them, because I simply didn’t find them interesting or unique. When Cassie begins to turn off her undercover microphone at crucial times, and to empathize, to feel that she is one of these odd and essentially unlikeable housemates, I just rolled my eyes. It became incredibly frustrating to witness her flaws and failures. It felt false, as though she is all too willing to turn her back on her boyfriend, her career, the life she has built for herself, for a flimsy fantasy.

I love that French makes me think – always wondering and never quite discounting the most unbelievable or unexpected explanation. I always get to a point in her books where I begin to think that the only possible solution is the unexplainable, the supernatural, the internal world. Or the most unexpected – you can’t ever rule out that the main character themselves are somehow to blame. They are tricky and unexpected and untrustworthy, which I generally like about French. I will read “The Trespasser”, her most recent. But my final recommendation on “The Likeness” – pick up another of her books if you want the full Tana French experience – and if you want the gothic assimilation experience, go for Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” instead.

entertainment round up + nanowrimo update

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Currently reading: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.
I’m not a huge BRUUUCCCCE fan but I heard him on Fresh Air and he was pretty articulate and thoughtful, so when I saw his autobiography in my library’s Lucky Day section, I picked it up. Goodreads tells me that based on my page count, I’m about 20% through it, and so far, I’m fairly ambivalent about the subject matter. It’s not making me feel much different about the music, but his writing is undeniably beautiful and lyrical. In fact, he’s an excellent writer – his chapters are well-organized, his thoughts are expressed clearly, and his descriptions are vivid and tinged with emotional awareness and a sense of passing time. I’m enjoying it ┬ábut am casting some longing glances at the next book in my “To Be Read” pile, Six of Crows.

Currently listening to: Podcasts.
I don’t know how I missed the podcast bandwagon for so long, but I have become aware of two that I’m currently devouring voraciously – My Favorite Murder and Thinking Sideways. Truth be told, I like Thinking Sideways better. I was the kid who read all about serial murders at an inappropriately young age – I still remember the look the lady at the bookstore gave me when I bought a biography of Ed Gein with my allowance – but the giggly, jokey tone of the My Favorite Murder hosts can get a little cringeworthy. I like the Thinking Sideways hosts better and am more interested in the wide range of topics they discuss – from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart to a mysterious website that went up in 2011 to ‘min min’ lights in Australia. It’s made my commutes and workouts fly by.

Currently watching: An Idiot Abroad. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a show that makes me laugh out loud as much as this one does. Karl Pilkington is the perfect foil for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and his escapades going on twisted world adventures that they dream up for him – priceless. One of my favorites was his experience on a desert island, and his consternation over being asked to wear a grass skirt that’s customary garb for the local tribe.

Currently eating: The original, world famous Tokyo Banana Cake – special giraffe edition. I have a long history of being tricked by Japanese desserts. They are the most beautiful little works of art, all immaculately packaged in artistic wrappings, they look delectable, you take a bite and find out it’s filled with bean curd, or cold potato. However, on a recent trip to the US, the head of our global legal team brought us a box of Banana Cakes and I was pleasantly surprised. They tasted like light, banana-flavored Twinkies filled with caramel custard. I may have finally found a Japanese dessert that I can eat! (I really only ate one although if I hadn’t been forced to share the box, I could have gladly had more.)

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Currently thinking about: NaNoWriMo.
I’m solidly out of the gate during this first week, writing every day. I’m not meeting the recommended daily word count of 1,600-something, but I’m over 1,000 words each day and averaging about 1,200. Respectable, I think. I have a full outline with all of my chapters laid out and am ready for the hard work.

loose ends

The house has been empty and quiet this week with Miss L spending time with her dad & his fam, so I’ve been a bit at loose ends. Weeks like this can be tough for me as it’s easy to fall into a morass of missing her / hoping I’m a good mum / feeling guilty for having alone time / feeling guilty about spending time with Jax & his kids without her / hoping she’s having a good time with people she really loves and who really love her but also hoping with a small selfish part of me that she misses ME too = a lot of conflicting feelings that I’m sure single mums will relate to. Suffice it to say, although I really couldn’t be luckier / happier / more blessed about our blended family situation – in which all adults are incredibly mature and genuinely kind and loving – I still have a LOT of personal issues of my own to work through. No surprise, as I know I am still a work in progress, but I am committed to trying to put my own feelings to one side to do the best I can for Miss L in every stage of her life. Roots and wings, as my own mom told me, roots and wings.

So, as I mentioned, I spent some time at Jax’s house, made dinner for his crew and got some major loving from Izzy.

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I did some running and have some more to do this weekend. I’m at the point in my training where I am seeing and feeling results – both good and bad. My times and endurance are better, but my legs feel crummy – “sprung”, as I call it. My calves, ankles, and shins are full of tight, red-hot wires that pull and twitch. Everything south of my knees aches. 8 miles tomorrow.

I finished “Wolf Lake”, a gloomy wintery mystery by John Verdon, and just started “Ink and Bone” by Lisa Unger. I have so many books going that I don’t know where I am at any given moment. “Ink and Bone” is my actual physical library book – for bedtime and “serious” reading. I’m listing to “Her Fearful Symmetry” on an audio disc borrowed from our paralegal, and “The Likeness” by Tana French on Audible while I run. In between – for cross training on the elliptical or sitting around unexpectedly waiting for someone – I have “The Forgotten Garden” by Kate Morton on my old Kindle.

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At work, there is a kerfuffle over whether the town hall doors (where we keep the office supplies, refrigerators, microwaves, trash, etc) should remain open or closed. I actually heard a heated meeting about this in a conference room on the other side of my office wall. “We’ve been doing it this way for FOURTEEN YEARS!!!” “It’s a black and white issue to me.” “WHAT IF SOMEONE IS CARRYING HOT SOUP AND CAN’T OPEN THE DOOR?!”

I’m starting to get heirloom tomatoes and I’m watching “I Am Not Your Guru” about Tony Robbins. Tomorrow I get to pick up Miss L and we head directly to my brother’s house for our annual trip to the carnival. I love the creepy small town carnival. I always think I might see a ghost.

pamela dean

I don’t remember when exactly I started reading Pamela Dean. I think I picked up one of her books – ‘The Secret Country’, judging by how well-worn my copy is – from the fantasy aisle in an East Lansing bookstore when I was a teenager. (It was maybe Schuler’s, or B. Dalton in the Meridian Mall; I remember my youthful bookstores like old friends.) Anyway, however I came to her, from her first book I was hooked and had to backtrack to read everything of hers that I could get my paws on. She has a lyrical, whimsical, dense writing style that is crammed with literary references. Reading her books makes me feel smarter and dumber all at once – what a world of literature I have yet to be exposed to. Her characters are vivid and enigmatic, her plots thorny and difficult to untangle, and packed with symbolism and significance. They’re the type of plots that keep you guessing and thinking for days, weeks, and hold up particularly well to rereading as I always pick up something that I missed previously.

I particularly loved ‘Tam Lin’ (easily makes it into my top 5 all-time favorite books) and ‘Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary’ and I’ve been waiting for more additions to her Liavek stories. Yet the years have stretched with no more publications from Ms Dean and I’ve had to content myself with annual re-readings of my old favorites.

Recently, though, via Twitter (link to my profile in sidebar –>) I discovered that Ms Dean has run into a stretch of ill luck, both from the standpoint of her relationship with traditional publishing houses as well as her health. To that end, at the urging of fans and friends, she has launched a Patreon account. Patreon is crowdfunding for artists, musicians, writers, etc. If you’re a Creator, you can have Patrons pledge financial support for your work. I was so excited to be updated on what Ms Dean is doing professionally and honestly thrilled to pledge a small amount to support her goals, in the hopes of being able to enjoy more of her writing.

I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be a shiftless creative type, yet thanks to vigilant parents who advised me towards useful education and gainful employment full-time, and creativity part-time, as well as a temperament that is not well suited to chaos and uncertainty, I am a full-time Widget Central employee who blogs sometimes and finds other outlets for my dream-weaving. This is probably better for me all around. And if I can’t actually be a writer, then I think it’s pretty cool that I can be a patron of the arts and be able to support a writer I love and enjoy in a somewhat more personal and meaningful way.

guilt and books

I always have a sense of guilt when I give up on a book. There’s a feeling that I should keep pushing through it, that it has something to offer, and possibly even that if a book is boring or not my cup of tea, that it’s completely my fault and I will be a better person if I keep reading it. Lately, though, I’ve had a lot more success with pushing past those feelings and, if a book hasn’t grabbed me by the first 100 pages or so, switching to another one in my pile. Hence my relationship with “The Mechanical.”

I took 4 books on vacation and got through 2 – I really enjoyed “Bellweather Rhapsody” and made it through “The Passenger” with mild interest but not overwhelming enthusiasm. I read a lot, and my annual book goals are usually in the 40’s or 50’s (this year’s goal is 50 books and I just made it halfway). I’ve always been a fast reader. I wasn’t born with many gifts, but that is certainly one of them. However, this will never be a book blog because I’m just not a good critic. I can’t explain why I like something or get fancy with plot structure, character development, metaphors, etc. If I like it, I like it because it started a movie in my head and kept me daydreaming about it even when I was away from it.

I read more from my local library than any other source.

I have a Kindle but our electronic library site is a bit frustrating so if I can’t find a $1 or $2 book deal through any of the websites or blogs that I read, I don’t use it much except when I travel, so I don’t have to lug heavy hardcover tomes on and off planes.

I listen to a lot of books on Audible, too, but I don’t count them in my annual book count because I haven’t technically “read” them.

I picked up “The Mechanical” because it had a prominent blurb from George R.R. Martin at the top and I enjoyed the “Song of Ice and Fire” saga (as well as being a somewhat rabid fan of the HBO series). (Although it must be said that I enjoyed the later books more than the early ones.) I really tried with it and I wish that I could like it because the premise is intriguing – an alternate history of a war between the French and the Dutch, who have created a race of mechanical servants through technology and alchemy. There are all sorts of cool terms in it like Clockmaker’s Guild, Stemwinders, etc but although I tried valiantly, when I got into bed at night, looking at the cover made me want to turn the TV on instead and that’s when I know I have to move on.

I had more guilt when I moved on to a fluffernutter called “While We Were Watching Downton Abbey”, but it was just what I needed – a quick beachy read that I devoured, and then I went back to more robust material with “America’s First Daughter”. I’m almost halfway through it and am finding it fascinating, although it paints a really dubious picture of Thomas Jefferson. I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on it (no spoilers though).

Any book recommendations from my small but loyal cadre of dear readers? Hope you are enjoying your summer reads. xo

daylight savings fails and more.

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The most ferocious thing about Emmett is his yawn.

I consider this year to be a Daylight Savings Fail as it took me at least four days to adjust and be able to get out of bed at the new time. After I had Miss L, sleep came to occupy one of the most important places in my life and I just never felt like I had enough of it. Miss L is a big little lady now but I am still extremely protective and fussy about my sleep patterns and any hiccup renders me useless. Luckily, apart from being relentlessly picked at by my lovable colleagues in Tokyo (and there’s a time difference so their precise and disapproving emails come into my Inbox at night, which makes them easier to ignore when I get into work the next morning for some reason), it was an easyish week at work and my boss is never a reliable office presence, anyway. So, yawn.

I spent some time with Jax and his puppy Iz, watching March Madness and eating pizza. Rather, Jax & I ate the pizza and watched the basketball and Iz enjoyed her bone in the sunshine streaming in through his open door. I really like that little dog but am glad that she was focused on her bone this time – she has a history of creeping into my luggage while we are occupied doing other things and stealing items of my clothing, which I later find all over his house. “What gall,” Jax says, and he’s right. Under normal circumstances, her little leather collar jingles and when she’s on the prowl, she knows to move slowly and silently, quiet as a ninja puppy as she stealthily raids through my bags for that stray sock or undergarment.

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Despite the persistent ennui, I got in a few good runs on the treadmill during my lunch hours and am hopeful for a longer run this weekend. I am somewhat reluctant to make it official, but I am looking towards the Glen Arbor Solstice Half Marathon in June. I’ve run the 5k a few times and it’s a nice course and I am in surprisingly decent shape; my big “meh” about it is the time of year. The 5k is usually extremely humid and muggy and warm, and I’m just not a good hot weather runner. Fall races are the best for me but I don’t want to wait. I am excited to get back to that distance over the next several weeks and add a new experience to my run collection. (Past halfs confined to the inaugural Ann Arbor Half Marathon which I hated because we ran around Briarwood Mall around the 8-9 mile mark and who wants to run through a mall parking lot at the darkest part of a half, when you are starting to flag but still have too many miles ahead to see the light? I think they’ve changed the course now, maybe? And my favorite race of all, the Sleeping Bear Half Marathon, which I’ve done twice and is my half PR at 1.57.)

Anyway, the sun is shining today and there are little green things determinedly poking up through the detritus so perhaps there will be some raking and yardwork. The six suburban deer have raided my birdfeeders and there are a lot of cold robins heading to the neighbor’s buffet instead – I should rectify that. I can bundle up and listen to my audio book. I finally finished the seemingly endless “Lake House” on my Audible subscription and have started on something called “Nightlord” which at first listen isn’t really my cup of tea but audio books aren’t like library books – if I don’t like them, I actually paid for them, which makes me loathe to cut my losses. (As I did recently with “The Witches” library book, which I found to be little more than a sensationalist rehashing of the same old story – I swapped it for V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” which I am really enjoying.)

I hope you all have a lovely weekend recharge. xo