What I Read in 2014-15

Fiction

* Dr. Sleep by Stephen King : It’s Stephen King. You knew it meant something more, that Something Like a Review would be necessary. Now go check it out…

* The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald : Check out what I had to say about my re-read of this classic in this week’s SLaR.

* The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters : It’s the end of the world as we know it…and here’s the SLaR… 😉

* Countdown City – Ben H. Winters : The end is nigh…better read the SLaR!

* World of Trouble – Ben H. Winters : This is the end. This is the end, my friend. Here is the SLaR

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway : I read this one so long ago that I considered the re-read I did in my literature class to be a first approach. It was just as well, since I realized that a.) I remembered almost nothing about it, and b.) when I read it the first time, it meant nothing to me because I lacked the experience to get anything out of it. Going back to this book as an adult gave me a significant appreciation of the world. Not only is it a reminder that we’re all a little f*cked up, our own special way of being f*cked up is usually preferable to someone else’s way, at least in our own mind. It reminded me that everyone goes through heartbreak of varying degrees of willingness, and that even when you get stomped on, you will go on and you will torture yourself with it again. I love the way Hemingway puts up a mirror to the sides of us that we choose not to acknowledge, or uses other characters to highlight what we’d prefer to ignore or deny. In some ways, this book made me want to be a socialite traveling through Europe to experience life, but in others, it made me quite content to be right where I am, in the f*cked up-ed-ness in which I am comfortable.

* Landline – Rainbow Rowell : This will be the first SLaR of 2016. Check back soon!

* Jaws – Peter Benchley : Initially, I intended to write a lengthy post and compare it to the film since it has been a seminal part of my phobia of sharks. There are many parallels, but I was surprised by the book and surprised that I hadn’t heard more about it in the past. It was much more in depth than the film and while the shark is a villain, it is not the only one. There are humans equally as villainous and for reasons that will surprise enthusiasts of the film. For those who love the movie, I recommend the book. It is not a huge departure from the story told in the movie, but something that added to my appreciation of it.

Confessions of a D-List Supervillain – Jim Bernheimer : I learned about this book and author at ConCarolinas, and was intrigued by the premise. In short, a supervillain who is bad at being one. So bad, in fact, he’s somewhat of an anti-hero. Cal is quirky with a voice to match, the characters are engaging, and the book is a fun, funny, light-hearted read. Immediately after reading this book, I bought the other books in the series. I’ll be reading them soon! I highly recommend this for anyone who loves sci-fi and humor, and wants to see how a skillful writer can artfully blend them into a great book without taking himself or his story too seriously.

* The Wolves of Midwinter – Anne Rice : I did Something Like a Review on the first volume of this series, and though I was disappointed, I had to see if  it was just a fluke, or a warm up for something better.

* Prince Lestat – Anne Rice : Rice’s world of vampires has been like an imaginative home-away-from-home for a long time. Each time I picked up a new novel, I was torn between the need to rush through it, and the need to make it last as long as possible since there had been such long tracts of time between releases. I was ecstatic to see that this one was released. I bought it on release day, but didn’t have an opportunity to read it until last year. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this book. In many ways, the world I’ve loved is still there, yet Lestat, the Brat Prince, is fundamentally changed. I expect a degree of change in a character, of course, but this one is…disconcerting. In the last books, he was depressed, bereft, and seemed to be adrift in his own existential crisis. To say that he’s emerged from it in this book is neither accurate, nor inaccurate. The best analogy I can make is that Lestat has gone from a lascivious, delightful devil to a emo vampire Jesus. It’s not a bad transition, just…odd. Disconcerting. I loved the Brat Prince for all his frustrating and self-centered ways. While the voice of the stories I’ve enjoyed is still there, and it’s one of Rice’s better written books, it’s…odd. I miss the devilish Lestat, and while I don’t dislike who he’s become, he seems sad and I feel like I should be reaching out to help him instead of selfishly observing and indulging myself in his story.

* Murder as a Fine Art – David Morrell : This was a beautifully written historical fiction. Morrell picked evocative historical details and massive amounts of research to bring the Victorian ethos back to life. I listened to this as an audiobook at a time when I didn’t have time for indulgent reading and it helped make my commute a more pleasant experience. I even looked forward to sitting in the knot of traffic, because that meant I got to spend even more time drinking in the experience of this world. I wouldn’t classify myself as a historical fiction fan, though the genre is growing on me. I came to this book through the horror genre, and the chilling experiences in this novel did not disappoint. I look forward to the next in the series.

* The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho : I believe that sometimes, you encounter things as you need to, when you are ready. The student finds a teacher, an opportunity comes to the prepared. This is one of those books. A deceptively simple story full of the kinds of truths we all know we should know, but fail to truly internalize. That’s why, when reading this book, it resonated with me. It was a reminder that the quest for the treasure is important not for the treasure, but for the quest, that the destination can change without the journey losing value. When I needed it most, it was a reminder that dreams are just as important as what you spend your day doing. It’s hard to hold on to these lessons as an adult, but this book provides a beautiful reminder of those things we should all carry with us.

* The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two – Catherynne M. Valente : I love, love, love, love this series. Though I wouldn’t consider this her strongest book in the series, nor the one that spoke to me the clearest, it was a beautiful story, and I indulged in savoring every word.

* John Dies at the End – David Wong : I remember seeing this book at the store several times, but never was intrigued enough to pick it up – until I listened to “This Book is Full of Spiders.” It was a little odd going back to the origin story after having following the (mis)adventures of the second volume, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Some things made a little more sense after reading this, but really, I think I’m better off having read them out of order. This was a great book, but “Spiders” was far more enjoyable, in my opinion.

* Fun Home – Allison Bechdel : This one was in the media and important enough to feature in Something Like a Review. Read it here.

* The Girl Next Door – Jack Ketchum : When I attended the 2015 World Horror Convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to listen to Jack Ketchum on several panels. Over and over, I heard praise and warnings against the intensity of this novel, so of course, I had to read it. I can say that this is one of the best pieces of horror fiction I’ve ever read. Yes, there is some gore. Yes, there are intensely sadistic scenes involving children. That being said, I don’t see either of those as reasons for not reading this book, even if those things disturb you. The most disturbing thing about this novel is its plausibility. How well do you know your neighbors, really? How do you know what’s really going on next door? Every day is a reminder that the world is a scary place, but it gets scarier if you start questioning what you really know about those closest to you.

* The Giver – Lois Lowery : Most people come to this book as a young adult. I didn’t know much about it then, though I remember it was on my radar at one point. As curious as I was about books, the cover was just a turn off to me, though that’s probably because I was reading lots of slash-n-splash horror at the time. I’m glad I came to it as an adult, though. While “simple,” this is a complex social commentary and has a depth I don’t think I would have picked up on or really appreciated as a kid. Even if you read it when you were younger, this is definitely worth revisiting. It may shift your perspective on the world around you, even now.

* Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote :  I’m pretty sure my first exposure to the movie was in that 90’s pop song, though I’d read Captoe before (“A Christmas Memory,” and “Children on Their Birthdays”), so I may have heard of it before. I watched the movie first and was so enchanted, I wanted the source. Holly Golightly is far deeper (and more controversial) in the novel, a kind of light and bright version of Holden Caufield.  Like so many others have discovered, there’s something about her and her driven re-invention that resonates. She’s tragic, neurotic, hopeful, lonely, stylish, lost and yet enduring, and it makes her a burning bright flame we can’t forget or ignore. We all want to be a little bit like Holly, but usually for different reasons.

* The Book Thief – Markus Zusak : This is one of those books you simply cannot read in a melancholy mood. At least not adults. I think this is important for people to read, though I fear that the gravity will not touch all people because of the belief that we will never have to experience similar circumstances. For those with the empathy to understand the context in which book this took place, this will be a powerful experience. Avid readers will be more affected by it than casual readers, as well. Worth the time.

* Sleep Donation – Karen Russell : When certain people make book recommendations, it behooves you to listen and read it. For me, Stephen King is one of those people. I forget where, but at one point, Stephen King recommended this novella and I snapped it up. I was not disappointed. This is one of those great books that poses a deep ethical question in a easy-to-digest story. Imagine an epidemic of insomnia plaguing our world. What would you do to get the sleep you crave? Would you take a compulsory “donation” from an infant unable of giving consent? I recommend this unsettling novella to anyone willing to ponder the question.

* Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn : I’m always hesitant to read books that are wildly popular because I usually get frustrated with them. This is a happy exception. This story is so well-crafted that my early frustrations were blown out of the water as the story unfolded. What I thought were issues with the writing were actually part of the character development and story crafting. Rich, complex and well-written, this story is a carnival ride. In the dark. With killer clowns.

* The Book of Life – Deborah Harkness :  After the first two novels, I knew this wasn’t the series for me, but I was curious about how it played out. I’m not a fan of the characters, but the premise was strong enough to shell out the audible credit and listen to it on my commute. Although I’m not a fan of this series, I’m glad I read it because there were moments that stuck with me, the climax in this book is very satisfying and I feel like I learned something about writing, character development and story structure.

* Grave Witch – Kalayna Price : I heard about this story at my local con, ConCarolinas. I’m not a huge urban fantasy fan, so I’m not the target audience for this series. That being said, it was an enjoyable read. Fans of the genre will find lots to love in this story, especially Price’s sense of humor and her facility switching between the mundane and fantastic.

* 20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill : I’m glad I found this book before I knew anything about the author because it let me read this book without assumption or expectation. When I read these stories, I found another incredibly creepy to love and fan-girl over. I immediately looked for more of his work and, in my research, discovered that his dad is Stephen King. Hill’s talent and skills certainly speak for themselves without needing help from King’s reputation, but the revelation makes sense. There are places a King fan will see his influence on Hill’s work, but instead of distracting from Hill’s abilities, it enhances his appeal. I highly recommend this collection for any horror fan – or any fan of the dark, creepy and weird.

Non-Fiction

* Zen and the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury : This is one of those sage little books that packs more in than the size of the volume suggests. Though it’s quite slender, there’s more in there than one pass can truly do justice. Like many other writing books I’ve read, there is a certain amount of common sense, and practical wisdom, but what makes this different is the child-like wonder Bradbury conveys when talking about writing. There’s passion and magic and mystery, and the sense that he honored, respected and cherished them all. This is one I will definitely revisit, especially when feeling grumpy or kicked around by the publishing world. It’s the shot in the arm that helps inoculate against the grumps and help the struggling writer realize that there are giants willing to let you stand on their shoulders, but it’s your responsibility (and prerogative) to climb the ladder.

* The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience – Chuck Wendig : For those writers who make their way to this page, if you’re not familiar with Chuck Wendig and his blog at terribleminds.com, you should be. Understand that the delicate among you will probably recoil from contact like a snail making first contact with a salt line, but even for you, his words are the brussel sprouts of writing advice and insight your diet is lacking. If you’re already whining about brussel sprouts, remember that they can be made not just palatable, but pretty damned fantastic while still being good for you. If you don’t believe me, drop me a comment and I’ll prove it to you. Otherwise, pick up this book. Not only does Wendig use all kinds of in-your-face enthusiasm, real-world advice and a significant dose of ass-kicking, he does it in a way that makes it stick, and makes it fun. If only personal trainers were this damned hilarious and honest, we’d all be buffed and toned gym rats. Wendig doles out advise and wisdom in a way that only he can with his caustic and endearing personality. But be warned, get a sense of humor before you pick up this book. Not only will you need it to “get” what he has to say, you’ll need it for that forthcoming avalanche of rejections you’ll get in serious pursuit of the craft.

*By-line: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades – Ernest Hemingway : This was another literature class read, but one worth of at least a few comments about it. I expected to incur eye-rolling headaches, or perhaps attacks of mid-homework ninja sleep that tend to accompany dry writing/reading. Instead, what I found was a deeper appreciation of Ernest Hemingway’s skills, and a deep sadness in the changes to journalism. While there were some passages that took effort to get through (usually related to the subject matter at hand), I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed a good portion of it. The writing was evocative, and I gained an appreciation of Hemingway’s development as a writer. I also realized the effect of dumbing down our society through TV and other brain-drain media. There was entertainment in what he wrote, not just using words to convey facts. He put the reader in his own shoes and made them feel the world as he experienced it, which is something that we have sadly lost the patience for in an increasingly digital world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mourning the advancement of technology or society, just grieving the loss of a world that respected the art of a well-written story as a part of their everyday experience.

* Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan: Using Audible as a way of using otherwise “unproductive” times (like the daily commute, walking around a store, etc), I’ve been able to branch out with my reading into books I normally wouldn’t pick up to read. I discovered this book through watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and was intrigued. This takes a look at the difference between the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus of historical context – a subject of the social, political and cultural pressures of the times. While the performance of the book was great, I was woefully under-prepared for this as an audiobook. There was too much “meat” for this story that I wasn’t familiar with in order for me to really take in what Aslan was sharing. For those who are also not familiar with the historical and theological elements related to Jesus (and by this, I will qualify as having more than a passing understanding of who the Bible outlines him to be), I would recommend either getting a digital/print version of the book so you can re-read, pause and research, or go back and cross-reference to information presented earlier in the book. Ideally, the audience needs background before diving into this book to get the most out of it. I will be revisiting this book after spending a little more time understanding the religious implications of Jesus, the related texts and the historical contexts in which he lived. Thankfully, and somewhat coincidentally, I am enrolled in classes that will bring me just that. When I re-read it, I will consider doing Something Like a Review.

* The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins : This seems to be the year of religious reading. I can’t say what brought it about – it’s not a crisis of conscience, but following the wending path of curiosity where it leads. I had a love-hate relationship with this book, and I’m sad that what bothered me most about it is probably a deal-breaker for those who need to read it. With the recent popularity of scientists and their own accumulation of celebrity attention, their personalities are becoming as important as the information they convey. The passionate energy of Bill Nye, the suave confidence and humor of Neil de Grasse Tyson. Though not in the same regard, Richard Dawkins could rightly take his place among these figureheads of thought…and yet… While I loved the sense of humor Dawkins injected into this book, the snarky asides and his obvious biases became irritating and counterproductive to the argument he was making. Instead of using subtle humor, he (in some instances) blatantly ridiculed the counter-points to his presentation. It became off-putting and distracting from the information he was laying out in the text. Even so, being a sophisticated enough reader to set aside these issues of perspective and to critically pursue the line of thought, there is value in what he’s saying. Some of his audience will understand and glean that value, but to those who probably need the insight most, this book will simply be an example of the negative stereotypes of atheists and those who don’t believe traditional theology.

* Fun Home – Allison Bechdel : With all the media exposure on this, it deserved Something Like a Review to explore it a little more.

* Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson : Like the first book she wrote, this deserves more than a quick little quip on a page. Look for an upcoming SLaR on this one, but don’t wait to see what I have to say. Go out and buy it. Trust me.

The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer : This book began as a TED talk, and grew from there. Until that TED talk, I’d never heard of Amanda Palmer, but I am grateful for the introduction. Check out my SLaR here, and then go get the book.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital – Sheri Fink : Jon Stewart of the Daily Show introduced me to this book, and I’m not sure I’m entirely grateful. Fink tells the story of Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. With a love of both horror and post-apocalyptic stories, this had an immediate appeal and I was hooked, but the disturbing idea of this being REALITY got under my skin pretty bad. I had a hard time shaking this book, not because of the content, but the idea that this could happen at any time, anywhere. Especially with the increasing instances of “natural” disasters. This book scares me not because of what has happened, but what might yet come to be in my own world.

Creativity, Inc – Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace : Allow me to preface this little blurb by saying that I am really a tall (by child standards) child. I love animated movies and usually go out of my way to catch Pixar, Disney, or Disney/Pixar movies. A desire to delve into the company that makes them happen was a pretty logical jump. At the time, I was also in a situation professionally where it was time to find a way to help creativity thrive in order to accomplish the impossible with limited resources. What made this book most interesting was that it wasn’t just advice on fostering creativity, managing a creative team, or an expose of “how we did it” in Pixar, but a blend of all three. Catmull told stories that captured the imagination by putting them in relatable framework – such as in the context of creating blockbusters like Toy Story, and Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 – and embedded in those stories were the business lesson. A spoonful of sugar, perhaps, but it makes them memorable while also giving practical applications. The creativity of the presentation here is as important as the lessons it teaches – and maybe that’s a lesson as well.

* Bonk – Mary Roach : When a book is about human sexuality, the appeal is clear. And when you’re eyeball deep in a class on the same topic as well as actively trying to expand your non-fiction reading, it’s irresistible. There were a lot of enjoyable questions and investigations into the things that make you stop and wonder, but there wasn’t a lot of new material (since I’d covered it in school). This was, however, a way more interesting and funny way of learning than the textbook and lecture method, and it would be a fantastic way to augment anyone’s study of sex.

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