What I read: April 2014

I feel like my reading this month was divided into three groups: sort-of-normal-person books, crime novels, and just plain weird books. So accordingly, I will divide up my reading list into those three categories, staring with the normal ones:

Color Me Vegan, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (paperback, 271 pages). Four out of five stars. This cookbook is organized by color and includes tons of info about the antioxidant properties of different color groups of foods, making it informative as well as visually pleasing. I really appreciated that the recipes are easy to follow and include info on whether they’re also nut-free, gluten-free or soy-free, since you might also have allergy concerns when cooking. The yellow African rice is delicious hot or cold and the soups are great even if you don’t consider yourself a traditional soup lover.

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory (hardcover, 408 pages). Three out of five stars. This book is a blend of history that seems too strange to be true, and a little bit of stylized fiction. It was good, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not; at times I felt like it was just lacking something–suspense, or character development, or something like that–to really make things feel interesting and fresh. The narrative felt almost mechanical. Okay for historical fiction lovers, but I’m not sure it compels me to continue reading the series (The Cousins’ War), though I might do so just so I can watch the BBC drama based on the books.

The Society of S, by Susan Hubbard (hardcover, 304 pages). Two out of five stars. Can we please just stop with vegetarian artsy vampires who are so, so sad? It’s just being done to death and not well, either. This book felt like it should be in the YA section alongside Twilight. The first half was good, and then the second half was really rushed and too packed with neat coincidences and unexplained details (like the blind man on the street). It felt like a set-up for a sequel and sure enough, there are more books in the series, but I didn’t like this book enough to read any more installments.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (hardcover, 376 pages). Three out of five stars. This is a really interesting and well-researched take on the Salem Witch trials and the role “witchcraft” might have played in colonial America. Unfortunately, it becomes less and less well-written as it goes on, with the last part of the book a real mish-mash of coincidences (again!) and moments that just make you roll your eyes. Again, okay for those who really love historical fiction, but not really anything that jumps off the shelf as astounding prose.

The Black Country, by Alex Grecian (hardcover, 384 pages). Three out of five stars. This is actually the second in a series about Victorian-era Scotland Yard detectives, but it can be read as a standalone novel. It was good but a little rushed in areas, and I felt like I figured out the murder a little too easily. Still, it was a nice compact read for a rainy Sunday afternoon, with a cup of tea and the kitties close at hand.

The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths (hardcover, 320 pages). Two out of five stars. The theme this month seems to be “novels that start well and end disappointingly”. It’s an interesting blend of archaeology and modern forensics and murder. It isn’t terrible, but it is a touch predictable, especially if you read a lot of crime fiction.

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (hardcover, 368 pages). Three out of five stars. Thanks to my friend Katrin, I’m snapping up anything by Nordic authors, and so grabbed this Danish crime thriller as soon as I saw it at the library. It actually combines two stories: a nurse trying to help a Ukrainian immigrant accused of murdering her fiance, and two sisters in Stalinist Ukraine in the 1930s. The two stories connect at the end for a finish that’s hardly a happy ending, though that’s hardly to say it’s not a satisfying end to the book (it is). Once again, this is part of a series, but could be read as a standalone novel.

The Vault, by Ruth Rendell (hardcover, 288 pages). Three out of five stars. This apparently serves as a follow-up to a much earlier novel in the Inspector Wexford series, so I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the other books in the series. I do think it was enjoyable solo. I love British crime, probably thanks to being raised on PBS Masterpiece Mystery shows, so I’ll probably pick up the other Wexford books in the future.

Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore, by Ray Loriga (paperback, 272 pages). Two out of five stars. This has an interesting concept–a seller of memory-erasing drugs starts sampling the goods–but the delivery is bizarre. The nameless narrator drifts along through endless drug- and alcohol-fueled nights, random sexual encounters of every stripe, and hazy mornings trying to remember what it is he’s forgotten. It’s a really, really weird book, and while prose is pretty strong, and the concept incredibly thought-provoking, the junkie narrative was just hard to swallow. I guess it’s supposed to make you think about closely identity and memory are linked, and how the world would look to someone without that link, but I’m not sure I can recommend it unless you’re very open-minded about struggling through an incoherent narrative to uncover the main point.

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (paperback, 452 pages). Three out of five stars. This anthology contains some stories that are humorous, some that are sad, some that are quirky and some that are just kind of forgettable. The common theme: the characters have learned how they will die via the Machine of Death, which spits out a piece of paper with a word or phrase that could have infinite meanings. “Joy” could mean dying of happiness or being killed by a woman with that name; “boat accident” could cause you to forgo sailing only to be crushed by a yacht when the truck towing it down the highway jackknifes in front of you. It’s an interesting study in existentialism, with some characters restricted by their predictions and others finding new freedoms.

The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg (hardcover, 408 pages). Two out of five stars. I thought I would enjoy this more, but the jumpy narrative–it’s not always linear, and sometimes not terribly coherent–left me a little frustrated. Sometimes it feels like one of those artsy movies that might be part reality and part fever dream. I also thought there would be more mystery involved, but there wasn’t. Overall I guess it was just okay, but definitely a disappointment.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (paperback, 709 pages). Three out of five stars. Get ready for a long review, because I can’t just leave a short one. I will say that overall I appreciated the sheer amount of work this book had to involve, and if you’re really ambitious in the reading-strange-and-lengthy-books department, you should have at it, because it’s definitely a unique volume.

So there’s this family that moves into a house and discovers that it’s bigger inside than outside, complete with rooms and hallways that appear out of nowhere and shift in size. (Creepy!) This book is not about that house. The owners make a documentary about their house, supposedly, though if you try to find it, it doesn’t exist, despite numerous scribblings on the internet and in chat rooms dissecting the truthfulness of the film. This book is not about that film. A blind old man compiles a book about the books about the documentary about the house, complete with plenty of his own footnotes. This is not that book (well, sort of). A junkie finds the old man’s manuscript and begins adding his own notes, along with appendixes and stories about his own life and troubled history. This is not that book (still????!!!!!). His manuscript finds its way onto the internet and eventually winds up in published format, complete with new notes and journal entries from the junkie as he learns how his work has impacted others. Finally, we have the complete volume, complete with all of its layers, subsections, and footnotes that run on for pages, often spiraling into other footnotes and whole pages that appear to have been inked out.

The dedication page of the book simply reads, “This is not for you”, and it’s true: this is not a book that’s easy to read. The bizarre Inception-like layering of the stories is hard enough to follow, but adding to it is the layout: text that runs forward, backward, sideways and upside down; pages that are crammed with text in multiple directions, pages with only a few words, text running off the page, random burn-outs and bits in foreign languages, multiple fonts and ink colors, footnotes that suddenly interrupt the text to run on for several pages and then yield footnotes of their own…it’s a mess. It’s a big, artistic, ambitious and incredibly detailed mess, but a mess nonetheless.

I will say that the story makes you think. The old man, Zampano, alleges through his manuscript (which is full of sources both real and fake) that the film is true, and by extension the house. But is it? And is Zampano himself even a real person, or did Johnny (the junkie) invent him? If he is an invention, is the story about the film about the house also an invention, and if so, what is Johnny trying to say by writing it? Are they the scribblings of someone who’s totally lost his mind? There are some little details about the characters who inhabit the house and the people/family in Johnny’s life, particularly his mother, that made me pause and wonder if he invented the story of Zampano and the manuscript (about the film, about the house…) in a sort of mental breakdown recalling his own troubled past. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it doesn’t even matter.

One of the weirdest things about the book is that it’s hard to tell where the fiction ends and the truth begins. It’s like a really dark adult version of Alice in Wonderland, except she doesn’t go to Wonderland. At times I wondered if Danielewski is just messing with his readers, wondering how far down the rabbit hole they’ll go without burning the book. Sort of an epic prank, if you will. (In which case, mission accomplished.)

Or maybe, as one of my coworkers posited: “Maybe it isn’t deliberate art. Maybe he’s really just that crazy.”

I guess we’ll never know.

So in short, if you like the following:

  • Unreliable narrators
  • Mentally ill characters?
  • Cursed books (The Shadow of the Wind)
  • Cursed houses/places (The Shining, The Ruins)
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Inception
  • Faux documentaries or “found footage” films (Paranormal Activity, or any other similar film)
  • Using your imagination to fill in the gaps

You may like this book. If not, then…heed the title page, because this is not for you.

What have you been reading lately? Tell me in the comments, and don’t forget to hook up with me on Goodreads here!


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