The Year In Reading 2014 and Onward to 2015

According to Goodreads — my only real authority on anything reading-wise — I read 64 books in 2014. My first thought upon seeing that was, “Bummer. I didn’t read the 100 I set out to read.”

My second thought was “Whoa! 64!”

I also made a pretty good dent in what I dub my Complete Works Of Project. Basically, I said I’d work my way through William Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Jane Austen. And work I did. I haven’t hit the end of Will and Steve, but I did read all of Jane’s Completed Works. (I still have to read her juvenalia and some of her incomplete works to say I’ve read everything…but that’s a project for a different time.)

Surely, having read so much last year, I must have an opinion on some things, yes?

Why yes I do.

Jane Austen
The woman is, of course, a bad ass. My faves are Northanger Abbey, Emma, and the quintessential
Pride and Prejudice. I also really enjoyed Persuasion, which is kind of like a baby P&P. Sense and Sensibility gets an ‘okay’ as far as I’m concerned.

I have to tell you, five outta six ain’t bad.

Jane’s Mistake Park

But, man Mansfield Park can go suck it. What a preachy load of preachiness. Everyone’s a jerk. When you’re cheering for the rival, there’s a problem.








Stephen King
I’ve read almost 40 King books at this point — including his two newest ones Revival and Mr. Mercedes. (See? Say you’re gonna read a living writer and they come out with multiple books in a year, just to make sure you can’t quite catch up…ever.)

Revival — what a dark bummer of a book. A great bildingsroman, but dark. Damn. Not even horrific. Just DARK.

Mr. Mercedes — more of a mystery/thriller kind of romp. Easily on par with J.K. Rowling’s new nom-de-plume Richard Galbraith stuff. So, not bad. Not great. But not bad.






William Shakespeare
All I’ll say is that I’m reading his early comedies right now and I’m trying not to hate him as a misogynistic butthead. And this is after coming off early histories….

Faves of 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir (badass survival on Mars)


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (surprisingly funnier than I anticipated)
The Secret Place by Tana French (the ultimate frenemy book)
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  by Randall Munroe (non-fiction, crazy shit)

Not so Faves of 2014
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (sorry, Jane, this one’s a stinker)
Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker (the story of how John Grisham didn’t actually help a dude write a novel)

Now that 2014 is over and in the books (ha!) time for my goals for 2015.
1. Continue to plug away at William Shakespeare and Stephen King.
2. I’ve added in Virginia Woolf.
3. 56 books total for 2015 — not necessarily all Complete Works Of Project.

Thursday Reviews!: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

British authors must have some kind of secret to writing scrappy orphan stories.

Not being opposed to books that start with a creepy man breaking into a house, murdering the family who lives there, and being thwarted by an infant and his ghost protectors…I thought this was a great book. The opening is certainly dark, but I can’t imagine a coming-of-age-in-a-graveyard book opening with sunshine and happy little gnomes.

The creative concepts in this book really caught my attention. How would one raise a living child in a graveyard? If the ghosts can’t leave, how do you get food? How do you educate the kid? How do you teach him to protect himself? How do you make friends? The answers Gaiman comes up with are soooo very interesting. Plus, it’s all a very interesting take on the ultimate human question: What happens when you die?

Nobody Owens, Bod, is one of those characters that you want to cheer for. He works hard to do what’s right, whether it’s getting a headstone for the dead who long to be remembered or defending his fellow students from the classroom bullies. When he’s told that he is kept in the graveyard for his own protection, Bod’s reaction is to say that it’s the man Jack, the man who killed his family, who should be protected – from Bod.

I love a can-do attitude.

The good news is life in the graveyard carries a story a long way. The only problem I had with the story was the reasoning – the ‘why’ – of the man Jack’s assault on Bod’s family was explained away in a sentence or two very close to the end of the book. The bad guys just seemed too simplistic, which was disappointing after so much mystery had been built around their ‘society’. With the well-explained good guys balanced against the less-explained bad guys, the weight of the story shifted strangely, if that makes sense.

All in all, though, it’s pretty darn good. I’d recommend it for middle school and up – and not because the opening is dark (which it is, no lie) but because there are a multitude of literary and historical references that I’m not sure younger readers would appreciate. There’d be a lot of blank stares unless there’s an adult around to explain.

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Thusday Reviews!: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss FinchThe Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

***SPOILER WARNING***
For me, the setting was the most interesting part of this graphic novel: underground London. The subterranean rooms offered a unique framework for the already-freakish elements of a circus. That the ringmaster, guides, and performers were all take-offs of traditional horror monsters made it feel like something entertainers would consider throwing together for a special Halloween performance.

With such a set-up setting, I anticipated a little more horrifying-ness. But, It opens with the three central characters meditating on the missing Miss Finch while eating sushi…which doesn’t strike me as a stressful opening. The comfort and expense of a sushi restaurant tells the reader/observer flat-out that this isn’t an Immediate Situation. Yet, when you get to the end, you realize that the disappearance happened a few minutes earlier…kinda cuts the tension in half pretty quick.

As it’s presented, there’s no real emotional attachment to the disappearing Miss Finch (we don’t even get her real name). She is presented as cold, not fun, proper, English, and basically as someone they’re stuck with for the evening. Miss Finch critiques the whole underground freak circus as being in ‘questionable taste’. Yet, when the opportunity for her to fulfill her wish (“I wish with all my heart that there were some [sabertooth cats] left today. But there aren’t”)comes, it slips into Mantasy World. Half-naked, Miss Finch — up until that point a scientific, academic woman — comes out with a couple sabertooth cats that try to eat an old lady. Then she disappears, still half-naked, off into the ‘sunrise’ with the cats.

So, yeah, some things didn’t quite work for me.

What did work:

I was entertained by the three central characters. They were sarcastic and world-weary and hard to impress. Lots of snide little comments: “Jonathan had originally become famous hosting an evening talk show…he’s the same person whether the camera is on or off, which is not always true of television folk.” I enjoy that.

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Thursday Reviews!: Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the first story of this book, “Murder in the Dark,” and when I was finished I turned to my husband, shoved the book in his hand, told him to read it and then he was to tell me HOW DID SHE DO THAT?

He didn’t really have an answer but his comment defined what I thought of the rest of the book: “It’s written with the confidence of someone who knows she can hit a homerun every time.”

Confidence oozes through every one of these pieces.

Least faves (because they just seemed a little too forced – and I wish I had a better word for that sensation, but that’s the best I’ve got!):
“Gertrude Talks Back”: Queen Gertrude gives Hamlet her opinion on her current and former husbands. Fine. But the tone somehow seemed dismissive – and the character of Gertrude never seemed dismissive in the play – which is doubly odd considering the information she is giving her ‘priggish’ son. And, this may seem an odd critique, but I think the white space between the paragraphs doesn’t do the story any favors. It gives it a fragmented feeling and I think that a piece riffing on Shakespeare would work better within the play framework – perhaps shaping the monologue in a block form like Hamlet’s own speeches would have allowed the words to have more impact instead of making the reader adjust both the form and the words.

“Poppies: Three Variations”: While this is probably the most complex exercise, it reads just like that: an exercise. She riffs on a verse about poppies by John McCrae by using the same words of that verse, in the same order, to tell three different stories. The first words of McCrae’s verse is ‘in Flanders’ and all three mini-stories have with ‘in’ followed somewhere by ‘Flanders’ followed somewhere by the next word in the verse. It’s a good way to stretch the literary muscle, but it’s like watching someone work out – we admire their physique but prefer not to see the huffing and puffing and sweat that go along with it. Just give me the calendar, ya know?

The stories that I absolutely adore are the ones that have a satirical bite to them.

“Simmering”: Oh! My FAVORITE by far. (I know, it’s unfair to choose favorites, but there you have it, anyway.) It’s all about what happens when men take over the kitchen. Go get this book and read that story.

“Murder in the Dark”: It set the tone for the rest of the book. Is the author just trying to manipulate the reader throughout (I’m totally okay with the way Atwood manipulates, by the way), is she just a magician showing nothing of reality? Puts the power with the writer…so I think my writerly friends will enjoy this a lot…as well as readers who like to figure out the trick. I still haven’t….

“Happy Endings”: A choose-your-own adventure marriage!

Atwood also illustrated the collection, and some are as provocative as the stories – which are also dominated by the bits and pieces of male and female anatomy. Interwoven among the stories is the question of objectifying the body: “Making a Man,” “Alien Territory,” “Dance of the Lepers,” and “Good Bones” hit on the question in a more direct way…but it’s everywhere.

Well worth reading – and it won’t take that long either.

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Thursday Reviews: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars…it’s a first of series and, while beautifully written (because Atwood just does that) I found that I could put the book down a little too easily. So I started it a couple months ago and just now finished.

The Main Idea
Snowman (known in the life-before-the-plague-hit as Jimmy) is trying to survive in a post-human world with a bunch of genetically mutated ‘humans’ known as the Children of Crake. Food is short, Snowman’s resources even shorter, and he is carrying the burden of guilt for his part/non-part in the plague that damned the human race.

The bulk of the novel is dedicated to Snowman’s background and how the world has become the shithole that it is: genetically spliced “pigoons” and “rakunks” trying to eat him, threats of infection from bug bites or cuts are very, very real, there’s a distinct shortage of alcohol, and for all intents and purposes, he’s alone.

The Neat-o Stuff
Atwood has a superb gift for creating a futuristic world that sounds witty and real and disturbing. I didn’t think twice about a website called Hottots – a site dedicated to child pornography. Or a cosmetic/self-help corporation compound called RejoovenEsense. Or a coffee company called Happicuppa. These things felt silly enough to be exactly what a marketer would come up with to sell an idea to the public.

Then there are the animals that get spliced together. Rakunks are racoons spliced with skunks and apparently they make interesting pets….

Her ultimate creations, of course, are the Children of Crake. I’m very curious to see how these guys evolve…because they have been designed by Crake: a genius who tried to eliminate certain things like emotion, and disease, and hierarchies in the Children’s genetic code. His experiments seem to have worked so far. But now this group is out in this post-plague world with only Snowman to guide them (assuming they need guiding). This is only the first book in the series, but I’m betting they have more human flaws than Crake would’ve wanted…after all, they were created by a flawed human being.

The Less Neat-o Stuff
Why I give this book only 3.5 stars in real life:

Like I said, it was a little too easy to put down.

Snowman is interesting and flawed. He’s a shitty situation. I definitely had sympathy for him. However, the background information that builds the world is done in flashbacks that stretch on for quite a while. There’s a situation with his mother, he’s got a couple daddy issues, his best friend (Crake) is a budding science whiz who will eventually destroy the world, and his the love-of-his-life, Oryx, is a former child porn victim. Yes, this information is important – but the parent sections felt more navel-gazing because Snowman wasn’t really in control at that point.

The story gets waaaay more interesting later (and definitely less put-down-able) in the last third, where Snowman/Jimmy is all grown up, participating in the marketing scheme that’ll destroy the world. Plus, the flashbacks coincide with his present life – and he has to escape some devious pigoons, figure out how to fix his damaged foot, and sort out what the hell he’s gonna do for the rest of his life (however long or short that may be).

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Thursday Reviews: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If McDonalds ruled the world: it would look like this book.

Or, rather, if Nike owned the world.

The Low-Down Dirty:
Welcome to the not-so-far-away future, where everyone is identified by the company they work for. Hence, our trigger-man (in every sense of the word, sort of) is Hack Nike. Hack Nike works for John Nike and John Nike. **No, that wasn’t a typo. There are two John Nikes in this book. One is prettier than the other.** John Nike has decided that the greatest marketing scheme of all time includes shooting ten teenagers to make the new shoe, the Nike Mercury, that much cooler and desireable. The Johns ask Hack to handle it.

But Hack’s not very good at this and outsources to the Police, who in turn outsource to the NRA — who kill fourteen teenagers instead.

Now Hack is being hunted by the Government: Jennifer Government.

How it Works:
Barry has pulled off a fast-moving, sometimes confusing feat of how-not-to-run-the-world. Considering the world-wide scope of this story, it’s amazing the characters come together as well as they do.

You’ve got unemployed people (a.k.a. ‘entrepeneurs’) working on computer viruses to sell to the highest bidder. You’ve got a government that can’t prosecute criminals unless the victims agree to pay for said prosecution. You’ve got ambitious corporate-ladder climbers that make the Enron assholes look like pansies. It’s an exciting set-up for things to go wrong.

The most interesting parts are the people who somehow grow a conscience out of this whole debacle, and there are a surprising amount of them, which bodes well for humanity. Just be prepared, as a reader to keep a mental list of the cast of characters because Barry doesn’t slow down to let you catch up. If you lose a person, you’re outta luck for a little while until you can get your bearings.

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Thursday Reviews!: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Plum Island (John Corey, #1)Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah…sarcastic narrators. This book’s got one.

“I gripped my right ear and twisted, which is how I tune out idiots.”

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that everyone except John Corey (our fearless, convalescing-from-getting-shot-on-the-job narrator/hero) is an idiot. I sorta wish that his ear had been turned off for some larger chunks of the book — because the reader has to wade through a lot of red herrings and schtuff to get to the meat of the book.

For example, getting a tour of Plum Island, the spot where world-threatening viruses are studied and possibly stolen, shouldn’t be so long and tedious. For an example of that: there are numerous mentions of the ospreys — but don’t get all excited. It’s not a clue. Apparently the bird has nothing more to do with the story than a narrative motif, which doesn’t quite come off for me. The tour of Plum Island takes 100 pages and by the time you reach the end, witty repartee like

“I had to ask, ‘But is the female screwworm fulfilled?’

‘She must be,’ Zollner replied. ‘She never mates again.’

Beth offered, ‘There’s another way to look at that.'”

is just a little frustrating. You want INFORMATION, not wit, by that point.

That being said, the characters are certainly likeable (you know, except for the ones you’re not supposed to like.)

And even the false leads are intriguing. Pirate treasure, virus hunting, international intrigue, historical implications, etc. You just can’t get much better than that. The whole thing is an adventurer’s wet dream. It’s fun to go and figure stuff out along with Corey — though the turn might be a little to easy to catch. I mean, I got the gist before they left Plum Island…which might explain why a lot of the copious detail felt, well, copious.

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