“The Taiga Syndrome”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Cristina Rivera Garza’s short 2012 novel, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana in 2018. I read a Dorothy paperback from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

An ex-detective searches for a missing couple in the Taiga.

The Taiga Syndrome has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. The striking images make emotional (but not literal) sense, leaning on motifs and repetition and not clear plot progression. It’s pleasing for a time, but around page 100, my lack of emotional connection to the characters and events slowed me down. If there had been more than 19 pages left, I might not have finished it.

This feels like the work of an author who has a beautiful style and language but didn’t have a firm statement to make; writing for the sake of writing.

Rivera Garza is bilingual and has translated other Spanish work into English; I’m not sure why she didn’t translate her own writing. If anyone knows why or has a theory, please drop a line. Continue reading


“The Isle of Youth”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s second short story collection, published in 2013. I read the FSG Originals paperback edition from my library.

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 4 out of 5 stars (stories averaged).

 Times Read: 1

One of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Van den Berg never does the obvious thing. Whenever I thought I was ahead of the story, it turned back on me. None of these stories go where you think, none of them end where you think a short story should end. It’s exciting as a reader and it’s a great strength of van den Berg’s.

A feeling of truth fills each story – hidden deep, never discussed, but felt by many. The Third Hotel also had this effect on me. An author who can do it more than once is one to hold dear.

Van den Berg doesn’t supply answers to everything. People disappear in these tales and you won’t find out what happened to them. People die and you don’t know how, the whys are not spelled out. But she gives enough emotional information to make you care and understand. You will come to your own conclusions and every conclusion is correct.

While most of the female leads are in marriages – often troubled – the real connections here are between siblings. Brothers, sisters, twins; dead, alive, estranged.

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“Convenience Store Woman”

Convenience 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel, translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Grove Press in 2018. I read a copy from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Keiko Furukura, a happy convenience store employee, has never been interested in dating or finding a “real” career. Pressured by friends and family, she approaches a recently-fired co-worker with a proposition.

What a delightful little book! Convenience Store Woman reads like a novella, with no chapters or parts (only section breaks) and can easily be finished in one or two sittings.

Our main character Furukura observes human behavior as an outsider; early on in life she realizes her idea of rationality and common sense upsets others and tries her best to get along in the world without drawing too much attention. Her family loves her, she suffered no abuse, this is just the way she is. It’s a great set-up and a refreshing character to spend time with, especially for anyone who prefers to focus on tasks over communication. Continue reading

“His Favorites”

His Favorites pic

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kate Walbert’s 2018 novel. I read a first edition Scribner hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

After the accidental death of her best friend, fifteen-year-old Jo is sent to a private boarding school where she becomes a favorite of her charismatic English teacher.

A slim but rich book. Every character feels vivid and alive, even those who hardly get any screen-time (Jo’s classmates, especially). Walbert could have written a fantastic Secret History-length book with this cast and plot.

And maybe that’s the problem (if a four-star book can be said to have a problem): Walbert keeps the timeline shifting as she tells Jo’s story. In 149 pages, only a handful of episodes are shown to us, some broken up between multiple sections. It works and I like this book quite a lot, but I might have liked it more (in the all-time favorite competition category) if the story was presented in order – beginning with Stephanie’s death, then going through Jo’s first year at boarding school.

But ultimately, what His Favorites reveals itself to be justifies the style and I don’t want to rag on something that’s this good.

Main character Jo is the type of dryly funny, sarcastic (but dedicated) teen that I would have loved to been friends with. She feels realistic and layered – smart, but still young.

There are some hard scenes where I had to put the book down to take a breather because the story Walbert tells is so true and infuriating and sad. The bulk of His Favorites takes place in the late seventies, but it still rings true.

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Comemadre pic

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Roque Larraquy’s second novel, originally published in 2010 with translation by Heather Cleary published in 2018. I read a beautiful Coffee House Press paperback from my beautiful library.

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5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Two intertwined stories, the first taking place at Temperley Sanatorium in 1907, the second the recollections of an avant-garde Buenos Aires artist in 2009.

Check out the cover of Comemadre. Really look at it. If you think, Oh, gross! and look away, this is not for you. If you can’t stop staring, read it. Now. Read it now. Then come back.

When I was a kid, I read a bit in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not!­-style paperback about a warrior who decapitated his enemies, then turned the head to look at its own body. Because, the text breathlessly explained, the head retains consciousness for nine seconds after death! As a twisted little eight-year-old, I immediately wanted to know if it was true and immediately came upon that catch-22: even if this were true, what good would the knowledge be if you couldn’t communicate it to anyone else? This little fact has remained an odd fascination of mine ever since.

Larraquy must have a similar fascination. In the first part of Comemadre, a group of doctors decide to test the length of consciousness after decapitation and devise a way for the decapitated to communicate. When I realized this was the plot, I nearly exploded  with joy. I’ve wanted this story my entire life. Larraquy delivers.

The second story, about half the length of the first, is just as good and the connections between the two build until the book feels haunted. Comemadre is a darkly hilarious, twisted, intelligent ride. Continue reading

“The Hobbit”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Buy the Book.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic, originally published in 1937(!). I read a 1966 Houghton Mifflin Co hardcover, the same copy I first read at 10 years old. 

4.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: I’ve read The Hobbit (or had it read to me) at least 7 times in the last 23 years, which might make this my most-read novel.

Seen the Movie: Rankin and Bass 1977 animated version, yes (pretty good!). Peter Jackson’s three-part version, yes, after resisting for years (pretty bad!)

The Plot:

Bilbo Baggins, a homebody hobbit, is recruited to help a group of dwarves reclaim their riches from dragon Smaug.

In my continued, unofficial quest of discovering and re-reading classic children’s fantasy, I had to get back to The Hobbit. I’m not a fan of The Lord of the Rings series as books (for those, I like Jackson’s films more), but I’ve always loved the book of The Hobbit and go back to it every few years.

The language is simple and light (less dense than LotR, less obsession with landscapes and detailing of histories) the songs aren’t very good and you’ll only be able to tell four of the dwarves apart, but it’s a charming and quick read.

Bilbo is the star here; no other character really matters, but if you like Bilbo, you’ll have a good time. He’s a lovely little character. Continue reading

“Find Me” (Post 2/2)

Find Me 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.

Book 2

[45] Opens with a quote by Joy Williams from The Quick and the Dead (p.221)

Joy Williams (b.1944) is an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She is the author of four novels. Her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead (2000), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and it is not related to the 1995 film).


The fog twists over the road in a way that makes me think it’s not just air and water but something alive.

(p.227) Continue reading

“Find Me” (Post 1/2)

Find Me 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2

Laura van den Berg’s debut novel, published in 2015. I read a large-print copy from the library, which means my page numbers go deceptively higher (396) than the standard paperback release (288).

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

When a deadly virus tears through the United States, immune Joy – struggling with abandonment, abuse, and regret – is brought to a Kansas hospital with others for study.

Find Me is divided into “Book 1” and “Book 2”, the first taking place in the hospital, the second telling us what happens to Joy after she leaves. Book 1 is more focused on plot – characters are developed, secrets are revealed – while Book 2 becomes a metaphorical, Cormac McCarthy The Road-type travelogue.

I don’t gravitate toward disease/virus/apocalyptic tales. I couldn’t get through Station Eleven, World War Z or the film version of Children of Men; I’m not a Mad Max fan. I Am Legend is my least favorite Matheson story… If you also shy away from outbreak stories, know that Find Me isn’t obsessed with the usual tropes. It’s a personal story that just happens to take place around a plague.

Van den Berg has launched herself into my list of favorite authors (The Third Hotel was not a singular magic moment). She combines moments that feel like a key turning in a lock with a rich, information-filled world. She is a collector of interesting facts and, unlike some authors who variously make things up or simply get them wrong (…Mr. King…), van den Berg does solid research, knowing that the truth can be as absurd and unexpected as fiction.

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Top 10 Books Read in 2018

(Now that we’ve finished with the bad, we get the good. Click on book covers for Amazon links.)

Paperbacks From Hell



Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted Horror of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction

Grady Hendrix (2017)

Beautiful book that can be read in an afternoon but a joy to flip through for years. If I had a coffee table, this would be on it. The quality of the prints is amazing and any horror fan will accumulate a list of authors and books to check out by the end. I love Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and this is a close cousin.


One year later, I woke up squatting in the middle of an aisle at Sullivan’s Trade-a-Book in the heart of South Carolina, surrounded by piles of musty horror paperbacks. Apparently I was buying them. Apparently I was reading them. Apparently I was addicted.

(p.8) Continue reading

Bottom 10 Books Read in 2018

(as always, bad first, best tomorrow! Click on book covers for Amazon links.)

Strange Weather



Strange Weather

Joe Hill (2017)

Full review

Four novellas which feel paradoxically too long and too short at the same time.






Colson needed stories to tell like a gun needed bullets, and for the same reason – to slay.


Read instead: Hill’s short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. Continue reading