I’m in a book club.
I use the term “book club” loosely, as there are two of us – me and my favorite guy friend who lives across the country.
On and off for the past several years we’ve taken turns picking out a book each month. Sometimes, we discuss it in detail. Sometimes, it’s more of a, thank-God-that’s-over-with-let’s-just-move-on, kind of deal.
As another end of the year post, I thought it would be fun to reflect over the books we chose this year. Ian was kind enough to give me a write up and rating for each one which I’ll share here.
I’m splitting the year’s books up into two posts, as Ian has not yet finished December’s book. (Cough.)
January: Heat by Bill Buford
Summary: Bill Buford reminisces over his time training with one-time Food Network star Mario Batali at his New York City restaurant, and his apprenticeship in Italy where he learned how to make pasta.
Ian’s take: I enjoyed the writing style, but the split between the biography of Mario Batali and Bill’s experiences was a bit jarring. I would’ve enjoyed the narrative much more if it had stuck with Bill’s own adventure in the kitchen, as that was the more interesting side of the plot for me (except of course for Mario’s cocaine stories).
Ian’s rating: 5 coked up Italian chefs out of 10.
My take: As a food book, it’s probably not surprising I chose this one. And I was really disappointed with it. I wished I had picked a better way to share my love of food writing with Ian.
In addition to Burford just not being engaging or interesting for me, there was way too much going on in this book. It could have fit three books: a memoir on Buford’s time training under Mario, a biography of Mario himself, and a second memoir on Buford’s time in Italy. There were a few scenes I enjoyed – such as Buford and his wife lugging an entire pig through New York City – but all in all, this wasn’t worth the bother.
My rating: I’m going even lower than Ian’s – 3 out of 10.
Different recommendation: The best food writing book I read this year was Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of New York City’s Prune. Seriously an excellent memoir on how this sometime-lesbian went from being a country girl, to (basically) a druggie runaway, to owner of her own prestigious restaurant.
February: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
Summary: Nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in an old farmhouse in Vermont with her younger sister Fawn and mother Alice – they live “off the grid” with little to no connection with the outside world. Back in 1908, Sara lived in that same house, with her story running in conjunction with Ruthie’s. When Alice vanishes, Ruthie must uncover the mystery by herself with the help of Sara’s diary found underneath floorboards in the house.
Ian’s take: A great first two acts, followed by an incredibly weak finale. The writing style was spot on; the author did a good job building that sense of dread that is key in any good horror/scary story. Unfortunately the story falls apart in the final act, with the introduction of a new, unanticipated “villain” and a mediocre plot twist. The tension evaporates out of the story and you’re left wishing you could’ve held onto that dread just a little bit longer.
Ian’s rating: 6 spooky little girls out of 10.
My take: Although Ian’s pick, I enjoyed it more than he did. There is a definite Pet Sematary feel to it – a quick Google search will show virtually everyone made this connection – that I appreciated, I found the flipping back and forth between early 1900s and present day well executed, and, although Ian and other reviewers disagreed with me, I actually did like the ending.
My rating: 7 out of 10. It would have been 8, but I had to have Ian remind me about some of what happened, indicating that while I enjoyed it a lot at the time, it’s at least somewhat forgettable.
March: The Andalite Chronicles by K.A. Applegate
Summary: Okay, this one is the black sheep of the bunch. Although we have no rules regarding book selection, it’s generally understood to choose books neither of us have read – I have read The Andalite Chronicles, way back in the day…because it’s 5th grade reading level.
Yeah. The thing is, is that I’m a little bit obsessed with Animorphs and have to stop myself from rereading them all ($200 on Amazon last I checked).
Animorphs, you may remember, was a book series and short-lived television series. It’s about a group of kids who are given the ability to morph into animals from good aliens, which they then use to fight against bad aliens.
The bad aliens are the yeerks. They are tiny parasitic slug-like creatures who slip into a human’s ear and then envelope themselves around the brain, controlling all functions. The human is conscious of this. They can see and hear like before, but have no control over their movements. The yeerks are slowly and completely taking over everyone on Earth.
The good aliens are the andalites. The “chronicle” books are sort of prequels to the entire Animorphs series, allowing us a glimpse into why the aliens are battling each other, and how they ended up coming to Earth.
Ian’s take: This was the surprise book of the year. I went in expecting to be bored, but actually got a pretty good adventure (once you get past the “Animorphs” premise). Solid storytelling, good characterization… it’s not Hemmingway but it’s entertaining, and really what more do you want?
Ian’s rating: 8 shapeshifting aliens out of 10.
My take: I could not have possibly enjoyed this the second time around any more. You know how sometimes when you reread books you adored as a child it’s not the same again? (A Wrinkle in Time, anyone?) This was not that. This was a perfectly told story about an alien trying to do the right thing by his people. Although the book explores the life of a particular alien, it’s ultimately about what every book is about: the human experience.
My rating: 10 out 10.
Different recommendation: If reading a 5th grade level book skeeves you out too much, but the storyline sounds interesting, I’d recommend checking out Stephanie Meyer’s The Host. This was also an excellent book, with yeerk-like aliens taking over the Earth – the big difference here is that the humans are aware the invasion is taking place.
The Host is told from the parasitic alien’s point of view – she needs her human to survive and exist, but struggles with the fact that she’s literally taking over someone else’s life.
April: Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Summary: Rachel is an alcoholic who has been dumped for another woman by her husband. She’s lost her job (because of the alcoholism) but routinely takes the train into London, pretending to go to work, so her roommate doesn’t know she got fired. Every time, the train goes by her old neighborhood. There is a particular couple in a particular house who she watches and obsesses over, imagining they have the perfect life and relationship – a sort of outlet to escape her own pathetic life and lack of relationship.
Then one day, that woman goes missing. And Rachel finds out she was in that neighborhood at that time, but she was blacked out from drinking and has no recollection of what happened – could she have had something to do with this woman’s disappearance?
Ian’s take: Ehhhh. I really didn’t care for this one. I’ve discovered I am not a big fan of the “I can’t remember what happened” mystery genre. It’s boring, and requires characters to act like idiots to keep them in the dark long enough to get through enough pages for that key distinction between “short story” to “novel.” I didn’t sympathize with the alcoholic main character at all, and in fact actively disliked her. The added twist of “who dun it” was also a bit contrived and could be seen coming from miles away.
Ian’s rating: 3 empty wine bottles out of 10.
My take: Ian is insane. He picked this book, everyone I know loves this book, and it wasn’t good enough for him. Although I immensely enjoyed the storyline, the characters really bring this one to life. They’re all bat shit insane and it is wonderful. Second best book club book of 2015.
My rating: 10 out of 10.
May – Lick by Kylie Scott
Summary: This was the face palm choice of the year. Evelyn wakes up in Vegas to find she is married and tattooed. Innocent, wide-eyed young girl accidentally marries a rock star. There are sex scenes.
Ian’s take: Hoo boy. If you ever wanted to know what a 14 year old imagines life and sex with a rock star to be like, this is the novel for you! The story mostly reads like a long, bad Facebook drama post, with each “character” replying to the initial “Oops I got married to a stranger lol” status update. Despite its subject matter, it is not poorly written and the plot does move forward at a satisfying pace; you’re never left to dwell on the same drama for too long. I’m sure this book is a hit with its target demographic; I just happen to be far, far outside that group.
Ian’s rating: 4 man hunk rock stars out of 10.
My take: In my defense. I wanted to go in cold for this one (which I enjoy doing with books in general, but obviously there’s a risk here) so picked a book at random off a bestseller list, which was Deep. I was like, oooh maybe it’s about deep sea diving or something. (No.)
I saw it was the fourth in a series, so I went back to the first one, and felt reservations when I saw it was called Lick, but forged ahead anyway. The last thing I wanted to do was choose a 50 Shade of Grey-style book to read with my platonic guy friend. Sigh. But, to be fair, as Ian implied, for the genre it is and the demographic they’re targeting it really wasn’t bad.
My rating: 6 out of 10.
June – Pines by Blake Crouch
Summary: Secret Service agent Ethan comes to Wayward Pines, Idaho to locate two agents who have gone missing. Right when he arrives he’s involved in a serious accident and ends up in a hospital with no cell phone or ID; he can’t even prove he’s an agent. Quickly it becomes clear Wayward Pines is one of those towns where once you arrive, you can’t leave.
Warning: Just a hint of a spoiler in the reviews.
Ian’s take: I had such high hopes for this book. A secret service agent, a mysterious town, hidden secrets, deadly consequences… all the right ingredients for a great story. So why doesn’t it work? Two reasons. The split narrative between the main character and his family makes it painfully obvious what the big secret “twist” of the book is. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a little foreshadowing. But when you can completely narrow down the explanations within the first hour of reading, it defeats the purpose of a mystery. This would be excusable if it weren’t for the second reason: The secret “twist” sucks. Even if I hadn’t seen it coming a mile away, the explanation for the mystery would not have been satisfying, because it leaves the protagonist with no options to succeed, only “cope.” This is okay in some stories, but in what is essentially a mystery/action thriller, you don’t have strong enough characterization for that kind of outcome to work.
Ian’s rating: 5 Shyamalans out of 10.
My take: On the surface, there’s nothing glaringly wrong with the story, other than the whole “once you come you can’t leave” storyline – I think that’s a bit overdone, unless done very well, which this wasn’t. I do agree with Ian that the whole “okay I’m here I’ll cope” resolution isn’t a very good conclusion for a thriller mystery. I just…felt like I was waiting for something more exciting to happen, and the characters weren’t really captivating.
My rating: Also 5 out of 10.
Different recommendation: What really gets me here is that Ian almost picked for this month Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. And oh. My. God. Is that *insanely* better. If there’s anything you take away from this post, it’s to go read that book. (And Girl on the Train.) I’m never going to let Ian live down choosing Pines over Ready Player One. Such a fantastic story. There are no words. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. Just. Read it.
Stay tuned for part two of 2015’s book club books!