My Month in Reading, October 2019

My October reading was bookended with a few really great horror stories, which is as it should be. I also read the newest standalone novel by Kate Atkinson and finally finished a disappointing sci-fi novel by Amber Royer.


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The Empty Ones by Robert Brockway

The horrifying imagery in the Vicious Circuit trilogy by Robert Brockway is second-to-none. He has a way with surrealist gonzo skull-fuckery that I love without reservation.

It helps that these books are hilarious and populated with lovable assholes. I also always enjoy stories about hidden worlds that exist under the surface of the real world. Case in point – the main villain in the books so far is a hollowed-out monstrous version of Mario Lopez who no longer understands humanity.

I also loved the first book when I read it a few years go, and this volume keeps up the stream of obscenity and gruesomeness to excellent effect.

LOVED IT


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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, and the audiobook read by Fenella Woolgar (possibly the most British name ever) is a big part of why I loved it. Transcription reunites narrator and author, and although I didn’t love this book as much, it’s still a damn good read.

Atkinson has a talent for the sort of imagery that surprises you with its incongruous perfection, and Woolgar’s delivery of Juliet’s world-weary witticisms is bar none. I just didn’t think the story resonated as much as Ursula’s adventures throughout her many, varied lives.

I’m also not sure how I felt about the end of the book. To a certain degree, it’s a spy novel, with the requisite misdirection and twists, but I felt like the ending didn’t have the punch that it should have once Atkinson laid all her cards on the table.

Still, she is an author I will follow wherever she wants to go. I’ve still got the rest of the Jackson Brodie mysteries to read, as well as her early novels.

REALLY LIKED IT


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You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles

I’m not sure what to think of the Forward Collection so far. This is the second story I’ve read from the collection, and although it was perfectly cast with David Harbour as the audiobook narrator, there wasn’t a whole lot to the story.

The narrator goes to an advanced fertility clinic that provides extrapolated dramatized versions of his potential child’s future life (warts and all), but it doesn’t go well, as you might have guessed.

The most interesting thing about this story is the idea of extrapolated futures based on genetics, but it doesn’t come to any conclusions about this development more complex than “that would be bad”, which is a song as old as science fiction.

LIKED IT


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Self/Made Volume 1 by Mat Groom

As an IT professional with coding experience, reading this book felt like what doctors must deal with any time they watch a medical show on TV – a catalog of teeth-grinding inaccuracies clearly only added for the sake of drama.

If you can accept the basic premise that a game developer could accidentally create a self-aware, artificially intelligent NPC and then find a way to bring the NPC out of the game and into a robotic body, you’ll probably find a lot to like about this book, especially the art.

I was too distracted by the fact that the developer carries around the code for the NPC in some kind of glowing orb that projects a hologram of the character’s face. The orb (precious, breakable) is the only copy of that character (no backups or code check-ins, I guess) so when the villainous CEO of the game company breaks the orb in a fit of rage, the developer is in danger of losing all her work.

I liked the idea of this book more than the execution.

DISLIKED IT


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The Institute by Stephen King

This was a solid adventure story that moved along at a brisk pace. I was expecting something a bit more horror-tinged when I started reading it, but instead this was mostly a fantasy about terrible things happening to telepathic and telekinetic kids. This was also the closest King has come to a young adult novel since maybe Eyes of the Dragon, although it was fairly profane, so maybe that would disqualify it in some circles. King sticks the landing here, and I enjoyed it a lot.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Screwball by Simon Rich

This is a fun little short piece narrated by Beck Bennett playing Babe Ruth as an talented idiot, presumably based on real history. In this telling, Ruth is an oblivious nice guy who just so happens to be good at baseball. When he runs afoul of another player who is completely useless as well as being the owner’s son, he blithely accepts everything the man says and does his best to be a good friend. A lot of the humor here relies on the disconnect between what Ruth perceives about the world around him versus what we know is going on via context clues.

REALLY LIKED IT


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Free Chocolate by Amber Royer

I struggled with this book. I wanted to like it more than I did because the premise sounded clever and funny, but the execution just got on my nerves. Bo Benitez is a culinary student who gets caught up in international intrigue when she steals cacao beans – a tightly controlled commodity because chocolate is highly coveted by aliens. Bo’s alien boyfriend talks her into stealing the cacao, and somehow she manages to stumble her way through a heist with little to no preparation or planning.

After she barely escapes the cacao facility with her life, she stumbles from one catastrophe to the next. The cover sells the book as a “space opera crossed with a soap opera,” and the pacing definitely reflects that. Bo ends up in one terrible situation after another, oftentimes while pining after one of several potential romantic prospects.

The author includes Spanish phrases through, presumably to give the book a multicultural feel, and it mostly works, although it was a bit much at times. A far more annoying trope is Bo calling out her “prey instinct” every time she runs into a dangerous alien.

I spent two and a half months reading this book in fits and starts, and only finished it because I brought it with me on a flight to Minnesota.

DISLIKED IT


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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This was the horror novel I wanted for October. It was creepy, disturbing, and hair-raisingly suspenseful.

It features a villain who is disturbing because he truly believes he is helping children by sucking all the life out of them and turning them into vampires, and a henchman who does the dirty, horrifying work of torturing and murdering the people who get in their way.

I loved the characters and the setting, and I loved the idea of people who can navigate their own personal worlds with help from a talisman. I’d heard mixed things about the TV adaptation, but I enjoyed this book so much that I think I’ll give it a chance.

LOVED IT

Reincarnation on Repeat: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifePublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 15 hours, 34 minutes

Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.

Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.

However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.

Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.

I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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