Books That Actually Got Read from My Online To-Read List

  • Boomsday - Christopher Buckley - A great book spoiled by a terrible crutch 2/3 of the way through. Writers, there's just no need to see a vagina and decide lo! she will be the romantic interest! Do something else. (B-)

  • Light - M John Harrison - Quantum physics, spaceship-drivin' ghosts, cats, serial killers, the circus, cats and transhumanist storylines for the win. Great book. Weaving three separate storylines is not for the faint-hearted, but Harrison keeps us engaged in all three, and the end, while smacking not a little of Joyce's Ulysses, works wholeheartedly. The serial killer portion of the narrative drags a little towards the end, but really, how often can you say that? (B+)

  • Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris - I was really intrigued by the telepathic barmaid aspect, and I know so many people who love this series to pieces but it's just not for me. I'm not into vampires and I'm not into chick lit, and this is both.

  • Cadillac Beach - Tim Dorsey I really, really enjoyed this book, a near-criminal amount of love. Not one but two plot twists I never saw coming, and so much research and humor. I must read everything this man has ever written. (A+)

  • Wonder When You'll Miss Me - Amanda Davis The first 100 pages of this book are mesmerizing and compelling, where Davis manages to keep some literary warhorses--sexual assault, suicide attempt, mental illness--from being cliche or trite, instead crafting a panoply of memorable characters who are flawed and deeply interesting. But then the main characters run away to join the circus, and what should be the best part of the novel hits a giant pothole, so that by page 150, you're pulling through pages like hiking in mud, and that truly diminishes the book's fabulous ending. (B-)

  • She's Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband - Helen Boyd: This was such a disappointment! I only made it about 40 pages in, and it just turned into a catalog of relationship whining, and relationships, regardless of the genders involved, are very tricky to make interesting in print. (F)

  • Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith - Anne Lamott: I loved this book, even though I'd read a number of the pieces in one form or the other on It's a wonderfully sane, neurotic, left-wing look at living and dying through faith. And pants. (A)

  • Neuromancer - William Gibson: (updated) Five tries. It took me five tries to finish this thing. The problem is that the concepts and the plot are compelling, and certainly when it was first published, these ideas were groundbreaking. But ultimately, Gibson's not a skilled enough author to have control over the material, so the reader wants to follow the plot and the brilliant movements, but cannot. (D)

  • Neuromancer - William Gibson: Oh y'all, I tried. I tried four times. I tried for 40 pages. It's. Not. Happening. Gibson's slick turn of phrase ("living in the interzone where art is almost crime and crime is almost art") cannot make up for the clumsy, uneven tone overall. The author is very excited about his story and his world, but bowls the reader over in his rush to get it all out onto the page, and the result is like trying to read the license plate of the semi that's currently running you down. There are small separate details that are well-crafted and distinct, but overall the book is just noise, with a small few peeks of signal. Maybe I'll come back to this in five years. Maybe I won't. Until then, I'll enjoy its many descendents.

  • Winterheim - Douglas Niles: I really enjoyed the entire trilogy, and I'm glad I started with the first book and had to work around to this one. This is easily the most laborious of the three, and if you haven't read the first two, you'll be lost on a number of plot points--I've read the first two and I still couldn't remember half of the references. It's a decent stab at providing the trilogy with a grand, sweeping finale, and there are a few things you don't see coming, and a couple that you do with great relief. I think a lot of what I liked about the entire trilogy ties in to my love of snow, ice caverns and kayaking. (B)

  • Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake: It's such a clever concept, with a lot of really stellar worldbuidling, but when it came right down to the last 100 pages, I didn't care about any of the characters, with the exception possibly of the Countess. But it didn't have anyone else to tie the reader to this world. Also, embedded clauses. Authors, please stop at three per sentence. (D)

  • Apex Hides the Hurt - Colson Whitehead: It's an interesting premise: the naming consultant called in to adjudicate a town's historical dispute, and yet, I really wanted to hit the protagonist over the head with a shovel. I wanted less main dude and more quirky small town with disputed 19th century provenance. But it was not to be. (C+)

  • Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
  • Affinity - Sarah Waters: It has not been a good month for the online reading list. You would have thought that both of these books would be right up my alley, with the creepiness and the impending doom and the INSANE ASYLUM (and you know I love the asylums). And yet...I tried both of these but was soundly rebuffed by the aura of impending doom and crushed innocence. And I can't put my finger on why, because I read plenty of depressing books. I'm tempted to keep them on the list to try again later (see "Titus Groan" by Mervyn Peake, which I have been trying to read for 4 years now), but there's just so much actual good stuff out there.

  • Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes: Not what I thought it would be. Too chick-litty for my tastes, so I didn't wind up cracking the cover.

  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt - Eh. The first 200 pages fly by, and then the author tries to spice it up rather than letting Savannah tell its own stories. (C-)

  • Rock and Roses - Mikel Vause - Quite apart from the fact that currently a book of essays by and about female rock climbers is entirely my cup of tea, this is a good book. There isn't a bad essay in the lot, and the handful chronicling women's role in the history of rock climbing are insightful and hold the reader's attention well. The one standout for me is "A Mountain Experience" by Julie Brugger, about letting climbing change you in a lifelong manner. I could go on and on, and I will, over at my journal, but suffice it to say, awesome. (A-)

  • Candy Apple Dead - Sammi Carter - Eh. Nothing special. Nice setting, fully realized town, cookie-cutout characters, including a protagonist who is waaaaay too all up in her brother's marriage. Probably wouldn't read another in the series unless it fell on me. (C)

  • Jenny and the Jaws of Life: Short Stories - Jincy Willett: I was so looking forward to this book, because Willett's full-length novel, "Winner of the National Book Award", rocked so hard. I started with the last story, "Jaws of Life", and it was so patently boring, so thoroughly unworthwhile, that I couldn't bring myself to read another. After I finished this story, I was actually irritated that I'd read it, because it was 40 minutes I couldn't get back, and 40 minutes too many on a story that I'm amazed ever made it out of an amateur short fiction writers' group. It just went nowhere, had no point, no characterization, no setting, just...nothing. Maybe I'll try another story from this collection later. (F)

  • Flirting with Mermaids: The Unpredictable Life of a Sailboat Delivery Skipper - John Kretschmer: What a strangely compelling book. Compelling because the lifestyle described is so alien to anything I know a whit about and yet strange because Kretschmer's writing style is pretty bad. How hard does your writing suck if you can deaden adventure travel? Unfinishable. (D)

  • Perfect Circle - John Stewart: I adored this book and its fallible, redeemable narrator, and I'm glad I saved the book for a rainy day. Most of all, I loved his big East Texas family, and the way in which the author made big East Texas a character unto itself. I actually had to force myself to read slower, because I didn't want the book to end. (A)

  • Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World - Lynn Hill: I adored this book, mainly because it's very well written, and not just because female climbing memoirs are incredibly rare. Lynn's experiences climbing both amateur and pro are intense, but probably most appealing to folks who actually climb, rather than laypersons. (A)

  • At Wick's End - Tim Myers: Not bad, not bad. The author did a great job explaining candlemaking and creating a very lifelike cast of apartment dwellers. The villain was visible from a distance of about 3 miles, but since I'd read other mysteries by him, I wasn't all that surprised. I would definitely read the next in the series. (B)

  • Harm None M R Sellars: Oh my gods. Four pages of this book was like the longest conversation you have ever had with the most obnoxious pagan in existence, the one who just wants to tell you all about how they read this book, and then they tried something, then they read this other book...(F)

  • The Vesuvius Club - Mark Gatiss: This book was exactly what it promised on the back cover and in florid critical blurbs inside: a light, louche mix of James Bond, PG Wodehouse and HP Lovecraft. Yeah. Just wrap your mind around that sandwich for a second. The book mainly succeeds in its aims, keeping a brisk yet engaging pace right up until the volcano gets involved. You would not think that a volcano would cause the plot to drag, and yet--it does. However, I would definitely read of the further exploits of Lucifer Box. (B)

  • Relic - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: I enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would. This was my second try getting through it (I got turned off the first time by the death of the bloodhounds in Chapter 4--it's not a spoiler; if you read the back o the book you know that pretty much EVERYTHING GETS KILLED) and I'm glad I persevered. It's a clever tale of anthropology and evolutionary biology mixed up with academic politics, and all written by authors who hear dialogue very well. It had a couple of twists I didn't see coming, and the level of detail was amazing. My one complaint would be that I wanted the Museum itself to be more of a character. The architectural descriptions broke up the story instead of being seamlessly woven in, and I really wanted to hear about the history of the Museum as a whole, as well as more descriptions of the exhibitions, which would tend to suggest that the main story could have been more compelling. Although probably not more exciting. (B+).

  • The Bone Doll's Twin - Lynn Flewelling: I have gotten schnookered into another fantasy trilogy! Luckily this was book 1, but book 3 won't be out for another 6 months. Which is a shame, because now that I've started, I must know how it all ends. My guess is: real tears. The author's acknowledgements at the front of the book thank her family for hanging in there while she wrote a book described as "good but disturbing". I'd have to agree with that assessment. It's a very well-realized world with well-defined castes and rules and Flewelling creates memorable characters you can care about. (A-)

  • Veniss Underground - Jeff Vandermeer: How can you go wrong with a book of stories set in a fictional city themed with sea creatures? Plenty of places, apparently. I read the first story of the collection, "Drurin in Love", and it was so revolting, so hideous and crippled by the weight of its own conceit that lo and behold the book was airborne. This book is everything that China Mieville does so well, only without the "well" part. So bad that I also removed The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases - ed. Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts from Mt. Toberead.(F)

  • The Night Life of the Gods - Thorne Smith: So unutterably terrible that I only got 8 pages in, and then I winged it at the head of DeadlyM. Deadly, who is usually the "Mikey" of fiction books, could only skim. So. Bad. (F).

  • Plague of Ice - TH Lain: I usually love fantasies set in ice worlds, but this one suffered from a lack of many things. Detail, characterization, cohesion. It did have plot in spades, and read a lot like a transcript of someone's AD and D campaign, which makes sense, seeing as how that's exactly what it is. But in comparison to similar novelizations, like Jeff Crook's Thieves Guild, the bareness of the story is stark and unenjoyable. (C-)

  • Confessions of a Teen Sleuth - Chelsea Cain: Awful claptrap that founders under the weight of its own admittedly clever conceit. (D)

  • Jack Fish - J Milligan: A love song to NYC, impeccably detailed and abominably paced. The first 50 pages are a novelty that quickly wears off. The next 100 are mildly interesting, much like remembering what you shouldn't have said at that party last night. The next 50 are pretty cool and the ending sucks. For New Yorkers only. (C)

  • Final Girl - Daphne Gottlieb: Daphne Gottlieb's poems have always touched me, mostly by ripping my heart out through my nose. This is easily my favorite collection, featuring not only "the frightening truth about desire" and "the night of the dead living", but also the poem cycle informing the book's title, which draws upon and contributes to gender theory in slasher movies. (A).

  • Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw - Mark Svenvold: Never have I seen so much made out of so little. What could have been told in 75 pages was stretched out to 300 mainly by piggybacking on and simply reiterating another scholar's work. While the subject is intriguing, the author's voice often gets in the way of the story, if you can call parroting previous research a "story". (D)

  • Thinking in Pictures - Temple Grandin. I just can't handle books about animals in pain, no matter how interested I am in autism.

  • Mortal Love: A Novel - Elizabeth Hand. If the first chapter makes no sense in a good way, it's easier to continue than if the first chapter makes no sense and causes sinus headaches.

  • The Normals - David Gilbert. I think I was okay right up until they talked about how to pop open a beagle. And then the book was airborne.

  • Candyfreak - Steve Almond - All the bits of this book that deal with the author's own life and candy addiction are terrifically funny, and will be wicked and familiar for anyone with a similarly overgrown sweet tooth. The sections dealing with the tour of little-known candy factories of the United States, is oddly disappointing. This is history and detail that should be much more fascinating, especially to someone who enjoys reading about US history. (B-)

  • The Haunted Hillbilly - Derek McCormack - Wicked and unsettling, I'm about to read it again. Nothing trumps Hank Williams and vampires. (A)

  • Winner of the National Book Award - Jincy Willett (twins, weather, librarians, murder. Bingo!) Indeed. A good adjective for this book would be delicious, a delicious and taut read from start to finish, even knowing the ending well ahead of time. As the story unfolds, the nominal apex of the plot reveals itself to be largely besides the point, and the real story takes over. Such. A. Good. Book. (A-)

  • Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren At a Time - Michael Perry - How do I keep on finding these depressing books about death and the Midwest?

  • Word Made Flesh - Jack O'Connell - I'd heard so many good things about this book, and really, where can you go wrong with a schizophrenic murdering linguist? Turns out, plenty of places. There were probably six or seven pages I dogeared because the descriptive passages were so amazing, but the other 319 pages were really gruesome and stultified. Imagine Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas filtered through Gun, with Occasional Music and David Lynch's vision of Burning Man. It really doesn't help to take on a story of that much weight if you can only write decent description in one-paragraph chunks. And on top of that, if you load the story down with 20 different overly quirky characters, you wind up with this mess of pulp.(D)

  • Pattern Recognition - William Gibson - I knew beforehand a lot of the critical recognition this book had received, both around the Net and from friends and acquaintances. That said, I found the plot to be engaging, clever and eventful; the protagonist is sympathetic and believable. However, the book overall is slow and uneven, and there are large stretches of writing where the protagonist does everything but examine lint from her navel, while the reader is eager to move on. Overall, I can't say I'm a Gibson fan from this book, but the plot's enough that I would pick up other novels by this author. Yes, I know who William Gibson is. :) (C)

  • Twelve - Nick McDonnell - Quick read, even at 250 pages. I put it on the list because I remember reading an interview with the author, who wrote this book at 17. It reads a lot like a 17-year-old Ed McBain, set in New York, gritty, not a lot of happiness going round. I was disappointed in the logic underpinning the ending, though.(B+)

  • Running the Amazon - Joe Kane (via UC Berkeley's Summer Reading Lists) - A good solid travelogue, especially of interest to river runners and kayakers. However, for some reason I kept comparing it to Tracy Johnson's Shooting the Boh, which I maintain is a better telling of a similar journey.(A-)

  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter - Jeff Lindsay - This book is 3/4 of a great mystery novel. The idea of the protagonist in a mystery himself being a serial killer (and that's not a spoiler, it's mentioned right on the book jacket) is fresh and very, very well done. The character of Dexter is engaging despite himself, and Miami is evoked in glorious stinking color. The author takes a huge chance by all but handing the answer to the mystery to the reader early on, but amazingly enough keeps us engaged while Dexter figures it out. The last 1/4 of the book though, is sloppy. The problems start *after* Dexter figures out what we've known all along: leaps of logic, plot holes, cramming in of detail that easily could have been laid out in another 100 pages. This came really close to being a novel without peer.(B)

  • Ecology of a Cracker Childhood - Janisse Ray (via Grace) - An evocative look at the landscape of Southern Georgia, and the loss of longleaf forests. It's equal parts fascinating family history and ecological notebook. This book will make you hug a tree.(A-)

  • Partly Cloudy Patriot - Sarah Vowell - I loved this book, just as I've loved almost every piece of writing by Vowell. I think the thing that appeals to me most about these pieces however, are that they are mainly about US history, and what a weird and wonderful ball of wax it is. Any writer who has favorite US Presidents is a favorite of mine.(A+)

  • Armadillo - William Boyd (via - It's hard to say exactly why I liked this book so much. The story of a London insurance man caught up in a huge swindle is both bleak and inspiring, but definitely a compelling read.(B)

  • The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars - Joel Glenn Brenner - Warning: this book will make you eat more chocolate. It will also make you wish that the middle 150 pages were as compelling as the first 100, but overall, it's a good read. (C)

  • Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet - E Hester - The essays in this book are by turns hilarious and horrifying, but I think the book will appeal most to airline personnel. (C-)

  • City of Light - Lauren Belfer This is one of my favorite books ever, earning itself an immediate spot on my list of favorite novels. It's a sprawling, engaging historical fantasy of 19th century America: politics and feminism and gossip and race. I would use this book to teach high school history/civics classes. (A+)

  • The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger (Is it wrong to want the protagonist to be stabbed with a stiletto shoe in the first 5 pages of the book? Because if so, I don' wanna be right, baby.)

  • Yonder Stands Your Orphan - Barry Hannah - I got 10 pages in, and then all the purposeless, mean-spirited violence overwhelmed me. Gah.

  • Wisconsin Death Trip - M Lesy I understand it's a classic, but it's also an overwhelming amount of poetry about death. Even I'm not that goth.
Author Comments: 

Now with grades!

Full Online To-Read List here.

Re: The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars - Joel Glenn Brenner and "the middle 150 pages." Does that mean that there are 350 pages in the book? Are these hardback or paperback pages? I remember visiting Hershey, PA and the smell, the smell, everywhere the smell of chocolate. And those crazy Hershey Kisses streetlights. That was back when you could still take tours inside the actual factory (shades of "Bart the Murderer" from The Simpsons .) So will the book send me on a four day chocolate bender? Do you still plan on reading Richardson's Indulgence: One Man's Selfless Search for the Best Chocolate from your previous list? When Fortnum & Mason's chocolate tester/taster retired I actually sent in an application. I was just hoping to be invited to the tasting try outs. I was going to wear something with an elastic waistband.

I read Brenner's book in hardback form, which clocks in at 366 pages (don't ask me why I keep track of that). The book maybe won't make you go on a bender, but it will certainly induce a type of hyperconsciousness whenever you stand in front of a vending machine, or in the checkout line at the store, as you look at the types of candy you would (or wouldn't) buy, and who makes them, and what you like about them. The candy, in most cases, rather than the company. I am still planning on reading Indulgence, but I'm still looking for a copy through Interlibrary loan.
I can't imagine being a chocolate tester/taster, even after reading this book, but lately I learned on touring the Ben and Jerry's factory, that every employee gets one free pint of ice cream every day they work. The mind boggles.

Ohhh My Gawd! That's awesome! Now I'm imagining the managers of Ben & Jerry's health plan scratching their heads over why the employees all have sleep apnea and cavities.

I'm not sure I like the idea of hyperconsciousness. I have a hard enough time shutting out thoughts of young boys on cocoa plantations. So I just take a deep breath, close my eyes and think "they're not cigarettes."

Sleep apnea? And ice cream? Well that could explain a lot. Seriously though, do you know of a link?

There's a connection one step removed but sleep apnea (being tired) also makes it difficult to treat the condition (i.e. exercise). And for someone with a sleeping disorder coffee ice cream (with, god forbid! chocolate) will eff you up two times.

Hey, thanks for the link. Sidenote: best logo ever. Okay, so now we're totally off-topic, but I am so intrigued. Is exercise the prescription for sleep apnea? And does sleep apnea cause tiredness? And what's with the joke at the end of the article?

Btw, on sleep disorders, have you read Jonathan Coe's House of Sleep? It's a fabulous look at both sleep disorders and the mad scientists who love them.

Before I give an "I am not a doctor..." disclaimer: Stanford has a knockout sleep disorders site. As I understand it sleep apnea is often (mostly) caused by constriction of your airway while sleeping which is in turn caused (or worsened) by obesity. That's why people with sleep apnea tend to sleep on their sides and definitely not their stomachs. When you are having a sleep apnea... err, attack (that probably isn't the word I want) but when sleep apnea is going on you don't actually sleep. You may gasp or snort/snore yourself awake no matter how briefly. I seem to remember a citation of a case where someone "woke up" over three-dozen times a minute (you read that right but I'd still check it) while thinking that he was "sleeping". This kind of balogna is why people with sleep apnea are tired, irritable, depressed, unable to stay awake, all of those and more. Being exhausted and moody is not the best way to be able to eat properly let alone maintain an exercise program that will ensure weight loss. So it becomes a whole chicken-egg-chicken thing and patients are usually misdiagnosed with depression, diabetes, hypertension, just being a miserable hypochondriac... the list goes on and on. I have no idea what the deal is with the joke at the end. Perhaps it is a dixie cup-like feature.

Taking dixie cup from the nose of the Sphinx, "What's green and sings?"
"Fred Asparagus?"
"That is correct. We also would have excepted 'Elvis Parsley'." --from The Critic as best I can recall

I have not read House of Sleep but I assume that it is nonfiction. I'll put it on a list only after I take my nap.

Thanks for the other great link. House of Sleep is actually fiction, dark, gothic, unreliable-narrator, mad scientist fiction about sleep disorders. It's on my 74 Favorite Novels list. I highly recommend it if any of the above adjectives appealed to you.

Is started Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I hadn't read a novel for years. I got about 30 pages in, and was too bored with the pace of a novel, so I popped in a movie! I'm no longer able to enjoy even the best of novels, and one right up my alley, too! It's terrible, I'm so addicted to movies now (and screenplays).

I know what you mean; there are too many distractions! Although I would recommend giving Darkly Dreaming Dexter another shot. It really helped me to give in to the book's filmlike qualities. It also helped me to visualize Clive Owen as Dexter; ymmv.

I actually loved Relic more than I thought I would too! Preston and Child obviously know the politics of big museums firsthand, and the story was definitely exciting. I didn't think about it at the time, but I agree with you that the museum could have been more of a character--the book stops just short of being a modern twist on a haunted-house story.

I ended up reading Reliquary, the follow-up, which I thought was even better.

Johnny Waco

I think I'm on book five or six of this series, and all of them have definitely been worth it. They're great, great reads.

Tell me a little more about The Haunted Hillbilly--I too love Hank Williams and vampires, but I had no idea the two could ever meet!

I didn't dislike Neuromancer nearly as much as you did, but I do think it's a novel that can't live up to its influence and reputation. I got into the story at some point, but the novel as a whole left me cold (which to be fair, perhaps was Gibson's intent).

Johnny Waco

The Haunted Hillbilly is great, if you're into surreal American Gothic-type work. The writing is strong and fast, and the concepts are detailed and well-executed. I highly recommend this book.

(Plus, if you hate it, at least it's short).

I am continuing to have a love-hate Gibson thing. I'm still bitter about Neuromancer, and the amount of time it sucked out of my life to be read, but I recently finished All Tomorrow's Parties, and found that and Idoru stellar.

The Devil Wears Prada is one of the only two books I've ever read that were vastly improved by Hollywood movies. The other is Thank You for Smoking. Don't read that, either. But do watch the movie.

I'll be off investigating Plan B.

Ha! I can't help you with Thank You for Smoking. Haven't seen the movie but I really enjoyed the book. :)

Interesting. I don't remember the whole thing now, but I recall the book having more plotlines and a messier ending. The movie is cleaner and tidier in a way. Also Aaron Eckhart. Yum.