My Top Five Favorite Novels of 2016

I have read a lot of books this year (124 as of today), some of them amazing, some of them egregiously bad. These are my top five favorite novels I read this year.

vegetarian-coverOn its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society. I highly recommend The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s astonishing (but tight!) prose and highly significant subject matter would make it the perfect book for readers of literary fiction and maybe even for book clubs that want to push the envelope and spark discussion. Read the rest of my review. Continue reading

Review of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Full of turmoil, love, loss, and pain, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a complex meditation on privilege and the crucible that is adolescence. Set in Mill Valley, California, at the real life Tamalpais High School, the story centers on a fledgling teacher, Molly Nicoll, as she discovers and comes to terms with the complex lives of her students and her role (or absence) in their evolution as people. With perspectives that alternate between Molly and the main group of her students, Johnson weaves a series of interconnected life stories that create a portrait not only of the idyllic Mill Valley, with its towering redwoods and foggy views of San Francisco Bay, she creates a portrait from the inside, from the multifaceted and often breaking hearts of the teenagers who are beginning their lives there. Continue reading

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, Hag-Seed, the latest in Hogarth Shakespeare’s series of modern retellings, interprets The Tempest in a technique that layers contemplation, action, and exegesis.

This is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, and so far, it is the strongest. However, The Tempest is probably one of Shakespeare’s plays that I know the least. That being said, I wasn’t comparing and contrasting the original versus the interpretation; and this version, more than anything, acts as an exegesis, a teaching text, of the original.

Set in a Canadian prison, the main character Felix Philips teaches literacy through theater, but his endeavor isn’t completely altruistic. In the beginning of the novel, Felix is the main director at the semi-famous Makeshewig Festival, but he’s going off the deep end. He takes too many directorial risks, and many of the people he works with want him out. This makes it all the easier for Tony, his highest underling in the theater company, to usurp his place as director and have him fired. Continue reading

Review of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt has been difficult for me to review. I finished it a few days ago, and since then, I’ve been ruminating on it.

In its essence, Cruel Beautiful World is a novel about family and love. But the horrible underside of humanity is afoot as well. Yes, it takes place during the same time as the Manson murders, but that isn’t the true specter that hangs over the characters’ psyches. The true roots of the novel’s conflict lie in the question: How well can we really know the ones we love?

The climax and denouement of Cruel Beautiful World answer this question two ways. Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll say that one represents the beautiful and one represents the cruel. Continue reading

Review of The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“It’s your body, you can treat it as you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted,” (Kang 182).

On its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society.

While The Vegetarian is divided into three sections, each section centers on the main character, Yeong-hye. It is absolutely vital to the novel’s message that the story be told from outside points of view. The first two of these perspectives are male: Yeong-hye’s husband and Yeong-hye’s brother in law.

From her husband’s perspective, Yeong-hye’s first symptom of insanity is that she stops eating or cooking meat, in direct disobedience to her husband and father. This section comes to a head when her father tries to physically force Yeong-hye to eat meat. Yeong-hye resists, and in an act of defiance, she cuts herself with a knife.

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Review of June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

I went into my reading of June by Miranda Beverly-Wittemore with excitement. The blurbs all touted its portrayal of Hollywood’s golden age. Murder, you say? Dark family secrets? All in a beautiful mansion that has fallen into disrepair? That’s totally in my wheelhouse, so I jumped on it as soon as I could. By now, I should know better than to go into a novel with so many expectations. Luckily, I wasn’t totally let down. Although June is far from being perfect, it ultimately delivers on its promises with a very satisfying end.

June switches between two years, 1955 and 2015. In 1955, a Hollywood movie crew has come to St. Jude, Ohio (which reminded me of Winesburg, Ohio, *shudder*), and June—the character, not the month in which both time periods stay—falls in love with a dashing Hollywood star, Jack Montgomery. Intrigue, murder, and blackmail all follow. It’s too bad that Beverly-Wittemore saves these until the last 3rd of the book. In the 2015 sections, Cassie Danvers, who has been living in her grandmother June’s decaying mansion since June’s death, receives word that she will inherit millions from Jack Montgomery, this famous Old Hollywood movie star who she has never met. Tate Montgomery, Jack’s starlet daughter, isn’t exactly keen on this idea. So Tate comes to Winesburg—I mean, St. Jude—to get Cassie to take a DNA test.

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Review of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Review of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch27833670

SPOILERS AHEAD – READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller that gripped me from the first pages. In it, Jason Dessen, a mediocre college professor, is kidnapped and has his life taken over by—Jason Dessen. Wait, what?

It seems this other Jason, “Jason2,” made different choices in his life. While the narrator gave up his research to start a family, Jason2 continued until he created “the box,” a sensory deprivation room that puts occupants into a “cat state,” as in good ol’ Schrödinger’s cat. Thus, “the box” allows its occupant to step through the multiverse. This is only the beginning of the problem. Things get more twisted in the best way as the story unfolds.

Through everything, Crouch’s masterful prose—simple, quick, and effortless to digest—whisks the reader through the most complex of ideas with ease. Hiding inside this action-packed thriller is an emotional core of familial love. Deeper still, we find the philosophical—the narrative begs this question: What is it that makes us who we are?

Dark Matter was a multifaceted novel with such depth of feeling, excitement, and intrigue that I stayed up all night reading it. Part Interstellar, part TheTime Traveler’s Wife, with a little bit of The One (Jet Li), and a whole lot of its own flavor, Dark Matter was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read all year.

5/5 Stars

A review copy of this book was furnished for me by Net Galley for an honest review.

Click here to buy Dark Matter on Amazon.