#1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-places-book-cover“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” – Libby Day

Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, sole survivor of the Kinnakee Kansas Massacre. There’s usually a variation somehow including the words “satanic” or “farmhouse” when discussed in schoolyard chants or sensationalist newspaper articles. Libby Day’s mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in the wee morning hours of January 3, 1985, and her older brother Ben is in prison for the crime. Eight-year-old Libby escaped by climbing out a window and hiding in the snow until dawn, losing some toes and part of a finger in the process. Now, Libby is in her early 30s and all the money from well-wishers is drying up. Unable to function normally since the massacre, she’s desperate for cash so she won’t have to work in an office with human beings, whom she seems to roundly despise.

Enter Lyle, member of the mysterious K.C. — Kill Club. He has an offer for Libby if she comes to one of their meetings and is willing to revisit the horrible night her family was destroyed. Did Ben really butcher their family, or were stranger things afoot that day in Kinnakee? Needing the money and hoping beyond hope she can salvage some kind of relationship with Ben, Libby sets out on the path to discover what really went wrong in one bad day.

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to the audiobook version (read by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, and Mark Deakins) with Joe when we were driving to and from the Chicago area last weekend to attend a wedding. (I made the joke around midnight in Missouri that listening to a story about a Midwestern axe murder that occurred IN JANUARY was probably not the *wisest* thing to do for our emotional states, but neither of us had any nightmares.)

If you’re into mystery and split narratives (told by multiple POVs between January 2, 1985 and the present-ish day), this might be right up your alley. I especially appreciated the raw, oddly endearing characterization of Libby: a mean, nearly feral woman whose heart was broken when she was 8 and has refused to ever fully put it back together.

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2014 Round-Up

Another year has come and gone, and unfortunately I didn’t hit my target of 26 books. I’m not incredibly surprised, though I am disappointed I didn’t get to some of the books I had set aside for the year. It was another moving-across-the-country year, coming back to the Oklahoma City area from Santa Fe, and that process wound up eating a lot of time. I also got back into my comic series this past fall, so I’ve spent much more time with ink pens than novels the past four months!

2014 Favorites:

  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
  • Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

My hope for 2015 is a solid 25 books. Wish me luck!

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#14. Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright

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My very own Christmas Jar.

Last Christmas, my mother gave my husband and me a jar filled with coins and a few $1 and $5 bills. She also gave one to my brother and his wife. With the jars came a copy of this book for each of us, Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright. I thought it was an incredibly neat idea, and was very moved by the gift even before I knew the full meaning behind it. I had intended to read the book shortly after receiving it, but amidst the post-holiday travel and breakneck speed of our life at the time, I just never got around to it that winter.

Fast forward to this holiday season: Joe and I put a charitable spin on our gift-exchanging this year, and my mom commented that it reminded her a bit of Christmas Jars. This evening I turned on the Christmas tree lights one last time and finally read this novella.

This is a quick read at just over 100 pages, a feel-good book for a feel-good season. Hope, an aspiring newspaper writer, receives an anonymous gift one miserable Christmas Eve: a glass jar full of coins and $20 bills with the words “Christmas Jar” written on it. She tries to track down the origins of this generous, bizarre tradition, but very few recipients of jars from years past are willing to speculate much on them except to say that some things don’t need to be understood to be appreciated. She eventually gets a lead on a family in town who restores old furniture and slowly unravels the mystery. After spending many months with the quirky Maxwell family, she faces a conflict: write the story and gain the glory, or keep the trust they have all come to place in her. Though Hope is not sure how to resolve her feelings, she knows deep down that the choices she makes leading up to that year’s Christmas will define the depth of her character.

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#13. Ur by Stephen King

Last weekend, we drove down to Dallas. One of my best friends from college and her husband moved down there this past year, putting them only 3 hours away from Oklahoma City. It was an excellent visit — a brewery, an Asian art collection, the art museum, a walk around the cool & eclectic arts district, and a very intense game of Scrabble.

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Christmas Market in the Bishop Arts District, where our friends live.

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Fashion exhibit at The Crow Collection of Asian Art.

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Samurai exhibit at The Crow Collection of Asian Art.

You might be wondering what a weekend getaway to Texas to see our friends has to do with my quest for a million words. Joe’s Nissan Versa has a CD player, which means that on the night before we headed out we made a stop at the Metropolitan Public Library to pick up an audiobook for the drive! We picked up two, but wound up listening to only one: Ur by Stephen King. Originally available only for the Amazon Kindle, this novella introduces readers to Wesley Smith, an English teacher at a small college who loves books. One day in class, he scoffs at a student doing his reading assignment off a Kindle…a computer. But, fresh off a breakup where his ex-girlfriend accused him of being unable to use such devices “like the rest of us,” he takes it as a personal challenge and orders one online.

There are some weird manufacturing quirks to his new Amazon purchase. For one thing, it appeared in the mail for him after only one day, even though he didn’t request one-day delivery. Also, it seems to be a shade of bubblegum pink. Finally, it has an experimental prototype menu called “Ur.” As Wesley loses night after night of sleep exploring Ur novels and Ur news archives, he can’t help but wonder: How many Urs are out there? And why did this strange Kindle show up in his?

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#12. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park is an unlikely love story about two misfits in the mid-80s who find out they fit with each other. Though that sounds like the plot summary for a lot of YA books about young relationships (minus the 1980s, probably), Rowell really has a gift for putting you inside the heads of our titular protagonists. The chapters are divided between the two POVs. Many shared moments are expanded for the reader, as they first read how Eleanor experienced something, then read how Park perceived the same event. Other chapters are internal revelations exclusive to that character; hard, secret truths about sincerity, identity, sex, family dysfunction, and abuse. I listened to this book on Overdrive, and the two voice actors reading as Eleanor and Park did a wonderful job.

Eleanor is the new girl on the school bus, a curvy girl with wild red hair and bright, unusual clothing like mens’ Hawaiian print shirts and scarves tied all around her arms. Park is a Korean-American teen who’s into punk rock and getting a driver’s license. When he gruffly tells her she can sit next to him on the bus that first awkward day, he sets off a chain of interactions that will bring them closer and closer together until they can’t bear to be apart. Sharing comic books and mix tapes, they are two bright, hopeful blossoms on the incredibly bleak landscape of their drab neighborhood, which Eleanor refers to as The Flats. Eleanor challenges Park and confuses him, in love with him but unable to fully trust the intentions of anyone around her. Park wants to love Eleanor forever, though at 16 years old, she skeptically remarks several times that they are no Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a real, raw story about falling in love for the first time, facing your demons, and listening to The Smiths on the way to school. I would highly recommend it.

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#11. The Giver by Lois Lowry

giverI have to begin this post by expressing my satisfaction with Overdrive, a library lending app that allows you to borrow eBooks and Audiobooks from your local library right to your devices. It is wonderful. I am actually a bit disappointed that I have not used it until now, but I intend on utilizing it quite a bit from now on.

I used to listen to Audiobooks quite a bit when I was living in Iowa City. I walked, biked, or took the bus wherever I needed to go, and I had ample time to listen to stories on my 20 minute walks to work, or on a solo bus ride to Coralville. One summer I listened to probably 10 full novels, since I had picked up hours working at the library removing old RFID tags from our entire collection of media. Well, this past month I have taken up walking and running once or twice a week, and remembered how much I used to enjoy Audiobooks. Browsing Overdrive, I saw that The Giver was available. A beloved elementary school classic, it was a title I had often seen but never picked up for myself.

The Giver is a science fiction tale of Sameness. In the Community where Jonas has grown up, all the dwellings are the same. All the people are ultimately the same, a certain number of each young age group with the same tunics and hairstyles and bicycles. But to Jonas and his friends, it is a secure world. It is very safe and ordered in the Community, with simple family units expressing their feelings each evening and doing their Community-assigned jobs. There is no pain in his world, no confusion. But Jonas feels a little different than the other children in his Age 11 group. He can see things in ordinary objects that other people cannot, perceive small changes in things like apples or strands of hair. He doesn’t understand these odd visions until he receives his job assignment and meets The Giver. Through him, Jonas learns to question the rules and order of his Community, and even the people he cares for the most. And after he has received what The Giver has shared with him, he knows he can never go back to living the way he did before.

This is an excellent dystopian novel, and although it was written as a children’s book, its deceptively simple language and dark themes make it just as compelling for adult reading.

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#10. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

darkly-dreaming-dexter-12Sometime between June and August, I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter and forgot to write about it. This past summer was a blur of road trips, celebrations, and humidity. I remember reading it after introducing Joe to the first season of Dexter, but before loading up the UHaul with all our earthly possessions. In any event, I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I must confess that it was hard to get into at first. This is one of those peculiar circumstances where the set-up chapters (who’s who, and why, and where, and is that a dead body in the dumpster?) are actually so similar to the pilot episode of the show, I was quite bored.

As a side note, when it comes to adapted work, I never quite know whether to read the book first, or watch the movie/show first, or just stick to one or the other. It’s a tricky thing to revisit a story, or in this case a character, that you feel you already know so intimately. Surprisingly I have read books that are not as good as the movie, and less surprisingly, I have seen screen work that does not hold up as well as the novels they are based on. I am sure most fiction fans face that problem, though; especially right now, with so many comic and YA series becoming films.

Anyway, about 1/3 of the way through, the book and the show diverged a bit, and once I was reading new information and insights, I found it very enjoyable. The main focus of Darkly Dreaming Dexter is of course the titular character, Dexter Morgan. He’s a brother, a son, a forensic analyst for Miami PD, a boating enthusiast, and a serial killer. He’s just so lovable, though, the oblivious, non-malicious, and non-cannibalistic version of Hannibal Lecter. He grew up without the capacity to feel, or to see humans as valuable individuals. This seems to be only something he holds onto from his past, however, as he expresses great affection — and possibly even love — for his late adoptive parents and his sister Debra. Despite his apparent sociopathy, he has a wicked sense of humor and a keen ability to read people, giving many passages of this dark story some fun levity.

In this first book of the Dexter series, A new serial killer has popped up in Miami. He leaves his victims bloodless and clean somehow, which intrigues Dexter to no end. After a very short while, it becomes obvious this rival killer is leaving the bodies specifically for Dexter to find. But why? Is it dangerous? Or is it an invitation to play?

This is ultimately a fun read, especially if it is your first foray into the world of Dexter Morgan. If you have seen the show and haven’t read the novels, I’ll be honest with you: you just have to stick with it. Some of the characters and twists are very different from the show, and by the end you might be as shocked as I was that it concludes on a very different note than the end of the first season.

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