Let us just start by saying that I am not a social media addict. In these sad times I have not even been on Twitter very much. But even I am not immune to the little adrenaline hit of a like. As Twitter is falling apart at the seams, these days Goodreads is my most engaged platform. A lot of people are leaving and I totally get why but I'm still there and I can't deny that the likes are part of it.
I have, I admit, grown used to the constant feedback I get on Goodreads. At least 10 notifications a day, sometimes more. (Yesterday had 35, a big day.) I get a friend request or two every day, usually every week or so I sit down with 3 or 13 of them and accept/reject. Once they are friends with me, my reviews show up even higher and I tend to get more likes from them. It is a constantly moving engine, more efficient and self-propelling than any form of energy in the real world. I never send friend requests yet I have over 1,600 friends. I rarely like or comment on anyone else's reviews yet my own notifications are always pinging. It is, honestly, nice. I know that I would be a little sad not to get that same string of likes every day. I know because that is already my life on Letterboxd.
When I sit down to write a book review, I usually don't have a strong sense of what I'm going to say. There are probably a couple of things I've noted to myself, the major reasons I like or dislike a book. But after that I just kind of let things flow. Every now and then I have really thought about it and have a lot to say. Sometimes my reviews are straightforward if lackluster. Sometimes they are serendipitous, snapping with something extra. I never know which way it will go, really. I enjoy writing them, especially the ones where I have more to say than I thought I did.
For movies it's different. Letterboxd is a movie app and if you and I have ever talked about movies you have probably heard me evangelize it, especially the $15/year pro account where you can sort your watchlist by streaming service. I watch a lot of movies (surprisingly I don't watch as much as I read somehow) so I like having a place to keep track of things and help decide what to watch on any given night.
On Goodreads I get that regular stream of attention. On Letterboxd I am shouting into a void. In the last 2 weeks I got 5 likes on Letterboxd. I got that many in the last few hours on Goodreads. I do not do Letterboxd for the likes and maybe that's healthy, maybe it's good to do it just for me. But I cannot help sometimes trying to fit in.
The fashion for reviews on Letterboxd is very short. The one sentence review that is less a review than a joke about the movie that you can laugh at now that you've seen it is somehow the norm. This used to bug me but I have grown to love it. I have also grown to love writing these short reviews, though it's hard to break my long review writing habit.
On Goodreads my reviews are often over 500 words. The ones that get the most interaction tend to be the longest. (I've never understood this but I've always loved it.) Often on Letterboxd I simply cannot help myself and will string together a review that is several of these jokey one sentence reviews together until it becomes, unfortunately, a paragraph. Which is much less cool. Sometimes I write my actual response to the movie, which is also not cool but at least may be helpful if someone reads it. But sometimes I am able to get it together and actually write a good one sentence review. And then I feel very good about myself. And then it never receives a single like and I have to be that person who feels like they just made an excellent joke no one laughed at.
I have become such a review-er that sometimes I simply cannot write a lil one sentence joke instead of a review. It has somehow become a part of me. I don't recommend that many books to that many people, but the times that I do make a recommendation, when it's taken, it is one of my favorite, most joyful things.
And yes, when someone leaves a comment (a comment!!) on one of my Goodreads reviews it feels like an event. Often a comment is a validation, an acknowledgement that the experience I described also happened to someone else.
Whereas a joke review, well that is never going to get the same kind of interaction. No one is going to leave a comment on a joke review that is anything other than "lol" or "good one" and those just do not hit the same.
Nevertheless I am always very proud of myself when I actually have a good one sentence joke review. Which is why I have forced you to look at some of them in this newsletter. I assume you are review people (or you just enjoy the pleasure of my company??) or you would not be here so maybe Letterboxd is not for you. But if it is, you can find me there and maybe you could boost my ego a bit by giving me some likes.
This newsletter is quite overdue. The other day I was in the bookstore and saw a whole bunch of books that have been released that I had thought weren't out yet. I'm behind.
So. Here are my favorite January/February releases. I'm too behind to give you full reviews so I'll share a piece of each.
When I saw this I thought, "Hmm, I don't know if I have the energy to get through a long, historical novel like this." But it sneakily drew me in with a surprisingly sexy first chapter and after that I was just hooked. I read it for a few days, but I always savored it. While set in 1894, it does not have that flavor of historical fiction where it's winking at you the whole time and saying, "Look, the past! Isn't it amazing?" Instead it is very much concerned with its characters who are all about changing the future. It is a book about activism and change, and despite the drastically different times that makes it feel relevant to any time.
A lot of stories of the last few years have tried to balance this kind of violence with feminism, many of them have failed. The ones that try to be funny often fail even harder. But this is a smashing success, a rollicking ride that never feels preachy or that it takes things too lightly. It is just right.
There is a lot of talk about neo-noir and I've read more than a few. I like a lot of the original crime noir, and often what I'm looking for in neo-noir is a modernization that still stays true to the genre, it doesn't always deliver. But this is one of the best, absolutely a model for how you can take an old genre, make it your own, update it for the era, and be completely satisfying.
What this book is really about, what keeps it ticking, is the way your idea of your family freezes in your mind. The way you see your parents and siblings as just one thing and don't give them room to change. This is the trap Louise and Mark are stuck in. After their parents die unexpectedly, they cannot do a single thing in unison. They are constantly at odds. This constant fighting may explain why neither of them mentions to each other all the weird things that are happening in their parents' house. A house which includes a room full of dolls and puppets their mother made as part of her Christian Puppet Ministry. (Please do not tell me if there is no such thing as a Christian Puppet Ministry, it feels like it is a thing and that is how I would like it to stay.)
In a way the setup is similar to a romcom, where the uptight woman is shaken up. But there are no villains here. If anything, Audrey discovers more and more how she has left people in her wake, so focused on her own plans that she hasn't considered the people around her. I do enjoy a book where you get to see a character really change.
I thought Harper's last novel, THE SURVIVORS, was rather underwhelming and I admit I was a little worried about this one. Her two previous novels, including the second Aaron Falk, were both so good that I'd thought she could do no wrong. But she is back to form with EXILES. Like THE LOST MAN, she once again has you thinking you are in one book and then suddenly you realize it was an entirely different one in a way that feels true to life. I think, for a lot of Harper readers, this may be their new favorite. It has a lot of the things she does best all in one package.
I have a lot to say about this book, which I enjoyed immensely. But I think it's best approached cold, my review will get into a lot of the details and the summary copy says an awful lot as well. I would just pick it up and see if you are as grabbed from the first page as I was and then hang on.
There are certain things a slasher sequel has to do. It should raise the stakes, it should bring us a mix of new and old characters, it should pick up some of the loose ends from the first, and it should definitely be bloodier. DON'T FEAR THE REAPER is happy to oblige.
I won't lie, a memoir about friendship sounds trite. It sounds like it's going to be all warmth and inspiration. It sounds like the kind of book I would walk right past. I say this even though friendship is something I'm spending a lot of time thinking about and working on. The difficulty of it, the messiness of it, these are often overlooked. Luckily I saw that this was from the author of Group, which dives head first into difficulty and messiness so I figured I was in good hands and I was right.
I almost stopped reading this book very early on because our narrator, a white straight male college professor in his 50's, is so detestable that it was hard to agree to go on this journey with him. We talk a lot about unlikable protagonists, and here, as is often the case, his unlikable-ness is the point. Still, I wanted some reassurance that there was a reason for this, that Jha was taking us somewhere worth going. I am happy to report that she is. She most definitely is.
It feels like a packed couple of months, doesn't it? For a while I felt like February was a vast wilderness and I only had two books on my list. I am actually still reading several. I'm in the middle of Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez and after that I have both Big Swiss and the new Rebecca Makkai waiting in the wings. So February might turn out to be decent after all.