The Challenger

books collage

Hey, so would you look at that – I once again biffed my friends’ annual reading challenge, working through a measly 12 books!  I very nearly made it to 13, but Christmas came, and the time for leisurely reading fell by the wayside.  So 12 it is.  Sorry Julie, sorry Jay, I’ll try, try again in 2019 with your next, just-announced reading challenge.  Maybe next year I’ll get to 14!

But it’s not a numbers game, and it’s important to value quality over quantity, and some other trite expression that’s not coming to mind right now, but I did read a number of excellent novels this year, including The Night Circus, which was a beautiful, dreamy revelation; easily one of my favourite books of all time.  Too Big to Fail was another bright spot; I was proud to have tackled a book about such a dense, weighty and frequently boring subject matter as the American financial system.  I’ll Have What She’s Having was probably the most pointless of all the books I read this year; a humour novel without the humour is a puzzling animal, indeed.

Below you’ll find all of the books I read this year and the matching, inspired-by manicures I did for each one.  If you click on the titles, a link will take you to my thoughts and reviews of each book, plus lots of pics of all that nail art.  Once again, The Night Circus was the big winner here, its sumptuous, Victorian-esque carnival atmosphere providing ample inspiration for five different manicures, although I’m really quite partial to the gothic lettering of those Petunia (of Stephen King’s Christine fame) nails.

The Burning World Collage

The Burning World by Isaac Marion – Another Warm Bodies novel, this one a sequel to the first Romeo and Juliet zombie romance, this entry suffers from having to act as a bridge between that novel and a third, planned book to be released later on this year.  It’s a big exposition dump, and much of the bedrock on which Warm Bodies – a gentle, thoughtful novel about the downfall of humanity – is based is blown viciously asunder (presumably so it can be pieced back together in the final novel, but dang if some of those new revelations don’t smart extra hard; now I know how old school Star Wars fans felt during the overlording of George Lucas.) 😉 I read this book for week 26’s challenge theme of “A book title that sounds like the cool name of a band.”

I Open at the Close Collage

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – Hey now, another thing to be proud of in this reading challenge – I FINALLY finished the Harry Potter series!  Just 15 or so years off the pace, no big.  I read this novel for week three’s theme of “The next one in a series.”

451 Collage

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I burnt the edge of a page of one of TWO forewords to this novel and applied the singed bits to my nails.  I think I might have missed the point of this book.  I read Fahrenheit 451 for week 11’s theme of a banned book – it doesn’t get more banned than being torched with gigantic kerosene fascism hoses, now does it?

Handmaid's Tale Collage

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Not the most uplifting of stories, but so beautifully written.  I was just in awe of Atwood’s writing.  I re-read this novel for week 30’s prompt of “a book picked up in a thrift shop.”  I got this copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from the university bookstore in second year, and there’s nothing thriftier than an English student trying to stretch their book budget.

I'll Have Collage

I’ll Have What She’s Having by Rebecca Harrington – I’ve had this little humour novel sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I finally got around to reading it this year for week nine’s theme of a book from your to-be-read pile.  I think there’s a lot of good comedy to be mined from mimicking the wacky diets of image-obsessed celebrities, but this slight book was less observational humour and more straight up observation.  So Karl Lagerfeld is a (self-described) grumpy bastard.  That’s most likely because he starves himself stupid and consumes nothing but Diet Coke.  We’d all be grumpy bastards, too – this is practically a given.  So wither the funny?  Ultimately, there was not much humour here, just tepid commentary on predictable outcomes.  Cute cover art, though.

Bazaar of Bad Dreams Collage

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – Every ’80s kid’s favourite author is getting old, and he’s super worried about the real world things that go bump in the night.  I read this zippy anthology of short stories for week eight’s theme of “A collection of short stories.”

Gawain Collage

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by anonymous, edited by W.S. Merwin – A 14th Century epic poem – both in its original Middle English and translated forms – for week 23’s challenge theme of “An epic tale.”  Go medieval or go home, right?

The Night Circus Collage 1

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Oh my goodness, I adored this book!  It was utterly enchanting – appropriate given that it’s a tale about star-crossed magicians plying their trade at a mysterious, after hours Victorian carnival.  This was a very gratifying read; I actually sighed with contentment as I closed the back cover for the final time.  I read The Night Circus in service of week 28’s theme of “a work by a debuted author.”

Christine Collage

Christine by Stephen King – I continued filling in the gaps in my Stephen King education this year by reading Christine, one of his earliest works.  It was appropriately unnerving and gory in all the right places, but absent the killer car, I was struck by the simple human heartbreak that formed the core of Christine, which was just your average, emotionally deadlocked family trying – and failing – to grapple with shifting family dynamics.  Whilst being hunted down and murdered by a sentient – and very vengeful – 1958 Plymouth Fury.  As you do.  I read Christine, a book I nabbed from my condo’s community bookshelves, in service of week 15’s theme of “A book from the library.”

Too Big Collage

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin – I hate these nails (too heavy-handed, and the lighting is crap) but improbably, I really loved this book, which I read for week 14’s theme of “non-fiction to tickle the brain cells.”  More like set my brain cells on fire – I spent a lot of time shouting out various aghast “OMG, did you know”s to Mr. Finger Candy as I stomped about the house, raging at the inequalities of the global financial system.

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Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith – After the M.C. Escher-esque financial mindf**k that was Too Big to Fail, I was in need of a literary palette cleanser, which I found in Blue Shoes and Happiness.  My mom loaned me this gentle little book from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, a favourite of hers set in rural Botswana.  I read this book for week 27’s theme of “A book that was gifted to you.”

Small Spaces Collage

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden – Jay of The Scented Library gave me this spooky little book, ensuring that I’d absolutely hit week four’s theme of “a purple hued tome.”  Also that I’d be thoroughly, delightfully creeped out, and also get some great nail art inspiration out of the bargain.

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Literary Inspiration: Small Spaces

Small Spaces Collage

My blogging buddy Jay of The Scented Library sent me this spooktacular young adult read just before Halloween.  And what a fitting find it was, too, neatly checking off all of the things I love in a book – whimsi-gothic cover art reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie poster, supernatural shenanigans afoot, an above-the-title pull quote from R.L. Stine!  But showing just how well she actually knows me (see, friends, you need never have met a person face-to-face for them to just get you) Jay acknowledged that while very cool, a recommendation from Stine carried ever so slightly less cachet than one from MY favourite young adult author of choice, Christopher Pike (difficult, as I’ve heard he’s a grumpy old sod who resolutely refuses to play the publicity game.)  Also, this last-last minute entry towards Jay and Julie’s 2018 reading challenge satisfies the theme of a book with purple cover art, which I was then inspired to turn into what I think is a rather lovely, evocative manicure.  So really just the most perfect gift – with thanks again, friend. 🙂

Yes, yes, but what of the novel itself?  Geez, patient puss, I was just about to get to that. 😉  Without giving away too much of the plot, Small Spaces, by author Katherine Arden, is a fog-shrouded, atmospheric little supernatural thriller, more taut novella than novel, which I think is to its great advantage.  Small Spaces clips along at a nice pace; I had it finished up within three or four sessions, and I was loathe to put it down once the action really began.

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Creepy, unsettling and shiveringly, delightfully scary, Small Spaces tells the story of 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler, an outcast by choice following the death of her mother the year prior.  On a field trip to a local farm, Ollie wanders away from her classmates and has an unsettling run-in with an employee – he intones that there is great danger coming, but suggests that if she hides, and confines herself to small spaces, she just might survive the threat.

And that’s pretty much all I can tell you without giving all of the rest of the story away, because the book plays it so straight, truly what you read is what you get.  There are some surprisingly delightful moments in Small Spaces, but it’s a simple book, with a straightforward narrative that it wears on its earnest, young adult sleeve.  I really, really enjoyed it; it was a nice little diversion from the usual, and proper spooky, too.  A fine read for a cold and gloomy day.

Scarecrows – this nail art is supposed to depict scarecrows standing in a mist-laden field.  And I can’t say anything more about it than that, except I think this manicure turned out really rather well; holographic polishes, especially when they are sponged on like they have been for this gradient manicure, always have a bit of a heathered grey tinge to them, perfect for fog-shrouded books AND nails.

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Literary Inspiration: Blue Shoes and Happiness

Blue Shoes Collage

Sneaking a last minute reading challenge book and matching manicure in under the 2018 wire here with Blue Shoes and Happiness, an entry in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books by Alexander McCall Smith.

This gentle, deeply inoffensive little book about Precious Ramotswe, a lifelong resident of Botswana and proud founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, came as a recommendation from my mom, who could see, after the dense, multi-layered insanity that was Too Big to Fail, that I was in need of something with a softer touch.

Please don’t tell my mom, who adores this book series, but I…*lowers voice, glances about *…didn’t love Blue Shoes and Happiness.  Nothing happened!  There were some lovely descriptions of Botswana, and what the land means to Mma Ramotswe, a traditionally built (her words) rancher’s daughter besotted with her nation, but otherwise, it felt a bit soft, a bit simple.  Oh dear lord, PLEASE don’t let my mom see this; she will crap a brick if she sees I’ve besmirched her beloved books!

Blue Shoes Collage 2

I think part of my problem might be that I was thrown in the deep end of the No. 1 puddle; Blue Shoes and Happiness isn’t the first (or even the fifth) entry in the series.  Compounding this feeling of being wildly out of step with Mma Ramotswe’s world is the fact that events started in a previous book find closure in Blue Shoes and Happiness, whereas other events started in Blue Shoes and Happiness are left to be resolved in some later book.  The assumption here is that you will continue reading the next entry in the series to see how X situation is resolved, but you know what they say about assumptions.

The titular shoes in this case, and the inspiration for these simple nails, actually belong to Mma Ramotswe’s assistant in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Makutsi.  Mma Makutsi, proud graduate of the Botswana Secretarial Collage (with a 97 percent average, as she’s more than delighted to tell every single person she meets) has a weakness for beautiful shoes, something of a problem when you walk to work (itself housed in the back of an auto repair shop) on hard pan dirt roads.  But Mma Makutsi falls hard for a wildly impractical pair of too-small sky blue shoes with lipstick red linings.  Buy them, she must!  So she does, and they’re too small, and she hobbles about for a bit looking like her feet have grown two blue satin-covered sausages, and Mma Ramotswe gently tells her she’s being a fool, which by that point, owing to a weird back-up of blood rising from her feet, she heartily agrees with, and we all go home happy, having learned a positive lesson of some sort, though I’ve no idea what that lesson might be.  It was pretty silly and SO not my usual, but I tried to read it with an open mind, for my mom.

Pretty much the only thing Mmas Ramotswe and Makutsi can agree on is that donuts are yummy; much to Precious Ramotswe’s traditionally built consternation, they are as much a presence in the detective agency as the dim bulb apprentices who drift by from her husband’s auto repair shop out front.  So for the Mmas, a wee donut on my thumb.  And for my mama, my very best shot at this book.

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Literary Inspiration: Too Big to Fail

Too Big Collage

So this manicure isn’t exactly subtle, but then again, neither was the wholesale grifting and complete abdication of fiduciary duty by the wankers of Wall Street and the ghouls of government that led to the 2008 collapse of the American financial system, the narrative retelling of which, Too Big to Fail by Aaron Ross Sorkin, is the inspiration for these nails.

Some months on, I’ve no idea why I chose this book to satisfy the theme of historical fiction in my friends’ reading challenge.  A decade removed from the events that shook the financial industry to its core (without un-mooring it, heavens no, because see above re: the title) it can now fairly be classified as a historical work, and the structure of the book (a fleshed-out retelling of the ultimately fruitless attempts by the best and, um, brightest of the industry to circumvent a financial atom bomb, culled from thousands of hours of journalistic work and reassembled into a spritely narrative) satisfies the fictional aspect, although the entire thing is still appallingly, maddeningly rooted in real life baddies doing bad things and being richly rewarded for it.  It was an incredibly frustrating read.

But also a GREAT read.  Presented as a sort of in-the-moment recounting of the events that immediately preceded the $700 billion bailout of the financial system by the American taxpayers, Sorkin introduces the key players and the massive web of conflicts of interest that should have disqualified every single one of them from participating in the PATRIOTIC RESCUE OF THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM, let alone give them a seat at the table where they were allowed to drive actual legislation and policy.  It was, after all, their greed, their wanton disregard for the rules and their disdainful, near-criminal immorality that led in large part – the largest part – to the collapse and subsequent bailout of the system.

After gathering the cast of fools (the description of these men – they’re nearly all men, 35 to 65 years of age – reads like WASP Mad Libs: Raised in (Vermont/New York City/Washington/Connecticut), educated at (Harvard/Yale), handed a cushy internship straight out of college by (grandfather/father/uncle/other male mentor), CEO within five years (of some big banking concern, doesn’t really matter which one, lining those three letters up behind the Esquires in their name is really all they care about), divorce within 10, lather, rinse, repeat with a new company, a new wife) Sorkin attempts to lay out the labyrinthine, grossly leveraged financial system as it existed in the mid-aughts.

It’s here that Sorkin really shows his work, breaking free from the buzzwords, jargon and purposefully obfuscating technical terms to expose a deeply flawed, virtually incomprehensible system that even the major players were loathe to understand.  Sorkin doesn’t concern himself too much with apportioning blame for the state of the industry pre-bailout; nobody knew what they were talking about, everyone quite willingly kept themselves in the dark, and no one was willing to comprehend of a future in which they weren’t making billions of golden parachute’d dollars hand over fist.  By the end of the book I had a slightly better understanding of the situation, but I’m still utterly clueless as to how things got to a state where the only reasonable course correction was to funnel a trillion dollars of taxpayer funds into the financial system to save those businesses (just a handful of ultra powerful banks, lenders and brokerage houses) deemed worthy.

The bulk of the book deals with the final frantic week leading up to the bailout in which the mettle of these titans of financial industry is put to the test when the feds summon them all to non-optional emergency meetings to save themselves SAVE THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM.  That this doesn’t go the way the government had hoped is hardly surprising – with virtually no oversight to the process (an actual directive from the secretary treasurer, himself a former executive of Goldman Sachs, was to gather all of the major players in one room and simply tell them to “just fix it”) the financial types just broke off into little groups to advocate for their own best interests, civic duties be damned.  Also because they had no effin’ clue what they were doing.

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Sorkin does a rather incredible job at not explicitly highlighting the many and varied shortcomings of the people involved in this process.  He actually doesn’t need to – the craven ghouls haunting this tale are quite visible, and Sorkin exposes them for what they are, no hyperbole necessary.  I did chuckle a few times at his flattering descriptions of these men – “a hale and hearty 65; boyish good looks that belied his 50 years; a penis the length and width of a fire log” (joking about that last one.)  It’s actually a very smart journalistic gambit – you’re a better bee for using honey rather than the stinger, and it can’t hurt to sweeten up your sources a bit, especially when they’re as fragile as these ones.

Which was my real, genuine aggravation with this entire situation – that “fixing” the entire global economy had been handed to a lot of weak, ludicrously privileged, upwardly failing asshats I wouldn’t trust to deposit my paycheque.  These were (and are – mergers may have changed the legal names of these businesses, but the players are the same) dim, shallow, crassly selfish people whose only real talent was smoke and mirrors.  I took a lot of schadenfreude-laced joy in the many passages of self-important CEOs being denied audience with other self-important CEOs, phone calls between self-impressed jerkoffs apparently being the REAL currency that powered the American financial system in the late 2000s.

So a frustrating read, no doubt, but frustration born entirely out of the situation Sorkin is writing about, as opposed to the writing itself.  Too Big to Fail is a wonderful book, ambitious in scope, but still limited to a recitation of the facts, and just the horrible facts.  It should be mandatory reading for anyone still curious about the events surrounding the bailout.  That goes double for the actual subject matters themselves; if ever there was a lot that needed educating. 😦

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Literary Inspiration: Christine

Christine Collage

I’m a huge Stephen King fan (Pet Sematary is my favourite novel, although I think I like his shorts best) but I haven’t read many of his earliest works – Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter, and until very recently, Christine.  Never been much of a car person, so I think I was a little frightened off by the subject matter.

But continuing to play along with my friends’ reading challenge, and with the theme of a library find or a gifted book calling out to me (indeed, Christine is a book I gifted to myself out of my condo’s library!) I thought it was time to pull Christine out of the garage and really see what she could do out on the open road.

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Without giving too much away regarding the plot of this 35-year-old novel, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t strictly geared towards gearheads.  The events of the novel actually surround 17-year-old Arnie Cunningham.  Arnie’s smart, bright and funny, a hard worker and a great student, but he’s also tragically unpopular and run over roughshod by every single person in his life – his teachers, his overbearing mother and father, even his everydude best friend, Dennis.  That all changes the day he meets Christine, a rundown hunk of Plymouth junk rusting to death on a nasty old man’s lawn.  Arnie HAS to have her, won’t actually listen to a word of Dennis’s reasonable counsel regarding her poor condition, her vile, greedy owner or the total shit fit his parents are sure to have if he attempts to bring her home.  But bring her home he does, wildly overpaying for the red and white, 1958 Fury that will come to tear his tidy suburban life – as well as a good number of people! – to bits.

Thirty-five-year-old spoilers or no, we all know by now what Christine does – she’s the murder car!  I think it’s one of those terms that just might be part of the pop culture lexicon by now.  Even the back of the book jacket hammers home the elegantly horrific nightmare fuel that “Christine is no lady.  She is Stephen King’s ultimate, blackly evil vehicle of horror.”

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But Christine is about so much more than a homicidal car.  I think it’s really a story about growing up, whether you’re an unpopular 17-year-old dork, that dork’s parents or the wretched old bastard who sold the dork a murder car.  It’s a quest for independence, a love story, a tale of obsession.  I liked it, even if I think King whiffed the ending.  Good to know that literary quirk of his started early. 😉

If you’ve been following along with this Literary Inspiration series, you know I like to do a manicure to accompany whatever book I’ve recently finished reading.  Here I was inspired by Petunia, a hot pink sanitation truck (her name is spelled out in giant gothic letters across her potbellied side) who gives Christine a run for her money.  That’ll do, Petunia. 🙂

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Literary Inspiration: Duma Key

Duma Key Main Collage

Or Pet Sematary II: The Golden Years: But not Maine this time; Florida.  ‘Twas too weighty a title, however, so Duma Key it was. 😉

So for those curious as to how I’m doing on my friend Julie’s reading challenge – terribly! I am doing terribly. I’m not even 10 books through the 24-strong list of challenge themes, and that’s in part because I keep picking gigantic tomes like this one, another 700-page Stephen King bruiser that takes you from Minnesota to Florida and back again, with stops at Insanity Isle and It’s Raining Frogs Junction in between.  I think Duma Key nicely satisfies the “Cover art that draws you in” test Julie laid down for the challenge – I particularly like the partially submerged, holographic lettering of King’s name.

Duma Key Cover Collage

The basics: Duma Key is about – and told from the perspective of – 50-something Edgar Freemantle, construction company president, formerly of Minnesota, now of Duma Key, Florida. There are a lot of “formerlies” in Edgar’s life at the beginning of the novel – former job, former marriage, former body, the latter down one right arm following a gruesome workplace accident.  But it’s not so much the physical afflictions – the amputated arm, the pulverized ribs – that trouble Edgar’s mind, it’s Edgar’s mind itself, which, damaged just as badly as his physical body, turns toward anger, confusion and random, violent outbursts in the wake of his terrible accident.  Most of the people in Edgar’s life stand by him during this upsetting time, but many do not.

After his wife leaves him, one of Edgar’s therapists asks him if he ever enjoyed any kind of creative outlet as a younger man.  Edgar replies that before he devoted his life to the construction company that made him a millionaire many times over, he liked to draw, had even once entertained the notion of going to art school. Agreeing that art is an important part of both physical and mental therapies, the doctor suggests Edgar take up drawing once again, and maybe seek out a major change in location while he’s at it.

And so Edgar moves to Duma Key, Florida, a rather runty, overgrown spit of land clinging desperately to the Gulf Coast, taking up residence at a gigantic, rose-hued house-on-stilts he affectionately dubs Big Pink. Inspired by the gorgeously lurid Gulf sunsets, Edgar begins to paint.  At night the creeping tide makes the shells that build up beneath the house clatter together, and they sound like bones.  Or voices.

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And I won’t go any further than that, because to do so would ruin the Kingsian journey and that aggravatingly persistent – but still enjoyable – feeling that you, the reader, are being inexorably driven toward something you’re not entirely sure you want to discover. It actually reminded me very much of Pet Sematary in that way – another story of family, those we’re bound to by blood and those by choice, and the grim decisions we’re forced to make to preserve those bonds.  Also ghosts, the discovery of a late-in-life mentor type, middle-of-the-night visits from should-be-dead people, a sassy, prescient old person, and endless marches through claustrophobic underbrush.

Also a lot of Surrealism – of the artistic variety, although I think that’s a pretty apt descriptor for the entirety of Duma Key.  I definitely felt like my head had been messed with a trifle after I finished the book, a comfortably uncomfortable feeling that lets you know you’ve really discovered something special.  Very enjoyable, even if I “Whuuuuuuu?”‘d the ending hard.  Wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel if the final pages didn’t leave you deeply perplexed, I suppose.