This Week, I Read… (2021 #14)

#38 – A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson

  • Mount TBR: 36/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Everything I have to say about this book is negative, but somehow I feel that’s appropriate, as nearly everything Bryson has to say in the book is negative.

He doesn’t really seem to like or even get along with his primary hiking companion. He meets a few stand-up people along the way–other hikers or the proprietors of charming guesthouses and such–but seems to encounter horrible people far more often, and to spend far more time describing those meetings, because they’re presumably funnier or more interesting. He rants about rangers, about the park service, about the engineering corps. At times he comes off like an angry environmentalist who wants to be a Mountain Man, but shows himself at every opportunity diving right back into the arms of consumerism quite gleefully.

Other reviewers who like this book better claim that’s the joke, that he’s an amateur with lofty ambitions who is including himself in all of this idealistic mockery. But I never got the joke. I never laughed at all reading this, not once. Bryson’s presumed self-deprecation never seemed as deliberate or biting as the attacks he made on his companion, or the laughably over- or under-prepared hikers he met, or whichever public service organization had piqued his ire at the moment. Honestly, those aspects of the book just read to me like he was a bully. Tone matters, and I appreciate snark, but this wasn’t snark to me, it was just plain mean.

In addition, reading this book more than twenty years after its publication makes his attitude towards technology, given near the end, seem silly and quaint. I have no idea how cellular service is on the AT these days, but that story at the very end of the book, when he and Katz get separated overnight? Probably could have been cleared up pretty quickly with cell phones. Instead he spends a few pages talking about all the ridiculous calls for “help” people had made with their shiny newfangled gizmos, but never once mentions any anecdotes about how having ready communication may have saved someone’s life–and I refuse to believe that even then, when cell phones weren’t an everyday item as they are now, that literally no one had ever called for help when they actually needed it. But mentioning those stories would undercut his “technology is bad, nature is good” narrative…

I think it’s time I stop reading Bryson’s books, because with each one, I like them less and less.

#39 – Ice Cream Lover, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 37/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It was fine, but I wished I liked it better than I did.

My stylistic complaints with Lau’s works from earlier in the series haven’t changed here: everything is laid out plainly with no real subtlety, and the lead characters will both tell the reader precisely how they’re feeling during internal monologue. I’m never going to be excited about that much telling.

But here, it felt worse somehow, maybe because both leads were dealing with a lot of deep issues and the treatment of them felt too slick, too easy, because of the plain style. Drew’s insecurities get cleared up with a single, almost unbelievably fulfilling talk with his ex, and Chloe’s dynamic with her father is solved pretty much the same way, and then poof! they’re both ready for a happily ever after. Their problems both seemed more serious than Josh’s and Sarah’s from the previous novel, but everything is solved just as easily.

I liked the emphasis on family. I liked the foodie talk, to a point, but I’m definitely tired of the phrase “ice cream sandwich.” I’m exceptionally glad for the actual inclusion of the word “bisexual” to describe Chloe, because I often have to lament the ways authors will contort themselves in order to have a multi-gender-attracted character without having to label them as anything. I do think her bisexuality was incidental to the story and not a significant part of her as a character, so I would have liked it to be more important, but bisexual people are not a monolith and we’re not all out there with flag pins at Pride rallies, there’s room in our representation for characters whose queerness does not define everything about them. (This is more of a personal gripe than an indictment of the book, just because I find good bi rep so rarely, so I would have liked it to be more prominent. But it’s not wrong or bad or problematic as it stands.)

I’m definitely less impressed with this than The Ultimate Pi Day Party, but with only one book to go in the series, I might as well finish it–after all, this wasn’t bad, just not as good.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: March 2021!

Yes, this is late. I had hoped to be back from hiatus before now, but I’ve been lacking the motivation. So I’m not really back yet, but sort of taking a stab at the idea of blogging again a little bit.

In March, I read exactly six books, a nearly historic low since I’ve began tracking in 2015. The only month lower? November 2015, when I only read three books while participating in my first NaNoWriMo in over a decade.

I did not write 50,000 words this past month, so that’s not an applicable excuse. (sigh)

On the plus side, they were the six books I had planned to read, so I did finish my March TBR. A few of those books did count for the bingo challenge, but I’m still only hovering on the edge of a second bingo–I’m two books away across several lines on the board. Progress on this is definitely going to slow down now that I have so many fewer spaces, since I’m still not choosing books to match the prompts.

As for writing, well, I journaled some, and I wrote a few book reviews, and that’s basically it. I haven’t had any real motivation for fiction writing since I called the end of the #rockstarnovel2 draft. It’s pretty clear to me now that I’m suffering burnout. My possible, “I’m thinking about this but haven’t actually done it yet” plan to deal with that is to write, in complete and total privacy, the most ridiculously indulgent fantasy/romance/whatever thing I can think of, promising myself that I will never share any of it with literally anyone, not even a single line out of context, so that I have absolute permission to write anything I want.

It’s appealing, but I haven’t started yet. Today I made myself tackle two book reviews and now, this belated post.

One thing I have been keeping up with is my needlepoint project, which I have been working on diligently every day (at least a little bit) since I started just before New Year’s. This picture was taken on April 7th, and since I last showed it off, you can now see the text I added to the top of the piece! That’s a thing I do with kits to personalize them. So I’m pleased about that, because a) it’s going to look amazing when I finish it and frame it and hang it on my gallery wall (which I have to reorganize anyway); b) I’m still genuinely enjoying the craft itself, which I wasn’t sure I would, because I learned needlepoint as a kid but have rarely done it since, and never with a project so big; and c) because I have stuck to doing at least one happy fun thing daily, if it’s not reading or writing, at least it’s crafting. Crafting is giving me all the dopamine right now.

I’m not going to set firm goals for April, and I’m not going to promise myself (or you, for that matter) that I’ll get back to posting again regularly. I want to try, but I also want to be free to not do it if I don’t have anything worth saying, which has been a big, big mood lately. There are other things I want to do, and that’s okay.

I really do want to read more again, and enjoy reading more, so I will at least try to keep up with the weekly reviews. I only missed one week, which isn’t so bad…

Take care of yourselves, everybody. That’s what I’m trying to do for myself.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #13)

#36 – Virtual Light, by William Gibson

  • Mount TBR: 34/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Three strikes and you’re out, I don’t really know why I keep trying with Gibson. I read Neuromancer in college, and while understanding it was a pioneer, thought other more recent cyberpunk novels were better in pretty much every way. A few years later, for some unknown reason I tried Idoru, and I hated it, and it solidified my belief that Gibson was far too fond of sentence fragments and apparently terrified of including verbs.

I found this novel for pennies at a used bookshop, and I can only plead temporary insanity for buying it in order to try again to like Gibson. DNF @ page 70, though at least there were verbs–I have no major complaints about the writing style itself, which has so far been a sticking point with me.

I’m genuinely not sure what’s more to blame, though, in standing between me and possibly enjoying this story. By 20% in, where I gave up, there’s barely any plot to speak of; I only know that the two main characters are going to meet up and have adventures together with the stolen tech one of them lifted from a rich dude based on the back-cover blurb. They hadn’t met and the secondary main character (a woman) has gotten remarkably little screen time compared to the main-main character (a man.) So there’s that.

But then, there’s just something inherently silly to me about reading a novel in 2021 that was published in 1993 but is about the dystopian future in 2005. Obviously history didn’t happen this way, but even the “future” is badly dated, and who sets their near-future vision only twelve years out? I couldn’t take it seriously, but that’s not really the book’s fault, is it? That’s just the passing of time.

On the other hand, I was bored by all that detail about how the world and society was falling apart, when I could have been having story happen instead. So if the world-building is getting in the way of the plot, isn’t that a problem whether the details themselves are interesting or not?

It’s all me being philosophical with myself anyway, because I didn’t enjoy what I did read and I won’t finish it. I’m over my cyberpunk years, and if I ever do want to get back into it, I’ll read authors I already trust instead of repeatedly trying to make myself like this one, just because he did it first.

#37 – A Hero to Keep, by Susan Gable

  • Mount TBR: 35/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

From a structural perspective, I see how this all fits together: there are character arcs for each lead, a romance arc for them together, a “getting past trauma” arc for the kid that leads into a “now we’re a family” ending.

So it’s not lacking anything in terms of plot, but somehow through the whole thing, I was never moved. Maybe Shannon’s cold/distant attitude at the beginning never really lifted and cast a pall over everything else for me; maybe I never fully invested in the “fight” they were fighting to work things out.

Despite clocking in at over 200 pages, though, I actually feel like parts of this were rushed–Greg and Shannon leap into physical intimacy much earlier than I expected, even if that first encounter doesn’t get horizontal. I never really felt their chemistry, so seeing them get all passionate out of basically nowhere was a sour note, and as the story progressed, it kept getting sourer, because they were supposed to not form a romantic or sexual relationship for reasons, but the story would have me believe that they were just too hot for each other to let that stop them. No, I don’t believe you, story, they’ve got no zing to speak of.

This was a freebie I picked up ages ago by a new-to-me author, and I finally got to it, and it’s just so-so. Not going to continue the series, can’t particularly recommend this for any standout feature, it’s just functional and kind of dry.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #12)

#34 – The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Mount TBR: 33/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Has a map
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As a longtime Kay fan who is finally working through some more of his back catalog, I could say about this novel nearly everything I said about A Song for Arbonne when I read it late last year. Sweepingly epic. Potentially as good as Tigana, my first Kay novel and a very high water mark to meet. Will probably reward rereading multiple times.

I do think this might edge out Arbonne for grandiose levels of tragedy, though. While the epilogue does show us happy endings for a small subset of the large cast of characters here, it’s definitely bittersweet at best. What is it about the fall of nations that inspires and fascinates this author so much?

But I was captivated by these characters as individuals, I think more readily than any other Kay work I’ve read since Tigana. I constantly felt the push and pull of the shifting loyalties and the duties each person bore to their faith, their country, and the people in their immediate circle. It was so complicated at times that I truly wasn’t sure how things would play out, not in the way that I felt like I was purposefully being kept in the dark–the subtle clues are undoubtedly there for me to catch next time, that I missed this time. But I appreciated the sense of surprise and uncertainty.

Also, I was crying buckets of tears pretty frequently throughout the final hundred pages, so yeah, I fell in love with these characters.

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the three major religions of the setting, being obviously analogous to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are a primary source of conflict throughout the story, without adding much flavor to the world itself. They’re little more than fancy labels to attach to a character to explain why they’re treated a certain way, or why they treat someone else as they do; the strictures and taxes imposed on the Jewish analogue are mentioned repeatedly, but nothing of their faith as a culture, and even less is said about the other two in that sense. I’m aware enough of the history this is based on to fill in some gaps myself, but I would have appreciated more richness to the text about it.

#35 – Unquiet Land, by Sharon Shinn

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Lost royalty
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A lackluster end to a subpar series. I’ve been a fan of Shinn for just over two decades now, and for me Elemental Blessings can’t stand up to either Samaria (my overall favorite) or The Twelve Houses (which contains my single favorite novel of hers but isn’t quite as good throughout.)

But I’m not reviewing the whole series here, just this last installment. And it’s not even as good as the earlier novels, which I didn’t think were particularly great. I basically finished this out of loyalty.

So, first: I cannot recommend the audiobook, I strongly disliked the narrator. There’s always a risk with fantasy or sci-fi that the speaker isn’t going to pronounce the made-up names the way you/I think they should be pronounced, and this time around it was a constant irritation to me. (“Zoe,” however, actually is a real name, and hearing it pronounced it “Zoh,” one syllable, was like being flicked in the forehead every time, mildly painful and immensely annoying. There were others, but this was the worst.) Also, I found the insertion of accents that don’t exist in the text, in order to differentiate characters from each other, to be actively harmful to the story, with a subtle air of racism to it. The “noble” or otherwise rich foreigners got highbrow, vaguely British accents; the Welchin guards and traders, ie, working-class folks, got vaguely Irish accents; the love interest, also a foreigner, got what I can only reasonably describe as an incredibly plodding, nearly monotone pan-African accent that I couldn’t possibly assign to any one of the hundreds of languages it might have been supposed to emulate. I wouldn’t have liked this book anyway–I’ll get to the story issues in a moment–but the narration definitely made the book worse for me.

Okay, second, the story. Also plodding, for most of its runtime, as there were very little stakes to anything for the first two acts, and a great deal of that time was spent on the minutiae of running a high-end imports shop. I think some of it was necessary, of course, but there was just too much of it, and rather than making me appreciate the hard work of being a shopkeeper (as this shop was backed by the royal coffers and didn’t need to make a profit,) I simply feel like the author was indulging in a love of describing very pretty things for their own sake. I like pretty things myself, but this felt overly repetitious.

(You know, I’m noticing that the worse I think a book is, the more adverbs I end up using in the review. I have to make sure everyone understands that the story wasn’t just repetitive but “overly repetitious,” etc. I’m not going to edit any of them out, but I bet if I go back and read a sampling of my other one- and two-star reviews, I’ll find the same thing.)

Even setting the pace aside, there are issues. The new culture/country/people that are introduced as the villains here aren’t just different, aren’t just bad in mundane ways, they are actively horrible and Evil with a Capital E, and in case you weren’t sure that their “extreme” view on morality was the wrong one, oh wait, they’re also vampires. Not in the magical creature sense, but it’s a Rich Person Thing for them to drink human blood. There’s simply no subtlety to it, and also I had put the clues together far earlier than the story finally revealed it, which made the slow grind toward the characters figuring it out boring.

Our heroine Leah has her arc from “I abandoned my child because I wasn’t ready to be a mother” to “everything’s fine and I’m a mom now” basically handed to her on a silver platter, because Mally is an improbably perfect child who accepts her without the slightest hesitation, never displays any real trauma or lasting effects from her unusual upbringing, never throws a tantrum or misbehaves in any way, and is a preternaturally wise and powerful child. Leah herself doesn’t really have to do much to make their new relationship work, because Mally is so perfect. Even her future non-romantic relationship to the child’s father pretty much sorts itself out without a lot of input from her. Shouldn’t Leah have to do something? Anything at all?

And the romance. Um, what romance? I’ve never felt less chemistry between the leads in any Sharon Shinn novel I’ve ever read. Yeah, some of their story is back in Jeweled Fire, which I did only read once, and several years ago, so I don’t remember it perfectly. But here, in this book, the romance is “Hey, I really missed you.” “Hey, I really missed you too, but I have this exceptionally dark past and I don’t deserve love.” “Hey, maybe let’s talk about that?” “Okay, we talked, things are still weird but now let’s bang.” And then suddenly at the end of the story there are high stakes that come out of nearly nowhere and baffled me with how quickly they have to be set up, and then how painlessly it’s all resolved.

So disappointing.

Should I stop reading new Sharon Shinn books and just revisit her earlier, stronger series when I need a comfort read? And now that I’ve spent all these hundreds of words exploring all my frustrations with this book, do I think it’s bad enough that it’s actually only worth one star? Hmm. No, I generally have to hate a book or not be able to finish it at all to give it one star, so I guess this can keep its two. But I’m giving Shinn’s newest series the side-eye and thinking that maybe I should just not read it.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #11)

#32 – Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

  • Mount TBR: 31/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Nonbinary protagonist
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I am a cis white woman more than twice as old as the trans protagonist in this story. I have never doubted my gender identity in any meaningful way–when I see the memes about how girls who had a “tomboy” phase are all now either trans men, lesbians, or nonbinary, I shrug and say, “I’m bi, does that count?”

I’ve always thought my tomboy phase was not a rejection of my essential girlhood (whatever that means) but the terrible ’80s fashion imposed upon me by the society who created it, and my parents, who had no option but to clothe me in it. I still remember, with horror, some of the dresses I had to wear to church every Sunday.

Even my rejection now of some of the typical standards of feminine beauty are more about the cost (be it money or time) to maintain those standards. I’ve never had my nails done or my eyebrows waxed, I currently own no makeup because when I’ve flirted with it in the past I’ve never liked the hassle (or my lack of skill with it because I can’t be bothered to watch eighteen tutorials just to put on eyeliner.)

I say all this as a lead-in to this book review in order to establish that I am in no way, shape, or form the target audience, or someone who has experienced more than the merest sliver of this struggle. And yet, somehow, I still found it relatable in many ways, which I consider to be a triumph of the storytelling.

Some of the gender and sexuality issues brush up against similar things I’ve experienced on the road to figuring out my own bisexuality. Some of the growing pains the characters undergo feel a lot like the thoughts I was having as a teenager myself, no matter how different the various pieces of my identity are. And most of all, this captured the roller-coaster ride of personal drama and love-related woes that was my experience from when I started dating. I, too, have tried to go out with someone I only kind of liked, or convinced myself I could like, when I thought I couldn’t have someone else I was more interested in. I’ve never been in a full-blown love triangle centered on myself, but when one of my friends drew a schematic of the tangle of relationships our friend group in college underwent, we had to nickname it the “love dodecahedron” because it got so complicated.

So I got it, even if this wasn’t for or about someone like me.

All that being said, there were still issues I had. Because I’m the wrong generation, I’m not easy with all the underage drinking and all the pot smoking. I grew up during the War on Drugs, and while I’ve revised my views on marijuana in the legal sense (waaaaay too many people are in prison for it that shouldn’t be) I’m never going to be able to endorse kids lighting up constantly or getting drunk all the time. While I understand that writing about characters doing something isn’t the same as the author condoning it, there’s really no consequences in this to the teenagers drinking and smoking so much–it’s just presented as a fact of their life and basically okay behavior, and I’m not on board with that. (The constant swearing, which I’ve seen other reviews mention as excessive and off-putting, actually doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve always known people who swear as much or more, even as a teenager.)

My other issue is that no one had much characterization beyond their gender/sexuality struggles, and for a few of them, the constant labeling of their actions as “asshole” behavior, whether it was or not in reality. Okay, sure, Felix’s struggles are the central fact of the story, fine. But everyone else? Declan and Ezra both have similar rich-boy problematic backgrounds that do a little to inform their characters, but not that much, and everyone who populates their extended circle of friends is basically a name paired with a gender and sexuality assignment instead of a real person, and they talk accordingly. (Some of those “deep” conversations or arguments read like they came straight from Tumblr, and I say that with some affection because I’ve been on Tumblr for years, but still, that made them feel more like Very Special Messages than organic parts of the story or real things people might say to each other.)

Overall, it was good. I enjoyed it. It even made me cry a little once. But I found that being outside the age group, and only sharing the larger queer umbrella with these characters but not any more granular aspects of their identities, made the message a little more obvious and the flaws a little more perceptible.

#33 – Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

  • Mount TBR: 32/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book I forgot I had
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I have read a few books on the English language and its history. I’ve read even more about its foibles, its grammar and punctuation and general frustrations. I’ve even read a few books specifically about dictionary construction before, but this one takes the cake. (I wonder which subsense of “take” that idiom falls under? I’m sure Stamper could tell me, as that was one of her words, whose defining process was covered by an entire chapter.)

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud more when reading nonfiction, even through one of my many rereads of Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which I think is fair to say was my previous high-water mark for the intersection of humor and informativeness in nonfiction about language. Bits of clever wordplay, fantastically hilarious turns of phrase, and the occasional well-placed reference to The Simpsons, and I’m sold.

As for the information it contains, I knew some of it (as I said, I’m not new to nonfiction about dictionaries) but this was a far more modern and internal viewpoint than others I’ve read, by someone working in the field now and not merely presenting research done about the process or its history. There’s a bit of history here too–of all the chapters, the one about the history of dictionaries is the one I was probably least interested in, and my eyes might have glazed over once or twice–but the nitty-gritty, daily-life details of a lexicographer’s existence, presented with humor and energy, more than make up for one chapter of the book being a little dry.

This is a somewhat niche interest that I can’t recommend widely–it would bounce right off some readers with its jargon and specificity and attention to detail–but it’s a real treat for absolute word nerds like me.

Getting Serious About Series 2021: Update #1

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

Series Off My List in 2021

I feel good about my first-quarter progress on this, honestly. I’ve truly finished three series while only adding two new ones; I’ve kicked five potential series off the list by giving them a try and not enjoying them all that much. I’ve made progress on three more.

I had hoped to have another one crossed off the list by now, but I’ve read even less in March than I expected to, and I haven’t started the final book in the Elemental Blessings quartet yet. It’s high on my priorities list, though.

I keep looking at Preacher, sitting at one of nine, and thinking, should I tackle that this year? I’ve read enough graphic novels know I’m not a huge fan of the format, and they require a bit more mental work from me than reading plain text. And I’m aware the subject matter is, how should I say this?…intense. But it felt good to get through all of Saga, and all of the Sandman works, so it’s also on my radar.

Less controversial for me: I’m probably going to buy myself the fifth Memoirs of Lady Trent novel for my upcoming birthday, I’ve really been looking forward to that one.

I’ll check back in near the end of June with more progress!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #10)

#31 – Cards of Grief, by Jane Yolen

  • Mount TBR: 30/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

After skimming some other reviews to help me collect and organize my thoughts about this intriguing but mildly unsatisfying book, I see I’m far from the only one who got strong Ursula K. Le Guin vibes from the anthropological approach to science fiction displayed here.

I do think I’m maybe the only one (or at least one of a very few) to also feel like this is, in one aspect, reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay as well; most of my favorite works of his place a thematic emphasis on the intertwining of music/poetry and nostalgia/memory, so this fictional culture of memorializing the departed through art, turning mourning into a high calling, feels like an extension of his ideas taken to a sci-fi extreme.

I couldn’t help but like this, when it reminded me so strongly of two favorite authors, but that did mean I have less grasp on Yolen’s authorial voice itself. This is the first and only novel of hers I’ve ever heard of, and it came to me by random recommendation online; I’m somewhat surprised to see other reviewers alternately decrying this “first adult novel” of hers as poor compared to her works for younger readers, because I think this is really good!

But not entirely without flaw. I think the way she writes about sex in this culture is strong in some ways but weak in one in particular: the structure of both their fertility cycle and their political power leads inevitably to a very different attitude towards intercourse, which I think is great, but also there’s very little evidence of consent between the parties involved. The Queen summons men to her who are basically compelled to go, and it’s implied they’re not always willing; and then in one specific instance of another issue, a man tells of a time when he takes a younger man to bed as a “punishment,” and while it’s not couched with the sort of brutality the word “rape” often brings to mind, both the age difference and the power imbalance (prince and farm boy, basically) imply that the younger man simply could not have said no, but he didn’t really say yes, either.

From an anthro/sci-fi standpoint, I understand that fictional cultures can have other attitudes towards sex and consent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable to read at times when their attitudes conflict with my moral compass, and I think the text could have done more to acknowledge the issue, rather than skating by it quickly whenever it comes up, and having the human visitors fail to notice or comment on it (even among themselves, because they wouldn’t bring it up to the aliens because of a non-interference directive.)

My other issue is actually the ending, the very final chapter, and without spoiling things, I just didn’t grok it, to borrow a term from another bit of classic sci-fi. In some ways it’s a departure from the message of the rest of the book, and ultimately for me it didn’t feel like it was enough to wrap up the story. I wouldn’t want this book to be padded out with filler, but even so, it could have been longer, and gone a little deeper into the culture, explained a bit more, and taken more time at the end to finish the story. I’m finding it difficult to explain what I mean, to describe exactly how I feel unsatisfied by it, because sometimes I’m able to detail quite well what I found lacking in a piece of media. (My husband and I spent half an hour last night pulling apart the weaknesses we found in the series finale of a certain show we’ve been watching lately, and neither of us had any trouble identifying the problem spots.) But here, I’m left with a vague sense of unfinished-ness, and that’s detracting from my appreciation of the rest of the book, which I found so interesting.

Down the TBR Hole #40

Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide: keep it or let it go?

My owned-and-unread book total is down to 136! And most of that is digital, finally, I had a serious “bought too many books at library bag sales” problem for a few years. However, my master TBR is still hovering in the mid 400’s, and I’m sure not all of those books need to be on the list anymore. What can I do about that today?

#1 – Dance with Me, by Alexis Daria

I don’t specifically remember adding this to the list, but based on the last book examined last month, and the next few up for debate, odds are this came from a recommendation list, because it’s a bunch of titles I don’t really remember adding, but I added them all on the same day.

Rereading the blurb: ummm there are some red flags. Everything about the plot listed there is screaming “flawed power dynamics”: he’s a judge on the reality show she stars in, she’s living with him in an emergency on the condition they won’t get horizontal, he pushes her for more anyway.

I must not have looked too closely at this when I added it, because it’s also the second book in a series and I didn’t add the first instead. Scanning the reviews, many people liked this book, but most of the ones who didn’t loved the first one and found this disappointing. (A few middling or poor reviews also validate my squeamishness about the power issues.) This can go.

#2 – Empty Nests, by Ada Maria Soto

M/M romance, I wasn’t expecting that, since my treacherous memory forgot all about this book.

Reviews warned me of an abrupt cliffhanger ending, so the first order of business to find out if the conclusion has been published. It has, which means I’m not automatically setting myself up for an unfinished story.

However, looking into the second book as well, a lot of readers seemed disappointed by the latter half of the story, and this isn’t a situation where I’m okay with reading one but not the other.

Maybe it’s nitpicky, too, but this cover? Most of it’s fine, but those bumper stickers are so obviously fake, poorly integrated into what’s otherwise a decent Photoshop job. As soon as I noticed, I couldn’t un-see it, and now when I look at that cover they’re like flashing neon lights grabbing my attention. This can also go.

#3 – Her Perfect Affair, by Priscilla Oliveras

Once again I’ve added a not-first-in-series book, and some of its reviews say that it really can’t be read as a standalone, because they tried, and it seemed like at least some of the romance was dependent on setup/events from the first book.

So this title goes, but should I replace it with His Perfect Partner instead and give the series opener a try?

Okay, looking into it…

No, no, I don’t need to read either one. There are red flags aplenty in the reviews, even the good ones, that are telling me to stay away, based on tropes I already know I don’t care for, writing-style issues, and various other minor complaints that add up to me not being interested. This can go without replacement.

#4 – Pride, by Ibi Zoboi

Well, this one’s easy. It goes.

I added this before I tried (for the third time) to read Pride & Prejudice, and at least that time I did finally finish the book.

But I’m not a fan, and I don’t need to subject myself to any type of retelling, no matter how the cultural context has been changed.

I’m glad it exists for the people who want it, but you could retell P&P with Muppets, my favorite thing in the world, and I still probably wouldn’t want to experience it, so this is in no way the fault of the book itself, just my total lack of appreciation for the source material. I got through it on the third attempt, but I had to make myself finish and that frustration would shadow my experience reading any reworked version.

#5 – Stripped, by Zoey Castile

Okay, a rom-com that starts off with a dry-cleaning mix-up between two neighbors, a teacher and a stripper? Yeah, I see why I added this, it’s got “hilarious premise” written all over it, and sometimes I’m in the mood for an unusual concept.

But what do the reviews think?

There are a few DNFs and a few “I finished it but barely” one-star ratings, but on the whole, readers really seem to dig this one, and I’ll admit, I’m intrigued by the idea of peeking beyond the muscular stage persona of a male stripper. I don’t know if there’s enough of that type of hero out there to have their own profession-based subgenre like cops and firefighters and CEOs, but I think I’d like to give it a try.

Bonus: it’s available in ebook and audiobook from my library. This stays! (Wow, I finally kept one this month!)

#6 – The Victoria in My Head, by Janelle Milanes

Let’s get this out of the way: great title, terrible cover.

But I’ve read plenty of good books with bad covers before, so let’s see if I can recapture whatever interest made me put this on the list in the first place. (This is the last title that came from that recommendation list, based on the date I added it.)

Clearly the rock-star vibe and aspirations of the main character. But somehow I managed to miss that this is YA, and let me tell you, YA has been disappointing me enough lately that I think it’s my age showing. That’s not this novel’s fault, but between my growing lack of connection to that age group and its fiction, and the red flags of “instalove” and “great at music with basically no practice and no explanation,” I think it’s safe to give this a pass. Clearly it’s right for other people, but not for me.

#7 – A Land So Wild, by Elyssa Warkentin

I didn’t remember this by the cover–which is pretty but not particularly informative. I don’t remember where I came across this title, and possibly never will.

But once I reread the blurb, I went, oh yeah, highly praised m/m historical fiction about sailing to find a lost ship that was looking for the Northwest Passage.

I’m still 100% sold on this. Glad this purging exercise reminded me it existed!

I’ve read about this subject, this period of history, before in both fiction and nonfiction forms, but the fictional ones didn’t have two guys falling in love, so this will be new in that respect, and hopefully wonderful.

#8 – Elevation, by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King.

So I added this right around the time of its publication, just on the strength of the author, without actually reading the blurb. Once I did read it just now, I thought, “Hmm, this seems weird but not in a good way.”

The reviews are all across the spectrum, as they always are with any widely-read author’s novels, because you can’t please everyone all the time, and more specifically because King has gone in so many different directions over the course of his career that even his Constant Readers aren’t going to like every book.

But there’s a big, huge, giant red flag on this one that some reviews hid behind spoiler tags and others did not. Because this is still a relatively new release of King’s, I’m not going to say myself what that red flag is, but it’s enough that I think I can skip this one. As always, I’ve got enough of King’s backlog on my shelves (as well as a few I don’t own that made the cut last month) that I don’t have to read everything the man has ever written.

#9 – The Power, by Naomi Alderman

For once, I know exactly how I came across a title and why I added it. I follow Maggie Steifvater’s reviews on Goodreads, though she only posts them rarely, and only when she thinks a book is outstanding. Since I’m a fan of her work, I listen. And that’s how The Power ended up on my list.

Since then, however, I’ve lost my taste for dystopias for their own sake (gee, I wonder why?) I’m far less inclined to read that genre overall, and this apparently new “feminist” take on the concept appears to have horseshoed itself so far around that many of the reviews I skimmed believe the book is anti-feminist.

I acknowledge this could be a great book that I might love if I actually did read it–some people obviously do–but wow, do I just not have the energy or interest necessary right now to give it a try. This can go.

#10 – The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

When I read The Nightingale and loved it (5-star rating!) despite being burned out on war fiction in general and especially on WWII-era stories, I knew I had to read more by the author. I haven’t yet, but The Great Alone was her new release at the time, so on the list it went.

Most of that reasoning still holds true, and she’s got another book out more recently that I’ve been hearing great things about. So I’m inclined to keep this around without further investigation.

Still, I reread the blurb anyway, and a friend’s glowing review, and yeah, I’m keeping this on the list. It’s odd, in some ways, the premise reminds me a lot of The Shining, despite obviously not being the same story (and also not being horror,) but I dig the isolationist vibes it’s giving off. I may not get to it anytime soon–still chugging through the backlog of books I own–but it sounds promising, and that’s enough for now.

So I cut more than average, this month, with 7/10 getting the axe. I’m okay with that, though, given that over half of these books came from a single recommendation list, and I’ve just got to be better in the future about adding books willy-nilly when I’m only a little interested. Rec lists are great, but they’re not mandates, I don’t have to read everything on them!

As always, if you’ve got a different opinion on any of these titles and want to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. With that, let’s set my TBR aside for another month, to see how much progress I can make on it and how few new books I can add to it!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #9)

#28 – One Bed for Christmas, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 27/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: From my 2020 backlist TBR (first bingo achieved!)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It sets out to be cute and succeeds admirably, but it takes a lot of shortcuts to culminate a friends-to-lovers scenario that has a backstory over a decade long, which we only see the very beginning of. But the story leans hard on that first meeting and doesn’t do much to sketch in what happened in the twelve years between, relying on telling us that Wes has been in love all that time without going into their dynamics.

There’s a lot of telling anyway, because this is structured in a dual first-person POV format, so we’re treated to both Wes’ and Caitlin’s internal monologue. There isn’t all that much time to really differentiate their voices, but in a novella, I wouldn’t expect in-depth character studies. I think the overall tone of the narrative is relatively simplistic because of it, they really do just say how they’re feeling (to us as readers, if not always to each other) and it’s not terrible, but I guess I wanted a little less transparency and a little more showing through body language, tone of voice, etc.

I got this as part of the complete series bundle, and I like it well enough to keep going, to see if expanding the stories to full-novel-length fixes some of the issues I had with the writing.

#29 – The Ultimate Pi Day Party, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 28/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Coming to this straight from the novella that’s first in the series, I had hopes for better character development with more space to let them grow, and I got it.

I also had hopes that the writing style might not be as straightforward–if there’s more length to allow for it, there might be room for more subtlety–but the narrative relies heavily on both leads doing internal monologue like they’re dictating a diary. If that’s just a hallmark of Lau’s style, I’ll deal with it, but I prefer characters who don’t simply state their relevant feelings every two pages.

That being said, the story here is strong. It sidesteps issues of power dynamics (as their relationship starts out as business) by putting consent up front in every romantic or sexual encounter; while focused on the romance, it also touches on the difficulties of making friends or maintaining friendships as adults; it presents an abortion-related backstory for one character in an even-handed, non-judgmental way.

I was impressed with the overall plot and I liked both Josh and Sarah. I’m happy with the inclusion of queer side characters, especially as I know one of them later gets her own novel (since I bought the bundle I have the whole series, yay!) If my biggest complaint is a simplistic style, plus the minor complaint of “yes, I’m a foodie, but even I don’t need to hear about pie quite this much”…well, that’s still a pretty good book. Looking forward to the next one.

#30 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

  • Mount TBR: 29/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A novel that stretches the conventional idea of what a “novel” is in interesting ways, which I give it credit for. It combines philosophy, politics, and story in a structure not at all based on linear time, and the author/narrator takes frequent breaks from the plot to expound his thoughts on life, sex, women, the Bible and religion in general.

Honestly, I should have hated it, especially because the central character is a sex-obsessed womanizer and the larger part of the plot (what little “plot” there is) focuses on infidelity. There’s a multi-layered irony to Tomas, who wrote what turned out to be a politically inflammatory letter to the editor, based on the story of Oedipus, that boils down to “There is no excuse possible for wrongdoing, even in innocence.” Yet he constantly commits wrongs and the whole story seems to be him making excuses for himself, exploring how he structures his worldview in order to continue living as he wants to live.

Meanwhile, at times Kundera as author/narrator takes time to explore the obvious artificiality of his own characters, being critical of them and pointing out that they are all, in some way, extensions of himself that have crossed the boundary between “I” and something else, something different.

Even though I find many of the quasi-moral/philosophical motifs put forth by this work to be disagreeable–even a charitable interpretation of this still leaves women as little more than sex objects, if not in Tomas’ mind specifically, then in the structure of the work itself–I did find it interesting how the narrative presented its ideas. In the end, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I liked it either, but it’s not a book I ever wanted to throw out the window before running to the internet screaming, “How do people even like this? What is redeemable about it?” as I sometimes am tempted to by various classics or extremely popular/hyped modern works.

Though ultimately, if I met someone new and we got to talking about books, if I asked “What’s your favorite book of all time?” and they answered with this title, I’d give them the side-eye and wonder if that’s because they like experimental novel structure married to bizarre philosophy, or because they think sex-obsessed Tomas is some kind of wounded or misunderstood or even aspirational hero.

This Month’s TBR: March 2021

  1. Something from my 2018 backlist: Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  2. A book that continues an ongoing series (with priority to finishing a series): Unquiet Land, by Sharon Shinn
  3. A book from my backlist by a new-to-me author: Cards of Grief, by Jane Yolen
  4. Nonfiction (if I have any outstanding): Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper
  5. Any other physical book in my collection, especially if I don’t think I’m going to keep it: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
  6. Any book I own I’m excited about, regardless of when I got it: Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

I nearly didn’t finish my February plan, because I could not seem to find the motivation to start The Tommyknockers, and when I finally did, it validated my hesitation with how uninteresting it was. I’m solving that problem this month by tackling #5 first, as Unbearable Lightness strikes me as one of those hyped/classic/made-into-a-movie books that I’m either going to adore to pieces or hate with a passion. If it’s the former, why not give it a try right away, and if it ends up being the latter, might as well chuck it sooner rather than later, right?

Unquiet Land isn’t pictured because I’m going to have to sign up for an Audible trial period to get access to it, as none of my many ways of using the library can get it to me. Why not pay for it? While I love Sharon Shinn in general, I feel this is one of her weaker series, and once I’m finished with it, I may actually donate the first three books, which I do own. So it seems silly to shell out for a hardcover I already doubt I’ll keep (there’s no paperback release) and I’m not buying it digitally for basically the same reason, even if it is cheaper that way. I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground for a used copy but none are turning up (which doesn’t surprise me if it wasn’t popular enough to get a paperback version.)

The rest of the list is a pretty mixed bag of genres and we’ll see how many of them turn out for me, but isn’t that always the way?

As I said in last month’s wrap-up, I’m super busy in March and making time for reading might be difficult, so I’m not even thinking much beyond this tiny (for me) TBR. If I get to other stuff, great, but this is the focus, this is the goal.