This Week, I Read… (2020 #20)

73 - First Frost

#73 – First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen

  • Read: 5/21/20 – 5/22/20
  • Mount TBR: 69/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read Garden Spells all the way back in 2016, and I haven’t reread it since, though now I definitely want to. I remember it being sweet and comforting and blessedly easy to read. Being me, I was mildly concerned that I wasn’t going to remember what happened well enough to dive back into world with its sequel nearly four years later with no refresher, but that didn’t end up mattering. The exact details of the plot that matter are reincorporated, and the time frame leaps forward by a decade, so it was smooth sailing all the way.

This is proof that the stakes don’t need to be high to make a piece of media engaging–no one’s in danger, the world doesn’t need saving, and aside from one teenage fistfight there’s no action to speak of. But when you care about the characters, you want to keep turning pages to find out what’s going to happen to them, and that’s how I ended up reading from page 93 to the end in one sitting this morning. I wanted to see if Bay and Josh had a chance of working out. I wanted to know when Claire was going to figure out what was wrong with her career choices and how to fix them. I wanted to know if Sydney was going to come clean with her husband about the change in their dynamic. (I’d say I wanted to know who Mariah’s new best friend was, but I figured that out really quickly, and I was right. But hey, I’m not reading a novel like this for big plot twists or surprises.)

I went into this wanting more Garden Spells, and that’s exactly what I got, and I’m extremely happy with that.

The Necessary Beggar

#74 – The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick

  • Read: 5/22/20 – 5/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 70/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a yellow cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

For a random freebie I got from the Tor newsletter, I was surprised how much I liked this, because freebies are always hit or miss, you download them because they’re there!

But it was far from great, and while many elements in this strange sci-fi/magical realism/slice of life mashup were interesting and moving, many were too strange to fit or downright harmful.

The central “plot”–and it’s pretty loose, structurally–is supposed to be this amazing love story, this recreation in human flesh of a myth, that sends a message about the power of love and forgiveness, and also provides catharsis. But notice how I didn’t include “romance” in the mashup listing? Because not one of the love stories contained in the book, spread across the members of a large family, felt authentic, and one had a strong abusive dynamic (the aunt and uncle) while the young adults (the daughter and her American boyfriend) were downright creepy. I never felt like they were in love, although I know I’m not supposed to think she was in love with him because for a long time she wasn’t, but his love is so obvious and forthright that at first it seems pure, but then gets twisted by the necessities of the plot into a semi-coerced marriage, and that was just ALL KINDS OF WRONG to me. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t beautiful, it didn’t feel good after everything else the book had heaped on the daughter’s shoulders.

So what did I like about this book? The strong emphasis on familial love and loyalty, the richness of the fictional culture the family comes from, the culture clash in the early parts of the book when the children are adapting but the adults are struggling. (Part of me feels like it’s a cop-out to explore the immigrant experience in America with an entirely fictional culture when there are so many interesting ones right here in our own dimension, but at the same time, sci-fi has always been a lens through which to examine humanity, and by using a fictional culture the [white] author isn’t co-opting a real culture not her own. Yes, this was written in 2005 and I shouldn’t expect it to be up to today’s levels of “woke” but as I was reading I really wasn’t sure if this was a great idea or a lazy one. After finishing I’m still not sure. Of course, the central conceit of the story is based on a fictional myth, so I guess practically speaking it had to be a fictional culture to go with it…)

In the end, I didn’t like the ending. It was obvious to me long before then what was going on, and while that’s not me demanding some big twist–I’m not, I swear–I didn’t feel satisfied to be right, when I got to the incredibly predictable ending. After all the emotion I had built up for (some of) these characters, it did feel like a letdown. So it’s an interesting blast from the recent past that I probably never would have read if it hadn’t been a freebie, simply because I probably never would have heard of it. But my thoughts on it are too mixed, my reaction too “meh” by the end, to call this a hidden gem that I should recommend to everyone.

75 - Room

#75 – Room, by Emma Donoghue

  • Read: 5/24/20 – 5/25/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with the major theme of survival
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics
  • Mount TBR: 71/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The book that I started last night and felt absolutely compelled to read straight through to the end became, this morning when I finished it, a dreary slog that didn’t satisfy the questions it raised in the beginning.

Seriously, this did not pay off its premise.

So many other reviewers, now that I’ve finished the book and skimmed some of the reviews, hated Jack’s narration and listed in detail why, all the quirks and odd word choice and Capitalization; and I feel that, but I also feel that the situation he was in explained it all adequately, and any annoyance I felt at the style was overwhelmed by interest in the story. I was hooked. It was horrible and gripping and I wanted to know what was going to happen and how they were going to escape and what would become of them afterward.

The escape itself is thin. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but I’ll give it a pass because at least it wasn’t belabored. Ma thought of it, explained it, Jack got scared and whined, but he did it, and it didn’t take more than a handful of pages to get through.

Once they’re both back in the real world, though? The book completely fell apart, because as interesting as it might be to see from Jack’s own perspective how he deals with an environment he’s never known–the whole world–by focusing on that the book almost completely ignores Ma’s struggles with reintegration. Her attempted suicide feels more like an excuse for the narrative to force Jack to deal with someone else for a change than it does a consequence of her precarious mental health. I wasn’t interested in seeing Jack go to the mall with his aunt and uncle, I wanted to see Ma’s recovery.

There’s plenty of disturbing things in this book on the surface, but I’m walking away from it with some equally disturbing thoughts about motherhood, because not only does Ma repeatedly imply or outright state that Jack’s life is more important than hers, the narrative seems to think so too, focusing narrowly on Jack’s pain and Jack’s struggles while his mother suffers in the background, almost entirely off-screen, and all in support of furthering Jack’s story. It’s not exactly the same as being fridged, but in many ways it echoes that harmful trope, and I don’t care for it.

#76 – Bound to be a Groom, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 5/25/20 – 5/26/20
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I read the prequel novella earlier this year, and despite it having some major flaws, I enjoyed it as a fluffy, “don’t think about it too hard” erotic romance. The premise of the first novel in the series still interested me, so here I am.

This was equally good, which is to say, equally bad. The historical and political aspects of the plot may be accurate, for all I know, but they weren’t interesting, and they weren’t a major enough part of the story to even be worth investing in. They were, at best, a skeletal framework on which to hang the notion of four people having a lot of licentious, semi-forbidden sex.

The bulk of the story was the sex, as tends to happen with erotic romance of course, but even for the genre this was stretching the “romance” aspect, because in two hundred pages four people have to forge several “love” relationships and one notable “we can have sex with the same people but no way no how with each other” dynamic.

Everything felt thin and rushed because there simply wasn’t time for anything more to develop. And to be honest, the sex scenes themselves were only so-so. I’ve read better, I’ve read worse. But if the entire point of the novel is the sex, shouldn’t it be better than so-so?

I gave the author a second shot, but I will not waste time on a third.

#77 – Melting Steel, by C.M. Seabrook

  • Read: 5/26/20 – 5/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 72/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I had a running list in my head of all the small issues I had with this book throughout the first half, many of them being related to needing a better editor. (Two different people were wearing “sequenced” dresses. Don’t let auto-correct write the story!)

But by the end, none of that matters, because this novel wouldn’t be any better for being perfectly proofread and presented. The heart of the problem is that the hero is a controlling and possessive man whose behavior crosses the line into abusive several times and the heroine is a pushover whiner with very little agency who lies back most of the time and lets the hero do whatever he wants–be that have sex with her, make her move in with him, have her followed whenever she leaves his apartment, runs a background check on her, forbids her from leaving later on when she tries to break off their relationship….

[The sex is always consensual, but often of the type that’s “I shouldn’t sleep with him for ALL OF THESE VERY GOOD REASONS but he’s just so hot and I’m just so weak-willed so I’ll let him convince me.” While I would consider much of the hero’s behavior abusive, there is no actual rape. And that’s about the best I can say about him.]

On top of that, the two of them fall in InstaLove, despite the only things they have in common being sex and trauma, since eventually it comes out that she’s half-sister to his dead best friend he feels guilty for not “saving” from her own mental health issues and eventual suicide. The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past made this impossible for me to read as anything beyond the hero “loving” the heroine because she reminded him of his lost friend, which is so gross.

The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past also spawn a ridiculously contrived suspense subplot involving the drugs, stolen money, the heroine’s little brother, and her rape-y ex-boyfriend, which culminates in the hero getting non-fatally shot at his sister’s wedding.

The level of melodrama in this was beyond believable. This isn’t the worst romance I’ve read, but it’s got to be hanging out down there in the bottom ten somewhere.

#78 – Never a Mistress, No Longer a Maid, by Maureen Driscoll

  • Read: 5/27/20 – 5/28/20
  • Mount TBR: 73/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The pacing here was strange and definitely impacted my enjoyment of the story. I read on my Kindle, and the end of the prologue was at 9%. What? The prologue takes up nearly a tenth of the book? The early chapters seemed fine, but then the last act packs a lot of action and intrigue in at a pace that left my head spinning: two failed kidnapping attempts before a successful one; a murder; a daring rescue; blackmail; and the end to the subplot I originally thought was the major external conflict, a strange and rushed resolution to an unwanted betrothal for the hero.

The last act seemed like it was finishing a different book than the one I’d been reading, which had almost no physical danger in it.

As for the romance itself, I’m used to contrived setups, but this didn’t put in the work to make it really work. The hero’s career as a “spy” is thin and never seems important aside from making sure he’s in the war in Belgium to have sex with, then lose, the heroine. Who also has a somewhat unbelievable backstory, that she runs away from home to be a surgeon in the war but then as soon as she’s found goes meekly back to England to be a good daughter, except woops she’s pregnant now.

And neither of them display much growth as the story progresses, because most of the conflicts are those pesky external ones, the kidnapping, the unwanted almost-betrothal, the murder. I guess the hero does go from finding marriage distasteful to being all on board, mostly due to meeting and falling hard for his adorable little daughter (who was probably the best thing about this book, realistic, funny, not too well-behaved or perfect, but not a stupid brat either. I liked Violet a lot.) But the heroine’s internal conflict is “I don’t want to get married because I think that means giving up the life and career I have now” and she doesn’t deviate from that at all until the very end, when the rampant danger to her, her daughter, and the hero, prompts her to change her mind and think being a family together is more important than her career. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it didn’t feel natural, because it wasn’t set up at all by the earlier story.

Next Month’s TBR: June 2020

I’m doing things a little differently this month: I’m skipping the monthly Travel-a-Thon challenge from my online book club, The Reading Frenzy.

I looked over the prompts for the Australia theme, and I could only fill half of them easily. Before I knew that, I’d already been considering letting this one pass me by so that I could focus on a) reading my huge backlog of romance ebooks; and b) finishing up a series if possible or at least working on some of my ongoing ones. That was a successful endeavor in May–I finished both series I set out to.

But as I am still doing my Around the Year challenge, I’ve got two books this month to read for that: Love On My Mind and The Art of Peeling an Orange.

As for my other reading, I have two dozen romances left to read just from 2017–I know this because one of my goals is to have them all caught up this year, so I’ve got a list. In terms of series, the obvious choice is to finish Imperial Radch since I loved Ancillary Justice so much, and there are only two more books. I should also read the next Realms of the Elderlings novel–one a month for the rest of the year will pretty much finish the series. The Expanse is also a strong possibility, if I don’t tire myself out on sci-fi from other sources.

So I look forward to a month of mostly romance, even if some of those random old novels I got on sale or for free are as bad as the ones I happened to read this week–you’ll see those reviews tomorrow!

Flash Fiction #9: A Game, a Prompt, a Burglary

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Since I’ve been meaning to be “writing” again, instead of endlessly churning out word count doing things that aren’t fiction (ie, journaling, book reviewing, etc.) I took on a writing challenge on Tumblr I saw posted: anyone who reblogged it would get a prompt in their inbox of two words and an emoji.

I received: levelheaded, gross, and đź’° .

Here’s what I wrote.


Jay leaned against the thick wall of the safe, and I winced. His weight wasn’t nearly enough to shift it–this thing had to weigh at least a ton, literally–but the sound of his shirt brushing the metal, while probably silent to him, was loud and abrasive to me, listening for the tumblers to click inside the lock. “Don’t do that,” I whispered.

“Does it fuck something up?” He kept his voice low, too, and I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or if he was genuinely curious. He wasn’t a safecracker. He was my borrowed guard dog while I worked, because my brothers were busy on another job with Mom, while Dad was off scouting. We didn’t usually split the family when we were on business, and it was even more rare to bring in an outsider. But Mom apparently went way, way back with Jay’s aunt or something, I didn’t know the full story. I was just told he’d be my backup.

“You were loud.” I didn’t offer any more explanation than that, but he straightened and took a step away from the safe. Half a step, anyway. We didn’t have a lot of room to spare in what was essentially a glorified closet. The floorboard creaked under his weight, which told me the floor was only reinforced directly under the safe. I doubted that would prove useful information, but I filed it away along with everything else I knew about this place. You don’t know what will come in handy when something goes wrong.

Jay was here in case something went wrong. Jay was watching the door while I had my back to it. No one should be here this late. No one should find us. But crooks who don’t plan for things that shouldn’t happen, happening, don’t last very long.

I kept working. This combination lock was a stubborn one, old and cranky. The newer, higher-tech locks were their own kind of hell to break through, of course, but I did love the meticulous process of turning the dial and listening for changes in the sound and eventually finding the right numbers. But this lock’s tumblers sounded grating, rusted, disused. It made things more challenging, and while I like a certain amount of intellectual challenge, I preferred it in the forms of jigsaw puzzles and brain teasers, not the lock that stood between me and my goal, when at any moment a very angry person could charge in with a gun, hell-bent on stopping me from making off with my prize.

It didn’t take me long to become totally reabsorbed in my work, and it didn’t take much longer for Jay to break my concentration again. “So how did you get into this business, anyway?”

I merely turned my face up to his and gave him a look. He was only here because my family knew his well enough to trust. That didn’t necessary mean Jay wouldn’t knock me unconscious as soon as I had the safe open and steal the contents for himself, but it did mean that if he did, we’d know who to lean on to get it back. My parents would raise hell if that happened.

And I didn’t doubt Jay knew it. Aside from this mildly irritating curiosity, he’d been a perfect gentleman, from the moment he’d picked me up at the anonymous little coffee shop, through the whole two-hour drive to get to the coast and this fancy-pants modern mansion. I hated this place the moment I stepped inside, but more on principle than decor–who had this massive beast of an old-fashioned safe but didn’t have any building security or an alarm system worth mentioning? It was a contradiction, or possibly an indication of massive stupidity. Or arrogance. Like the owner didn’t think anyone would ever know what he had, so why to go all that trouble to protect it?

Jay had the grace to look sheepish, though the light in here wasn’t good, so maybe he was actually just constipated or something. It’s not like I knew him well enough to know better, we’d met less than three hours ago. “I meant the safe-cracking part, not the general life of criminal activity. You don’t see a lot of women on that side of the business.”

I scoffed lightly. “I don’t know why that is, it’s not like there’s anything about it that makes it a boys’ club.” I turned the dial a bit farther and was rewarded with a distinct click–I had the third number.

Problem was, this particular model was a five-numeral combination.

“I was the most patient and levelheaded of the three of us as kids,” I went on, because that was explanation enough to me.

“So your mother sat you down one day and said, ‘Deborah, honey, I want you to grow up to be a locksmith and learn to crack safes?’ Seems odd.”

There wasn’t much judgment in his tone, but enough to rile me a little. “That’s not how it happened. And besides, how did you end up in the business? Most guys don’t work for their aunts unless it’s at a bakery or restaurant or something like that. And neither of us is mafia, so yes I know it’s a family thing, but not like that.”

He shrugged. “Made some bad choices in high school, and this is where I landed. Aunt Michelle took me in and gave me some purpose for my talents.” I caught a hint of unfamiliar movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see he’d crossed his arms, lifted his chin.

So he was defensive about his past. Got it. I wouldn’t ask anything else. “Can you let me concentrate now?” I said, deliberately whining. If he thought I was annoyed with him–and I was–but if he thought I was, then we’d both be clear this conversation was over and neither of us had to air any more of our dirty laundry.

It worked, and I got back to work. Jay stood silently, almost completely still, except to check his watch. I had noticed he wore one, so few men in my circle of acquaintances still did, but his had caught my eye because it was big and shiny and silver-colored, though if it was real, it was probably actually platinum. I’d noticed because I couldn’t reconcile a watch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with a big man, a bodyguard, a piece of muscle wearing worn jeans and a simple canvas shirt.

I was trained to notice oddities, after all.

“Half an hour,” he said softly, letting me know how long I’d been at it. Until I got up close and personal with a lock, I couldn’t predict how long it would take me to break through, but after examining this one I’d estimated an hour. I was on track for that, maybe even faster if I got lucky. And we had the time, we had until morning, because we didn’t want to be seen leaving by daylight.

We had less time if something went wrong, of course, but we had no way of knowing when that shoe might drop. I took a deep breath.

Later, when I found the final number in the combination and the handle of the door released under my hand, I glanced up at him. “Time?” I asked.

“Forty-two minutes. Impressive,” he said gravely. Then he chuckled. “Actually, I have no idea. Not my area of expertise. You could have been super-slow, for all I know.”

I pulled the safe door open. “That’s my new record on this style of lock, but of course I can crack simpler ones much faster.” I reached inside, pushing stacks of cash out of the way.

A few fell on the floor, and Jay whistled. “How much has he got?”

“That’s not what we’re here for.” I considered my instructions briefly and made a decision. “Though I suppose we can take it, it’s not like this guy’s not going to know he was robbed. But I’m actually here for this.” And I pulled out a small, flat case, black leather, no lock. It popped open in my hands just like a glasses case.

Jay leaned down to see what was inside. “Gross!” he cried, a little too loud for my sensitive ears. He drew back, shuddering.

“It’s worth a lot to the right people.” I snapped the case shut and stowed it in my bag.

“It’s human hair!”

“It’s Victorian-era mourning jewelry.”

He shuddered again as I stood. “People wore that?”

I glanced at Jay’s nearly-bald head, his blond hair buzzed so close it was more of a suggestion of color than a physical reality. Did he hate hair? Was that a thing? Or was it the fact that it was hair belonging to long-dead British people that caused his revulsion. I shrugged, both at his question, and at my own curiosity. It wasn’t impossible that I’d work with Jay again in the future, if the rest of this job went well, but it wasn’t a certainty either. I might never see him again, so why waste time wondering? “Let’s go.”

Getting out of the huge home was no harder than getting in. I slid into the passenger seat of Jay’s car–which was nice, certainly, but not platinum-watch-level nice–and kept silent as he began the long drive home.

Not that we were going home. We were rendezvousing with my mother, who was handling the actual sale of our newly acquired merchandise. I never met our buyers, never knew how they found us to request the items they wanted us to steal for them. I was just as happy that way.

After that, jay would drop me back at the coffee shop, chosen for the convenience of being open all night and the deliberate inconvenience of being absolutely nowhere near my apartment or my day job. Jay had kept being a gentleman, I reflected on the long drive back, trying to keep myself awake when the darkness outside the car and the soothingly dull engine noise conspired to send me to sleep. If the worst thing he did was irritate me a little with his curiosity, that was a win.

But with maybe half an hour to go before we reached the meeting place–we’d planned on a gas station, it was easy to park our cars at adjacent pumps and swap bags out of view of the security cameras–Jay spoke up, surprisingly me out of the comfortable near-sleep daydreaming state I’d sunken into.

“What’s your policy on dating coworkers?”

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Had I fallen asleep? Did I dream that question? “What?”

He repeated himself, and no, I hadn’t dreamed it. Unless I was still asleep.

“Are you asking me out?”

He laughed, and without the need to be quiet in case someone was in the house, as he had been on the job, his laughter was loud and free and boisterous. “No, Deborah. I’m asking if I’m allowed to ask you out. Maybe you don’t date people in your line of work, or maybe you don’t date at all. Or hell, maybe you’re not single anyway. Once I know that much, then I’ll make a decision on whether or not I’m asking you out.”

Logical, if weird. “But doesn’t that question signal your intention to ask me out?”

“Well, yes, but there’s really no way around that, is there?” He tapped two fingers of his right hand against the steering wheel, an idle twitch, or maybe a tell, if I got to know him well enough to find out.

“I am single,” I began slowly, choosing my words with care. “And I suppose I don’t yet have a policy on dating coworkers, because until tonight, my coworkers have been exclusively blood relatives. Obviously I don’t date them.

Jay laughed again. “Good point. Then, think about it, I guess. Decide if I can be your test case.”

“You’re not going to…” I trailed off, not sure how to finish that sentence.

“To force the issue, right now, in the car on the way to meeting with your mother?” He made a sound that was sort of like flapping his lips in a raspberry, sort of like a snort. I don’t think I’d ever heard that exact noise come out of someone’s mouth before. “I’d like to keep all my parts intact, thank you. Your mother has a fearsome reputation, and when I met her before the job, I could see it’s well deserved.” When I didn’t say anything, his voice softened. “My aunt respects the hell out of her, so she can’t be a nightmare crazy person or anything. So yeah, she scares me a little, but not so much that it was going to stop me from asking you out.”

“Or finding out if you can ask me out,” I clarified.

“Yeah. That.”

I bit my lower lip, thinking. I knew it was one of my own tells, but I wasn’t playing poker here, and Jay wouldn’t know that anyway. Not yet. Maybe not ever. “I’ll think about it. I guess.” I echoed his phrasing and was rewarded with a smile. A handsome smile, to be honest. “But don’t expect an answer tonight. Let’s just get this done, okay?”

He nodded. “Sure thing. You’ve got my number.”

I did, from organizing the pickup tonight. “So I’ll be in touch.”

The rest of the drive was silent, and I couldn’t have been happier for it, because Jay had given me too much to think about. I looked forward to handing off the package to my mother, so she could take that weight from me. This new complication, though, that was all mine to deal with.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #19)

The Bone Witch

#70 – The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco

  • Read: 5/13/20 – 5/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 66/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book that features a ghost, ghost hunter, vampire, vampire hunter, or zombie
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I think I would very much like the story this wanted so badly to be, but I don’t care much for the story that it actually is.

At the conceptual level, it’s got a lot going for it. Let’s have dark geisha mages! Let’s have our protagonist be a rogue necromancer plotting to take down the incredibly flawed system of her world!

But in the end, I don’t buy it. There’s too much focus on the world-building, especially in the constant descriptions of everyone’s kimono sorry hua, but also in smaller but just as irritating ways, like how the eventual reveal of the enemy hidden in their midst is a total ass-pull that relies on cultural cues and missteps that the reader couldn’t possibly know ahead of time because most of the world is just names on a map at the beginning without any real thought behind them. Sure, it looks like elaborate world-building to have all these places and all this royalty, but really, this novel is a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.

I see what the dual timeline/POVs were trying to do–showing Tea at the height of both her power and her darkness in the short chapter breaks, while telling us the story of how she got that way in the past through her own perspective–except that by the end of the book, it’s all just elaborate setup with no payoff. I don’t know why Tea is “evil” now–though I’m not sure evil is the right word, because wanting to destroy a presumably corrupt and ineffective world system isn’t strictly evil, it’s just revolutionary, literally speaking. And I’d be on board for a rogue necromancer revolutionary, except that this novel did. not. tell me how she got that way. There’s a huge gap between where Tea’s “past” story breaks off and where she is in the “present.”

And it involves the weakest love triangle I’ve ever seen. She literally asks one guy out on a date at the end of the book (the one we know she’s had a crush on the whole time) only to resurrect someone else entirely and call him “my love.” She hints very early on to the nameless narrator of the chapter breaks that she loved two men, so it’s not like I didn’t know there would be a love triangle, it just waited until the final pages to actually show up. And it’s dumb.

This disappoints me that much more because where the story left off, I mostly do want to find out what happens next. Does she raze the world to the ground with her seven magical beasts? Does she become a horrible dictator in the process, or a goddess of destruction, or a vengeful raging maniac? These are interesting questions I don’t usually find myself asking about the female protagonist of a YA fantasy novel. But if finding out is going to mean wading through 400 more pages of fashion shows, I’m not going to bother.

71 - Ancillary Justice

#71 – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 5/17/20 – 5/20/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to Maximilian Hell, the noted astronomer and Jesuit Priest who was born in 1720 [set in space]
  • Mount TBR: 67/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I’ve been disappointed by a lot of modern sci-fi over the past few years, but this is solid gold and I loved it.

It took a little bit of getting into–I can’t be sure if the beginning is actually too slow-paced or if my focus was lacking, which has been an issue for me lately. The first hundred pages weren’t dull, but they weren’t as gripping as I expected, either.

Something clicked, though, soon after that, and I read the rest of the book in just over a day. As I read more books in general and more varied types of books, it’s becoming rarer that I can say “I couldn’t put this book down” but here it’s true. I resented having to go to sleep with sixty pages to go, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I haven’t read any sci-fi that examines gender like this, nothing since The Left Hand of Darkness, and while I felt echoes of that foundational work here, it wasn’t simply retreading the same ground. I think it gains something from coming the issue from an AI perspective; I know enough about modern-day machine learning that I can imagine teaching an AI to identify the gender of an unknown individual reliably, with acceptable accuracy, would not be an easy task. At first I found it a slightly uncomfortable experience not to know the “true” gender of a character (except for those few who were, at some point, referred to in a language that had gendered pronouns, showing Breq to be correct or incorrect about her assumptions) but before long I had adapted, just going with it that everyone was female and that was fine. (I skimmed other reviews briefly, and some people are definitely fixated on properly assigning gender to the characters, especially the two involved in a romantic relationship–“which one is the man and which is the woman?” But I had no problem with the idea that they were both female, and wouldn’t have any issue if they were both male either. This book is very queer-compatible.]

Beyond the gender issue, though, there’s even more to say about identity and artificial intelligence. At what point did the experiences and personalities of Justice of Toren and One Esk diverge enough to be considered separate? How can a single individual fracture and become an enemy to herself? How does identity intersect with personal freedom or societal conformity, and how much personal freedom is even possible as an AI under a brutally strict regime with a dictator who has the power to modify the ship’s memories?

I was fascinated by everything and look forward to the next book a great deal.

The Murmur of Bees

#72 – The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia

  • Read: 5/20/20 – 5/21/20
  • Mount TBR: 68/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book set in Mexico
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%.

Too many POVs, not enough story. There’s no way this was going to hold my attention for hundreds of pages more, when one-fifth of the way through there’s absolutely no trajectory to the plot. I’m struggling to even predict what the plot could be, there’s so little groundwork laid aside from some vague-but-ham-fisted foreshadowing. So far the many changes in narrator have introduced me to most of the members of the family this story is (apparently) about, but in spreading itself so thin across so many characters, there’s no momentum, nothing for me to be interested in enough to keep going.

And then I set it down after reading an almost entirely unrelated, tangential sequence of chapters about how the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the town…but not through the eyes of any of the characters I’d already met. It’s about somebody else who goes to the graveyard when he’s sure he’s dying, only then he recovers, and when he returns home he accidentally frightens his mother to death, but then the rest of his family and, later, the church, hail him as a modern Lazarus.

First, what does any of that have to do with what little story we actually have been given prior; and second, I personally found the chapters about the epidemic had an almost disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek tone to them, minimizing the suffering and death, treating it as dull and humdrum, in order to set up the story of the “resurrected” man. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so bothered by it if I had read this last year when I got it, but now, with how the world is currently, it turned my stomach.

Regardless of that, I doubt I would have finished the book, because it felt scattered and tedious.

The Joy of Buying Used Books

Ella Minnow Pea Contents

An old post of mine on Tumblr started making the rounds yesterday for some reason–who ever knows why something random gets attention there? But I don’t think I ever shared it here: it’s the photo of everything I pulled out of my used copy of Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters when I read it last January. Eighteen post-it notes with annotations and some pressed leaves.

Once upon a time, I only bought new–that is, unused–books, and because of the price I bought them infrequently and reread them often, some of my favorites over a dozen times over the years.

But right around the time I started my blog, my social media platform, and my side-gig career as an author, I also discovered the thrill of used book sales, especially those held at all the libraries across my county. (There are so many! It’s wonderful!) It didn’t take me long after that to discover Thriftbooks as well, so now most of the books I buy in any given year, by far, are secondhand.

This has led to some interesting finds.

  • Bookmarks. Obviously! Someone was reading these books at some point, and they left their bookmarks behind. My personal favorite was a shop bookmark from a indie bookstore in Ontario, it was a lovely shade of green, but I used it until it was tea-stained and tattered, so it’s gone now. (/sadface)
  • Improvised bookmarks. I’ve found candy wrappers and library checkout receipts and supermarket receipts and random strips of paper and subscription cards for magazines, but the best one of these (and I’m sorry I don’t have photographic evidence) was an airline boarding pass from 2003–and neither end of that long-ago journey was in my state, despite me finding the book at a local sale, rather than buying it online.
  • I found a folded page of someone’s algebra homework just inside the front cover of a used book once. So, not precisely an improvised bookmark, probably happened by mistake. At least the dog didn’t eat it.
  • Pressed leaves and flowers. It only happened one time other than Ella, and the flowers crumbled as soon as I took them out, but it still made me happy.

I still have over a hundred physical books in my TBR collection, almost all of them used, and I don’t leaf through them ahead of time, so all of them are potential adventures in mystery finds waiting to happen. And I think I will be far better in the future about taking pictures when something interesting shows up!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #18)

68 - Steel's Edge

#68 – Steel’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 5/8/20 – 5/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 64/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Given my reaction to all the other books in the series, I didn’t expect this to be so good. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say “I didn’t expect I would love it this much.”

I’m a sucker for wounded people finding solace in love, I guess.

Even more than the romance itself, which is awesome, this novel also gave so much closure to the rest of the series. Every bad guy is accounted for, everyone whose arc wasn’t finished gets to finish it, Richard gets some quality family time, Charlotte is introduced and put through the wringer and gets her found family in the end. I did have to put this down to go to sleep last night, but you’d better believe the first thing I did this morning was make myself breakfast and sit down to finish it.

If I wanted to be nitpicky, I could find quibbles. Sophie’s story was important but still a tad underdeveloped, maybe. We saw a fair bit of George but very little of Jack. While Charlotte and Richard weren’t as rushed as his brother and his lady love in book three, it was still kind of fast–though I buy it, in this case, because Richard is a very different type of man in a very different situation. It just worked for me better this time.

But those are small things in the wake of the huge smile I had on my face finishing the epilogue. I loved this, and I love that the series surprised me with such a great ending.

69 - The Complete Cosmicomics

#69 – The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino

  • Read: 5/9/20 – 5/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 65/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read an anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I am boggled, though mostly in a good way.

I found this a quite difficult and cerebral read, not at first, but increasingly as the stories began to seem less like “stories” and more like esoteric philosophical tracts and eventually complex mathematical proofs. The anthology starts innocently enough with a tale full of absurd humor about going to the moon for its milk, so I did not suspect that by the end I would be thoroughly confused.

That’s not entirely the book’s fault, though, because had I known just how experimental this fiction would be, I might not have chosen to read it during a worldwide pandemic that’s stressing me out and destroying my concentration. I know I’m not the only one having difficulty focusing on reading–I just read an article about it yesterday–but this book certainly requires that focus, that curiosity and questioning and interest. I just couldn’t summon it as much as I needed to–by the end I was sitting down and telling myself “Just get through one story, then go do something else.” Not my preferred way of reading.

So it’s a challenging book. For all that, when I “got” it, I enjoyed it. The early stories often relied on absurdist humor coupled with a sort of deliberate cognitive dissonance–the narrator could be a human, or they could be a single cell, or they could be a fish just crawled from the water to live on dry land for the first time in evolutionary history, but the tone and expressions and idioms were still human, so sometimes you had to remember it wasn’t necessary a “person” speaking, or that space and time didn’t behave the way we perceive them or the way you would expect them to. Things got weirder from there, with a story about falling infinitely through curved space, in pondering the eventual intersection of parallel lines via non-Euclidean geometry, becoming a metaphor for a threesome; with a single afternoon car ride being overwhelmed by passion in the form of extensive blood/salt/seawater metaphors; with a story about the mitosis of a single-celled narrator being likened to falling in love, but not with another, but also not with yourself, but also not a vague sort of cosmic, universal love. (That one in particular bent my brain a little too far out of whack.)

I love the idea of it, or rather the ideas, the weird bent on philosophy via biology and other sciences. But my poor beleaguered brain wasn’t up to some of the more difficult concepts and twists and pages-long paragraphs of endless pontificating.

Ideally, I’d like to come back to this in a year or so and give it another try, to see if it makes more sense (or at least is more enjoyable in whatever level of nonsensicalness it still holds for me) when I can give it the attention it deserves.

Embracing Incremental Change

les-triconautes-CwUYr2zGirk-unsplash

You’d think, after all the years I’ve been knitting and writing, I’d be used to the idea that projects take time, that you can’t do everything at once. The opposite of instant gratification.

But it’s something I’m struggling with now, in the new world of isolation the pandemic has inflicted on me, with its new flow of time. If I’m not working (and I’m mostly not) and I have all this free time I don’t usually have, why doesn’t it feel like I’m getting anything done?

Because I want the comfort and satisfaction of instant gratification. I want to look at a finished thing, whatever that thing may be, and feel like I’ve accomplished something.

That’s why it’s so hard for me to start working on my novel again, even though this draft is nearly done, even though I’m physically healthy again. But mental health is a factor, too, and not having a schedule is not doing me any favors. I tried, early on, to impose one on myself, but my discipline isn’t that strong and it fell apart quickly. I read some articles about the stress of the new “time is meaningless” phase that so many of us are going through, and it led me to the difference between “clock time”–which most of us lived by before–and the “event time” that rules us now. I don’t read in the morning from 10 am until I have to go to work at noon (like I used to,) I read for a while after I finish breakfast, until I feel like I should do something else.

So what am I doing now instead? I’m trying a system of tasks to embrace the idea of incremental change.

  1. Every day I choose one thing to clean that doesn’t already get cleaned daily. The toilet or the bathtub or the bathroom sink, or I clean out the fridge, you get the idea. Of course there are things that need to be done every day–the dishes, more than once usually now that I’m cooking nearly everything from scratch–but those don’t count. So I don’t feel like I have to spend an entire day deep cleaning everything just because I’m home all the time.
  2. Every day I give myself one organizational task. It can be small, like decluttering the medicine cabinet, or larger, like tackling one of my craft shelves and constructing a set of cardboard cubbyholes for it. I’ve been crafting lots of DIY storage lately, covering shoe boxes with cardboard to make them pretty then filling them with stuff. So I can take control over my home environment and improve it without biting off more than I can chew and giving up halfway through.
  3. I’m playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in small daily doses. Yeah, sure, for the first two weeks I was going crazy for hours on end with all the things to do and find and build, designing my house, making money to pay for the renovations. But now? Now I’m logging on and saying, “Let’s neaten up this garden area here” or “How about I re-do this room in my house with the new furniture I’ve been buying this past week” or “I should landscape this area by villager’s houses so I can build a market there.” Manageable projects, one at a time.
  4. I’ve been knitting a lot lately–another years-long pastime that should have been teaching me patience–but I’ve been spending a lot of time on Pinterest looking at various styles of wall art DIYs, and I’ve picked embroidery back up as well. I have one small project that should only take me another day or two to finish, but inspired by something I saw years ago on Craftster (before its sad demise) I’ve just started a daily stitch journal. I wrote myself 30 prompts (“use only French knots today,” “try a new stitch,” “add beads,” etc.) and I’m doing one a day, and only one. It’s improvisational and semi-random, and at the end I’ll have a cool abstract art piece to hang up, and I don’t have to get it done right now or feel compelled to work on it for hours to finish it quickly. In fact, some of the prompts are pretty short and definite, so even if I wanted to keep stitching, I’d be out of stuff to do–by design, of course. So then I’ve taken that energy and used it to do something else (knitting on cleaning or whatever.)
  5. In addition to Animal Crossing, I’ve also started playing Darkest Dungeon again, an indie game I toyed with a few years ago. As the name implies, it’s a deliberately stressful dungeon crawler, so a) even if I did want to play for hours at a time, I wouldn’t because it can get really nerve-wracking, and b) the game is designed to be slow-paced, with each dungeon leveling up your heroes slowly (or maybe killing them if you do badly) and getting you loot and upgrades slowly as well. It all builds over time until you feel strong enough to take on the final dungeon, but it’s scary as hell and of course you’re not ready yet go get stronger! I did not beat the game the first time I tried–it’s hard and I kept losing my best heroes late-game to bad decisions, so I got frustrated and moved on to other things–but knowing that now, I’ve been able to appreciate that the game is a marathon not a sprint, and that I’m actually supposed to be taking it slow.

Do I actually do all five of these things every day? Honestly, no. I do most of them most days (though I’ve only just started the stitch journal this week and I’ve stuck to it because I’m excited!)

Am I saying, “hey everybody take up embroidery and play Darkest Dungeon!” No. But I thought talking through my process might help others, somebody might read this and say “I could try that” but with their own personal goals to work towards, rather than new wall art and DIY storage and video games. Incremental change can apply to all sorts of things.