This Week, I Read… (2019 #41)

132 - The Mad Ship

#132 – The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 9/30/19 – 10/5/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (84/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it when a sequel is better than its predecessor.

I’m not always the best at figuring out mysteries and putting together two + two to equal a plot revelation. But Hobb has spun out the whys of her world-building with such grace that I can see the “what” of things without always understanding the “how.” Even before the revelations were explicitly stated, I knew them, on some level, even if I couldn’t have explained them in detail beforehand.

Yet one major reveal at the end was still a complete surprise, even though it made utter sense in retrospect, and has left me with half a dozen new questions to ask the final book in the trilogy.

Another strength of this story is that Hobb knew which characters to let diminish and which to strengthen. Kennit is a more complex character now with a stronger presence, while Wintrow’s importance wanes. Kyle is blessedly absent after the loose ends of the previous book concerning him are tied up–his only importance becomes his memory, in how it motivates Malta, who also gains greatly in complexity and importance in this story. Paragon and Amber, who were likable oddities in the first book, are now more fleshed out, while Brashen and Althea take smaller roles.

In many cases, it seems that we’re not following individual character arcs, but rather arcs of story relevance–not everyone is going to remain useful for the entire length of the trilogy, and some characters serve to introduce us to others later, like passing off a baton in a relay. I can see it happening (potentially) here at the end of the book–Keffria has never been of much import other than being Malta’s mother and Ronica’s daughter, but she’s handed a bit of intrigue to accomplish in the next book, and who knows if Ronica has even survived? Her importance to the plot might be passed along to Keffria.

That brings up my only real quibble with this book, and it’s not major enough to ding it a star, because it’s an issue of personal taste more than style–but with two books down and the stakes really high, our characters do seem to have pretty serious plot armor. Only one named character of any real importance has died, and he’s minor at best. Pirates die, slaves die, cities burn or crumble under earthquakes, but our important characters always seem to survive, though there has been some grievous bodily harm. In fact, most of the main cast, at this point, is wounded to some degree, but it was one in particular, Wintrow, who truly seemed like he should not have survived his ordeal, that really brought this point to my attention. Important characters simply won’t die. While I’m not bloodthirsty by nature, and I certainly don’t want any given character to die, there’s enough danger going around that I feel like the possibility should be available. And it could be that someone will die in the next book, maybe even early on, maybe even from the events at the climax of this book. But I wouldn’t bet money on it.

133 - Atonement

#133 – Atonement, by Ian McEwan

  • Read: 10/5/19 – 10/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (85/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book you see someone reading on TV or in a movie
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I saw the movie, once, many years ago–probably not too long after it was released, I feel like I rented it from the Blockbuster we still had in town back then. But despite seeing it only once, and so long ago, I remember it vividly and could still have described every major plot point. It was elegantly crafted, it was tragic, I enjoyed it.

So of course, when I saw the novel at a used book sale, I picked it up for pennies. I am completely unfamiliar with Ian McEwan’s work, I only know there’s a lot of it out there, and I don’t believe I was aware the movie was an adaptation of a novel at all, back when I saw it.

I have to say, though the plot remains unchanged, the book has ruined the story for me, solely because of the atmospheric contempt for femininity that runs unchallenged through the entire work.

Briony is deeply flawed, to be sure, and in theory I want male authors to give that sort of in-depth treatment to their female characters. But Briony is also a child, and she’s depicted from the very start as a little tyrant trying to lord her artistic vision over her cousins; jealous of the apparent maturity of Lola, two years her senior and far more womanly already; self-loathing of her own imperfections, naivete, and the very notion of childhood itself. There’s even a scene where she whips nettle heads with a stick, naming each one after something she hates, and eventually it comes around to herself. Because that’s as close to literal self-flagellation as we can have a child character approach.

Briony is the worst, and the narrative never lets us forget that.

But okay, okay, the book is about her “atonement” for the mistake she made as a child, which means she can’t have been good to start with. So why are the other female characters also so weak, helpless, victimized and self-loathing? Cecelia spends the first half of the book bemoaning her uselessness and lying about dramatically. Their mother, Emily, a minor character at best, still gets a POV chapter where she explains to herself, and thus the reader, that she’d love to be a better mother to her children, if not for the crippling migraines, and because she isn’t a good mother, she’d best lie still and hate herself for it. Lola is the traumatized victim who can’t speak for herself, who doesn’t even know who actually attacked her, even though on some level it’s incredibly freaking obvious, but goes along with Briony’s mistake because she’s weak and hurt. (To McEwan’s credit, it is at least made clear that Lola was not in any way inviting her fate, and from the start, Paul Marshall’s character is stuffed with clues about his pedophilia. I wish all books that touched on this subject were at least this transparent that pedophilia is wrong, but time and again that proves too high a bar to set for some authors.)

In the movie, I thought the story was beautifully tragic, not just because of the eventual reveal of Robbie and Cecelia’s deaths, but because Briony never fully understood that ultimately, it wasn’t entirely her fault. She was a child, and so many of the people around her could have stepped in and done something to prevent the disaster in the first place, or questioned her story afterward, because it still strains my credulity that Robbie was convicted on her testimony alone, basically. I can see so many logical places for another character to speak up and say, hey, this doesn’t seem right.

But the book, with its pervasive air of disdain for all things female, takes that tragedy and makes it the just result of being a creative but tyrannical child, and female, because would a boy the same age have so greatly misunderstood the events of that fateful night? The entire plot hinges on the innocence and outrage of girlhood in the face of burgeoning sexuality, and yet McEwan doesn’t respect his female characters at all, turning the tragedy into a punishment.

134 - The Alice Network

#135 – The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

  • Read: 10/7/19 – 10/9/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (86/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A novel based on a true story
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was surprised by how readable this was for historical fiction–I got through its 500+ pages in just over two days. What? Really? But it occurred to me, as I was nearing the end, that in some ways this is historical-lite; not that it doesn’t concern actual places, times, and events, but that it isn’t bogged down by them or by excessive detail, instead choosing to focus on the characters and their emotional journeys. In that way, its style reminded me far more of good romance than historical fiction, and there is a romantic subplot to help move Charlie’s chapters along.

Here’s the thing, though. Charlie’s half of the story is far weaker than Eve’s, especially when it becomes clear that most of what Charlie is suffering now (uncertainty, lack of direction, loss, grief, and unintended pregnancy) Eve suffered herself, and generally far worse. Charlie takes pains to point out to Eve a few times that she knows her personal trials don’t compare, and it’s true, and good of her to acknowledge. But that doesn’t make Charlie more interesting, it just makes her slightly less of a brat. Her romance with Finn (who is charming and I adore him because, even as thinly fleshed out as he is, I am a complete sucker for stoic but considerate men) fills the space in her half of the narrative where Eve would be doing spy things, and much as I love romance, in this case, spy things are simply more interesting.

The other minor failing of the dual alternating plot lines is how blatantly obvious each small mystery becomes. Rarely do we have to wait more than a single chapter to have a question answered, and many chapter-pairs are tied together by glaringly obvious repeated lines, be they lines of poetry, or nuggets of wisdom Eve tells Charlie which we hear again a chapter later being told to Eve herself, years before. It’s a small thing, but it was like a repeated tiny slap in the face every time it happened, saying “Look how clever this narrative structure is! Look! Look!”

For all that, this novel does tell a story worth reading, and despite its accessible style, doesn’t do anything to gloss over the horrors of war, especially those inflicted on women.

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The State of My Writing Folder: October 2019

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I’m suffering a crisis many writers will be familiar with, and if you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s probably somewhere in your future: what project do I work on?

I’ve covered this before, in terms of plot bunnies and NaNoWriMo prep, and surprise, surprise, it’s October and I’m feeling that pre-NaNo pinch again. What better time for a self-assessment of my project opportunities?

  1. #spookyromancenovel 3.0: Major undertaking, and what I feel like I should be working on. It’s definitely the closest thing I have to publishable. My beta readers worked so hard on their feedback. It’s not in terrible shape, it just needs some trimming down and shoring up! But after churning out the first draft during Fictober/NaNo last year, I’ve spent most of 2019 on this project, and I think it’s time for a break.
  2. #rockstarnovel 2.0: Also a major undertaking. Remember this project, guys? Wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t, it’s my NaNo 2016 novel. I toyed with the idea of revising it through 2017, but it needed so much work, and according to my document history, the last time I took a half-hearted stab at it was early 2018, but I didn’t get very far. I still love this story. I still think about this story from time to time, usually when I hear a new song that fits one of its characters. Its bones are still solid, but I guess I feel weird writing contemporary romance? No sci-fi, no supernatural elements, the stuff that marks almost all of my other writing. With only one series under my belt, I hardly have an entire brand to betray, but this still feels like a huge departure for me.
  3. Finishing NaNo 2017, Wolf Shifters in Love: I did so much prep work for this, I wrote almost 61K for NaNo, and then never finished it. I actually wrote a new scene for this last week, trying it back on, and it went okay, but it’s a weird genre mashup of paranormal and small-town romance, and I almost think with some effort I could restart it and make it fall in line with the universe I’ve built for #spookyromancenovel, which would give me more series potential.
  4. Unfinished Camp NaNo 2018 project, “Some Sort of Witchy Romance”: This will probably never get finished, because I co-opted a lot of the base ideas for #spookyromancenovel, and it can’t stand on its own anymore. But it’s there to mine for further ideas in the potential #spooky series, because this is an F/F pairing and I still haven’t done that and I still want to do that.
  5. Fictober 2019 Unnamed Project: totally half-assed, only a few days of work put in so far. Sometime in 2018 I wrote a bit of contemporary flash fic, never posted anywhere, a scene in a bar that I found interesting for various reasons. On October 1st, wanting to participate in the event but not knowing what to write, I set out to begin the story that would lead to that scene, but it’s a vague goal post and I did no prep work and it’s just not very good so far (which lead to me not working on it the first weekend of the month AT ALL.)
  6. #spookyromancesequel 1.0: If I want to start an entirely new project, at least I’ve already done some of the prep work for this. A minor character from #srn gets her own romance, possibly borrowing from that Camp NaNo 2018 draft I never finished. I do have ideas for other entries in the potential #spooky series–I created a lot of fun minor characters–but this one, chronologically, makes the most sense, so it’s where I should start. But it’s a bit intimidating, because the first book was an experiment in first-person narration for me (my other three works are third-person, dual POV) and this romance has me shackled to a haughty, difficult narrator, if I go forward with it. I should look at it as a challenge, not a problem, but not knowing if I can get #srn itself publishable, should I invest more effort in a series that might never see the light of day?

Top off that doozy of a list with the open-ended idea “start something totally unrelated to anything else and see what happens,” and you’ve got my dilemma. I don’t have an answer yet, but it’s definitely helped to write down all my possibilities and give them a good, hard shake to see how I feel about them. Mostly overwhelmed, at this point, but I’ve still got three weeks before NaNo to sort myself out. There’s no way I’m not going for my fifth year straight winning NaNo!

Down the TBR Hole #23

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?

It feels so good to cut books from the list that I’m not interested in anymore! Let’s do this!

#1 – Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, by Seanan McGuire

31183180._SY475_I had honestly forgotten entirely what the blurb of this novella said, and when or why I added it. I’ve heard great things about McGuire, and she pops up across my social media a lot because she’s got honest and great things to say about the writer’s life, social media itself, book piracy, etc.

I respect her for that, but since adding this title, I’ve also read three of her books (the Feed trilogy, written as Mira Grant) and I went from flabbergasted by the first one to utterly disappointed by the third. Also, I own Every Heart a Doorway, thanks to a sale, so I have an opportunity to give her a fourth try without keeping this one around. It goes.

#2 – History is All You Left Me, by Adam Silvera

25014114._SY475_My gut is saying this should go, because I’ve had my fill of YA tragedy lately, and gay tragedy is wearing out its welcome with me. But that’s more of a “I don’t want to read it now” reaction than not wanting to read it at all.

So it can stay. With the caveat that I’m planning on reading another work co-authored by Silvera, They Both Die at the End, for the PopSugar Reading challenge sometime between now and the end of the year. If I don’t care for that, I’ll come back and pop this off the list.

If I do like it, then I’ll probably be glad I kept this around.

#3 + #4 – Rookie Move and Hard Hitter, by Sarina Bowen

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28869598._SX318_SY475_I’ve consistently liked Sarina Bowen’s work, and in fact, the first of hers I read was also a sports romance. While I’m not huge on hockey, I’ve lived in Michigan for most of my life, and it’s impossible not to know about the sport or be at least a little invested in how the Red Wings are doing any given year. These stay. Hoopla’s got them both as audiobooks so I can maybe listen while I cross-stitch.

#5 – Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson

13587130I’ve been reading a great deal less nonfiction lately, after some less-than-stellar experiences last year when I made it a point to read at least one a month for a personal reading challenge.

But I’m a foodie and an avid cook, mostly self-taught. I’m an Alton Brown devotee who’s inherited his hatred of uni-taskers in the kitchen. I love my mom’s old ’70s and ’80s cookbooks with their strange ideas of how to make food pretty and, especially, “party-worthy.”

This sounds fascinating, so it stays.

#6 – Ramona Blue, by Julie Murphy

31449227._SY475_Oh, the controversy. I remember.

People went batshit over a badly-written blurb that made this book appear lesbophobic, so lesbian reviewers threw bisexuality under the bus. Then bi reviewers showed up in droves to defend the book. Then it was actually released and people actually read it, and reviews are mixed, and two years later no one’s talking about it on social media anymore, good or bad.

For apparently being about a girl who believes she’s lesbian falling in love with a guy and realizing she’s actually bisexual, some reviewers say the dreaded “b” word is never used, despite the author confirming Ramona’s identity in interviews and on social media. I hate the missing “b” word and that’s enough to make me give this a pass now, long after this book ceased to be relevant in the community.

#7 – March, by Geraldine Brooks

13529I added this after reading and adoring Brooks’ People of the Book, a random find at a used book sale, and diving into her catalog for other potential reads. I mean, I love Little Women, and I’d just read a book by her that I also loved, so why not?

But I’m tired of reading about war, and honestly, I never felt any real curiosity about what Mr. March was off doing while his women were at home. Yes, this book won a Pulitzer, but the reviews are still strongly mixed, and winning literary awards has never been an indicator of actual quality or how much I’ll enjoy reading it (yes, The Road, I’m still looking at you, I will never forget how horrible you were.) It goes.

#8 – Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

4965Same deal here about why I added it, and when I reread the blurb, this seemed more like a keeper. Plague fiction! Sweet!

But almost all of the reviewers who did not give this book five stars, no matter what the rating was, complained about how disappointed they were by the ending. The first 75% of the book is either good, great, or amazing, but the last 25% dove off a cliff.

I’ve seen too many properties I once loved suffer and become irretrievably tainted by terrible endings that I’m not going to waste my time on a novel setting me up for the same. It goes.

#9 – Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard

29939389Added because of Tumblr hype, but this is another case of “two years later, nobody talks about this book anymore.” I’d forgotten I’d added it–I’d forgotten it existed. Even more damning, two more novels and a novella have come out since then in this series, and I’d never heard of any of them. Social media hype is not the only indicator of quality, but total lack of it is troublesome.

Paired with so-so reviews that call out thin world-building, weird pacing, and love at first sight, I’m going to let this one go and return to forgetting it existed.

 

#10 – The Scandal of It All, by Sophie Jordan

32600753._SY475_No idea now where I found this.

Also, no idea now why I added this. Back in 2017 I wasn’t as disappointed, on the whole, with the historical romance genre as I am now, but still, what about this appealed to me? Sure, the heroine is older than the hero for once, but apparently the age gap is significant, and that’s not my thing in either direction.

It goes, no question, and leaves me scratching my head about why it was ever on the list in the first place.

 


Cutting six of ten this month, not bad, not bad. As always, if you’ve read one of these books and have a difference of opinion to share, I’d love to hear it!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #40)

130 - The Poppy War

#130 – The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

  • Read: 9/26/19 – 9/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (83/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with “pop,” “sugar,” or “challenge” in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Hugely disappointed and more than a little bewildered by how beloved this book is.

I went into it blind, as was recommended by pretty much everyone who touted the book as amazing, so that’s what I did. The opening act was like, huh, a female-empowerment version of Harry Potter, let’s escape my miserable home life and learn to be something better at this academy that will give me the structure and purpose that’s missing from my life. So far, I’m on board.

As far as the time spent at the academy itself, I was also mostly on board with how it was depicted, the quirks of the masters, the general antagonism and rare friendship of Rin’s fellow students, and the slow peeling-back of the mysteries of the world’s lore. Interesting stuff.

Then the war starts and implodes everything. After this, I felt like the story had no mooring–I never knew what was going to happen, I couldn’t see Rin’s arc clearly ahead of time, and when the end came and I finally did understand what the point of it all was, I was actually disgusted by where she ended up.

The pacing slows to a glacial crawl in order to fully depict the atrocities of war and fully demonize the enemy. Other reviewers have commented that they didn’t feel it was gratuitous, but I most definitely did, especially when a minor character from the school who was never well-developed or all that important miraculously survives a prolonged stint as a “public toilet” just so she can spend a few pages graphically detailing her endless cycle of rapes and the horrific treatment of the other women who were in captivity with her. Beyond that, just how long do we have to devote to describing the piles of corpses all over the city? Thank you, I got the point, can we get the plot moving again yet?

Now, the brutality of the “Mugenese” army, which is clearly based on Japan, against the “Nikara,” who are clearly Chinese, does actually have historical basis, because Japanese Imperialism wrought some horrible things on the world. My objection to this depiction of war isn’t because of any quibbles about real-world analogues.

My objection is because the only way to allow Rin to become a war criminal and still be a sympathetic protagonist, still the hero of the story, is to have the enemy she’s fighting somehow be worse.

But they’re not. And one of her comrades even points that out to her, after the fact, still trying to be the voice of reason, in yet another guise that Rin fails to listen to.

Because that’s the entire story. Rin is constantly given the choice between wisdom/prudence and power/revenge, and she constantly chooses power. Her arc is from nobody-peasant-girl to insanely powerful war criminal, and yet, I’m still supposed to be rooting for her and invested in her cause, but I’m not, because she’s an idiot who is given every chance to do better and not be a war criminal, but she always chooses wrong. No matter how many times someone with a cooler head advises her against an action, she always knows better and does what she wants to do anyway, only to have the consequences of her poor decision-making blow up (sometimes literally) in everyone’s faces.

And we have to suffer her intense moments of indecision, her internal debates, over and over again, always hoping she’ll choose differently, she’ll make the smart choice, and being disappointed over and over again when she doesn’t.

Her character arc gives her an increase in personal power that’s massive in scale and completely out of tone with her incredibly humble beginnings, so much so that even with the substantial length of this book, I still feel like it was rushed, that Rin grew too fast. And yet, really, she doesn’t grow at all, because never once did she learn from a single mistake that she made.

131 - One True Loves

#131 – One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Read: 9/29/19 – 9/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (41/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

What could have been an incredibly powerful story about love, loss, and how a person changes as they move forward was ultimately cheapened by being completely devoid of subtlety.

There wasn’t a single thing about any of the main characters that I was allowed to interpret for myself from the way they spoke or acted. The book held my hand through every page to make sure that I came away from it with exactly the message that the author wanted me to have, nothing more. Emma’s narration explained everything to me with no gaps I had to fill in.

That’s a damning criticism when leveled at most books–that the author doesn’t trust the reader to figure anything out–and it’s a serious one here. But still, I was moved. The flip side of the narrative style being so obvious and forthright was that the emotional beats had nothing holding them back from punching me square in the gut, and they did–I cried several times. While Emma could be irritating on occasion, both Sam and Jesse were charming in their own ways, and I could easily see how swoon-worthy they were. I’m a sucker for sweetness and thoughtfulness in a man, so I’d be team Sam in this Husband War, but I can certainly understand the perspective of a reader finding Jesse more appealing. That’s the other upside of the style–both men are allowed to be utterly forthcoming about their own feelings (when they choose to be, at least) and that’s a level of emotional honesty I don’t often see in romance and/or women’s fiction.

My October 2019 TBR!

October 2019 TBR

Yesterday I mentioned that I’m not participating in any monthly reading challenges, and those usually account for about half of my reading any given month. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a TBR stack anyway, based on my progress with the year-long challenges, and here’s what I came up with!

As I hope to be doing more writing (and cross-stitching) this month, this is, perhaps, an overly ambitious TBR, and I don’t expect to get through all of it. But to explain my thinking:

  • The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb
  • Abaddon’s Gate, by James S.A. Corey

The Mad Ship is my current read–see my bookmark sticking out halfway through?–and the others are next-in-series books. I’ve been meaning to read more of The Expanse for a while, and that last remaining 2016 book I have to check off my list is Fool’s Errand, which is the seventh Realms of the Elderlings book. These two are #5-6.

  • Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  • The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn
  • The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All books I’ve selected for various PopSugar Reading Challenge tasks that I haven’t gotten to, yet. For October I’ve prioritized physical books that I might be able to get rid of when I’m done–I’ve read so much this year, yet my shelves don’t feel any emptier. I’ll still be reading some digital books to finish the challenge, but those can wait for now.

  • The Dark Mirror, by Juliet Marillier
  • A Blunt Instrument, by Georgette Heyer

The odd ones out, The Dark Mirror is my current library book, chosen because I’ve been trying to work through my master TBR list roughly in order for Virtual Mount TBR, at least as much as availability allows! It’s #3, so it was time to request it. A Blunt Instrument, on the other hand, is at the top of my acquired-in-2017 books, alphabetically speaking, and it’s time to work on that list, now that I’m nearly done with 2016. Plus, I have another Heyer book on my shelves, so if I hate this one, I can ditch them both!


So that’s nine books, which doesn’t particularly sound like a lot, for me–I regularly read more than a dozen a month. But when you add up the page count–which I did, out of curiosity–it comes out to almost exactly 5,000. Thanks to Goodreads “Pages Over Time” stats breakdown, I know that’s mid-range for my 2019 reading, which has a low of about 3K pages and highs over 7500. However, because I mark DNF books on Goodreads as “complete,” my page counts will generally be inflated by the books I “read” but didn’t actually finish.

Which makes this TBR ambitious, like I knew it would be, though I like having solid numbers to back that up. Granted, I am just over 400 pages into The Mad Ship already, having started it at the end of September, so this doesn’t seem impossible, just challenging.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: September 2019!

bread-2755097_1280

As my post history clearly shows, I wasn’t around much in September. I put in a lot of extra hours at work, didn’t do much writing, didn’t make much progress on the new revision draft of #spookyromancenovel, didn’t have much to share. I was in a slump.

So what did I do? Well, I still read a fair bit, though nothing like my August reading. I read and reviewed eleven books. I’m down to just one book left from the huge amount (over 300!) that I acquired in 2016 and have been trying to catch up with ever since–the remaining one just happens to be book #7 in a long series (the Realms of the Elderlings) and I’m currently reading #5 to get myself there. Definitely will make it by the end of the year. I’m closing in on my numerical goals for Mount TBR (83/100) and Virtual Mount TBR (41/48), so I should have no problem finishing those, too. I have 11 tasks left (of 50) for the PopSugar Reading Challenge, so I’m just ahead of pace there, as well. As I’m not participating in any monthly reading challenges specifically for October, as I have been the last several months, my plan is to prioritize PopSugar instead.

What else? The bread picture above is not mine–thank you, Pixabay–but is in honor of my new sourdough starter. I named him Cameron. He’s a week old and I’ve yet to make any bread from him, but I have used some of his feeding-discard to make brownies (I know that sounds strange but it works!) and they turned out perfectly delicious.

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Also a week old is my new cross-stitch project, and it’s a big one. It’s full-coverage (a stitch for every square) and I can say, thanks to the chart and some basic math, that it’s exactly 53,704 stitches. In the week since I started, I’ve done just over 1200–the benefit of working in 10 x 10 squares is I can easily track my progress. If I can keep up this pace (which I highly doubt, because I’ve been doing this in place of at least some of my writing time) I could be finished in as little as 45 weeks, or less than a year–but in reality, this will take me more than a year to finish and will be, by far, my largest attempted cross-stitch piece.

No, I’m not going to tell you what it is yet. Yes, the corner I’ve started is almost entirely green and gives you very little to go on. I think I’ll include new pics monthly in these updates–that will motivate me to keep working on it–so you’ll just have to live in suspense.

As for exercise, I’m getting over a serious fever now that’s kept me nearly bed-bound for three days, but before that, I set a new record for my yoga practice, 23 days in a row. (My previous record was 17, set last year when I originally bought the app. I don’t think I’ve managed more than nine or ten days without a gap since then.) So I’ve broken it with this illness, which is a shame, but either later today, if I’m feeling more energetic, or tomorrow morning at the latest, I’ll start a new attempt. If I’m diligent I could be reporting a new record, or better yet, a continuing streak, next month!

As for writing…

Well. Fictober19 starts today, and I have mixed feelings about participating in it. I began #spookyromancenovel a year ago today, and it’s been through two draft cycles and a beta read and that’s great, but you all know I’m disappointed it needs so much more work than I’d anticipated before it’s ready for publishing. I could knuckle down and get back to that, and part of me says I should. The rest of me says I clearly need more of a break, and wouldn’t Fictober/NaNo be a great time to try to draft its apparent sequel? I’ve got a good bit of it plotted already, though I set down that planning project as the end of the #srn beta neared and I thought I’d be working on that again. But I already know I work well from daily prompts, and I don’t have another idea lined up for NaNo, so what’s the harm in trying, right?

Or I could pick up one of several unfinished first drafts I have sitting in a (digital) pile and tackle finishing those, or rewriting good old #rockstarnovel, which I still adore, and still think about often, and despair of ever being satisfied with. It’s got so much potential, but it’s so, so different from any of my other works.

After I throw this post up, I’m going to take a shower and make myself some tea, then sit back down at my desk and write something. It may be Fictober-related. It may be me trying to finish a chapter from a long-ignored work. It may just be another blog post, because ideally I want to keep my usual schedule through October, which means I need one for tomorrow.

Whatever it ends up being, I’m determined to come out of this health-and-writing slump and be happily productive again. Wish me luck!

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #39)

126 - Ship of Magic.jpg

#126 – Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 9/14/19 – 9/21/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (81/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s amazing to me how this book has nothing to do with the Farseer Trilogy, explores different characters, different ways of life, different aspects of magic, and yet is still obviously and convincingly set in the same world. Kudos to Hobbs’ fantastic world-building; this is not epic fantasy where there’s only one City and everything else is vague notions of far-off places, this is a complex and cohesive setting that I have no doubt can carry the weight of the sixteen books set it it.

I fell in love with most of the characters–Vivacia, Paragon, and Brashen especially–and despite the slow, detail-heavy pace, they kept me invested over this dense 800-page story. However, that love of the characters led to a more minor version of the syndrome that frustrates me about A Song of Ice and Fire now, and years ago made me give up on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time six books in and never look back: the “make me care about a character then ignore them for a hundred pages” paradox. (In Jordan’s case, the breaking point was when my two favorite characters were entirely missing from an entire book. Martin’s ASoIaF is nearly as bad.)

Here, it did sap my will a little to be following so many POV characters across so many story lines, especially late in the story when stakes were getting really high. The most notable issue was Wintrow’s predicament after he ran away, I almost skipped ahead to find out what happened to him because I didn’t want to wait for the pace to get me there naturally. I resisted and let it happen in its own time, but I admit to pretty severe frustration.

What I think I admire most about the writing of this is that every single POV character is clearly the hero of their own story, some almost to the point of self-absorption and two in particular (Malta and Kyle) well beyond it. Even the more compassionate among them think almost entirely of themselves, and thus have only themselves to blame for their bad decisions (which are many and varied) made in pursuit of their goals.

Kyle in particular, from the perspective of basically any other character who interacts with him, is clearly wrong about nearly everything, but he nearly goes to his death still convinced that none of it is his own fault; whatever goes wrong for him is the result of the weakness, stubbornness, or willfulness of others. The fact that he’s completely incapable of introspection makes him an antagonist in this story, but an understandable one–haven’t we all known someone who has good intentions and makes decisions that are meant to benefit others, but can’t accept that they don’t know best? I hate Kyle to his very bones, but I never questioned that he wasn’t motivated by a desire for unreasonable personal power, but simply the betterment of his family’s lot in life. He’s a terrible person who does some of the most purely evil things that happen in the book, but I can still understand and even sympathize with why he does them.

And I could explore and unravel the goals and desires of every POV character in that much detail, and more. Hobb spends the whole book examining the nature of duty, loyalty, and the limits of personal freedom, whether it’s on board a ship or inside a family. The end ties together some of the individual story lines in interesting ways while leaving others completely hanging–I’ll definitely be moving on to the second book soon, though I’ll give myself a break with some lighter reads first. But I’m invested, and my quibbles with the book that kept me from giving it a fifth star are not nearly enough to stop me from continuing the story.

127 - AlterWorld

#127 – Alterworld, by D. Rus

  • Read: 9/21/19 – 9/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (82/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A LitRPG book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 10%, and trust me, I didn’t even want to read that much, but it’s my minimum personal cutoff for feeling like I really gave a book a chance.

I’m a nerd. A geek. I played World of Warcraft seriously for years, I know the lingo. And since I watch a hell of a lot of anime now, I can slot this book right down there with the worst isekai I’ve ever seen.

My complaints are many and wide-ranging, so I’d better get straight to them.

1. The grammar and punctuation are atrocious from the very first page. Given that I knew nothing about the author and this is set in Russia, I did wonder if English was not the author’s first language, and behold, upon looking him up, D. Rus is Russian. But there are Russian-language editions as well, and no translator listed anywhere I could find, so while obviously I give non-native authors leeway in their skill in English on a personal level, there’s no excuse for it in a published work, that presumably saw editing by a native speaker at some point. If it didn’t, it needs to.

2. There are no explanations for any gamer terminology given as it’s introduced. Yes, I’m a gamer and I know what it all means, but any non-gamer would be lost almost right away. Even with the understanding that gamers are the target audience and the major readership, I was still put off by seeing so much jargon go without context.

3. AlterWorld, the game, is bland and entirely generic. It’s so cookie-cutter standard that I can’t see why anyone would want to play it, let alone give up their mortal existence and live in it. I certainly don’t want to read about it. And if there are interesting aspects to it that are revealed later that I didn’t get to, well, they should show up much earlier to get me hooked, because Mr. High Elf Necromancer nearly failing to kill a level 1 bunny is just not interesting enough to keep me going.

4. The real-world setup for the idea of “perma stuck” is sloppy and rushed, just online “research” the main character breezes through with vague notions of governments being concerned about their citizenry deliberately wanting to lose themselves in online games and putting preventive measures in place. If this has been going on for two years, how has Max never heard of it? He specifically says he avoids all gaming news, and yeah, I can see where the early instances would pass him by, but if world governments are passing laws and mandating safety measures, if suicide rates are apparently skyrocketing, how big are we supposed to believe the rock is that he’s been living under? The setup simply isn’t credible.

5. Max himself is one of the most irritating narrators I’ve had the displeasure of reading this year. Half the time it seemed like he couldn’t complete a full thought before bouncing to the next one, jumping through real-world situations that could take entire scenes in a single paragraph.

I only attempted to read this because the PopSugar Reading Challenge this year called for a LitRPG book, and this was popular, highly rated, and available for free. I doubted I’d like the genre, because quite honestly, I’d rather just play a game myself than read about someone playing a game. But I tried, and it’s laughably awful, and I’m never going to touch this genre again, I’ll put those potential hours into my latest Skyrim character instead, thanks.

128 - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

#128 – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

  • Read: 9/22/19 – 9/24/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (39/48); The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book with stars on the cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It was long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the major story arc, the journey out to the newly-allied planet, isn’t introduced until a quarter of the way through the book, and then the trip itself is filled with so many short and separate subplots, I almost felt like this was a season of television instead of a novel, it was that episodic, and little from one episode carried over to another, except for very small amounts of character growth.

I like the characters, and I like the alien species we encounter, and I like the AI rights subplot, and I like the ship. It’s all very likeable. But I wasn’t really moved much by any of it, and sometimes it felt like the story was an excuse to have philosophical discussions between these likeable characters about inter-species cultural issues. To the point where, fascinating as they often were, I still felt like they were the point of the story, and not, you know, the plot.

I’m tempted to call it fluffy, because the tone is generally light and reminds me of the best parts of Firefly–except that it actually has aliens instead of endless swathes of white humans dotted with token PoC–but the subject matter isn’t usually all that fluffy. Partway through we learn that most humans are pacifists, which presents interesting dilemmas for the crew, especially the captain, when presented with violence and war. The AI stuff is about the right to exist and be recognized as equal to organic life, and then Ohan’s arc is about the right to self-determination, played out through a complicated dance of religion, disease, and culture. There’s inter-species sexytimes going on, there’s xenophobia, there’s danger. It’s not fluffy.

Yet, at the end of it, I’ve come away more motivated to write my own ragtag bunch of shipmates their own story than I am to either reread this one, or continue the series. It’s not a bad thing for a piece of media to be inspirational, not in the slightest, but I’m left with the sense that, despite the length and the extensive universe-building, I’m still missing the meat in this space-fiction sandwich. I’m still hungry for something more.

129 - The First Time She Drowned

#129 – The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter

  • Read: 9/25/19 – 9/26/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (40/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In some ways, this is an ambitious novel, tackling trauma, mental illness, toxic family relationships, and suicide all in one story. But in others, it’s lackluster–in essence it’s the same story I’ve read dozens of times across YA and women’s fiction: bad things happen to a young girl and she spends her teenage years dealing with the fallout of it. Or in this case, pointedly not dealing with it. Her family isn’t just not-supportive, they’re actively harmful to her, and while I won’t argue the existence of toxic family–I have had my own experiences there–Cassie’s nuclear family was so dysfunctional that it seemed more melodramatic than realistic.

The flowery, “poetic” language didn’t help. I didn’t find it beautiful, I found it off-putting. Eighteen-year-old girls who spend almost three years institutionalized probably don’t have internal narration that studied and literate and stuffed with metaphor. I’d have felt better about the prose style if it had been in third person instead of first, because I just couldn’t believe the inside of Cassie’s head sounded like that. (The constant inter-cutting of present and past didn’t help, either. Flashbacks are fine to some degree, but these were near constant.)

I found Cassie herself just as off-putting, if not more. I’m always hesitant to say “I don’t like this female teenage main character” because of all the sexist baggage that comes along with women not being allowed to be “unlikable” in fiction the same way men are. But I didn’t like Cassie, and more to the point, I didn’t see why anyone else would, either. In the institution, sure, friendships are going to develop between the patients because of the time spent together, the forced intimacy of living side by side for months or years, and the shared experience of being isolated from society. But once Cassie got to college, I simply didn’t understand why anyone chose to spend time with her. After Zoey saves Cassie from her illness (and her own stupidity,) she’s done her good deed and been the Good Samaritan, and yeah, maybe she hangs out for a while out of guilt or concern, but Cassie is pretty awful to be around (whether it’s by her own fault or not, ultimately.) So why does Zoey like her? And for that matter, why does Chris? His attraction seems shallow, though to be fair, so does hers, and when Zoey blatantly attempts to pair them up like an obnoxious wingman, Cassie treats Chris really badly. I can’t imagine any guy I treated that way in college doing anything other than bailing on me and finding a girl who wasn’t a complete jerk. So Chris basically likes Cassie because the plot needs him to.

The only thing I found believable about the whole story was the behavior of Cassie’s mother. In some ways she seems too awful to be true, but I’ve dealt with that kind of narcissistic, cruel, gaslighting-type behavior from a few of my family members as well, though thankfully for me it wasn’t anyone so close to me as my mother, and also thankfully, they’re no longer in my life. But the emotional manipulation Cassie suffered struck all the right (wrong?) notes in me, and I hated her mother with a deep and profound passion.

I’m not particularly pleased that the only part of the book that resonated with me was the very worst of its subject matter. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.