This Week, I Read… (2020 #30)

#113 – Buzz, by E. Davies

  • Read: 7/30/20 – 7/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 101/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is a plot that never had the potential to be more than okay, made worse by poor construction.

The quick and easy complaints: Leading with a sex scene as prologue when the characters haven’t been introduced is not going to get me interested. A character spending most of a chapter doing absolutely mundane things that don’t advance or even relate to the plot is not going to get me interested. Randomly diverting to one of the lead’s brothers for a POV is going to irritate me, especially when the lead just had a chapter he spent doing absolutely mundane things that I don’t understand why I had to read about. So why didn’t the plot point in his brother’s chapter happen then instead? Why did we constantly have to see important things through a side character’s perspective when nothing much happens during the lead’s POVs?

A slightly more complex complaint: Did we spend so much time with the minutiae of Noah’s work as an art curator so that he didn’t feel less developed than Cameron and his almost-hockey career? Because Noah’s job at any given point was either boring or explained poorly–I never got a sense of what he did or why it was causing him so much stress. He would say he was stressed but then a single phone call would clear up the problem; or he would whine that he wasn’t going to have space for everything he wanted because the big, bad (I don’t really know how to describe his antagonists here–building owners? angry stupid rich people? who did he answer to, anyway?) didn’t give him enough space. But then later he’d turn around and need to commission something new from a different artist…why do you need more art if you’re already worried about space for what you have?

Finally, as a romance this story fails the “why aren’t they together now?” question at nearly every stage, because the couple is together for most of the book, and there’s nothing really to keep them apart. There’s no real tension in their relationship, because they’re so open and honest with each other about nearly everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see men talking about their feelings, whether it’s m/m romance or not–but the only “obstacle” they encounter late in the story is Cam hiding his almost-hockey-career. From Cam’s perspective, it’s not even framed as a lie, just as an “I haven’t told you this yet” because a) they’re not serious yet, and b) he’s enjoying the relative anonymity. Noah finds out accidentally from Cam’s brother, sits on that knowledge for a chapter or two, then immediately forgives Cam without any fuss when he confesses. So, again, no tension. Cam’s ex is a total piece of trash who obviously isn’t going to storm back into his life, no matter how the brother worries Cam would take him back–obvious, pointless red herring. And there’s never any reason to suspect Cam is going to return to hockey and leave Noah behind, so the ultimate question of relationship success is merely “are they compatible or not?”

Which the narrative made it clear very early that they are. Their happy ending was inevitable–this is a romance, after all–but it was never once truly threatened, so I never had a reason to get invested.

#114 – In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

  • Read: 8/1/20 – 8/3/20
  • Around the Year: A book about a non-traditional family
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book about friendship
  • Mount TBR: 102/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Oh, boy, this is going to be messy. Unpopular opinions ahead!

What did I like about this? Luke is a treasure. He is best boy. I cannot fully express with mere words how much I love this child and need him to be happy. He is the only reason I finished this book.

As for the rest of it, I can give passes to a few things it attempted to do but failed to achieve, and I dislike the rest.

I’m always harping about the missing b-word, so credit where credit is due, Elliot eventually grows comfortable enough with his sexuality to actually use the word “bisexual.” Several times, in fact. I don’t mind that it took him so long because it’s obviously part of his coming-of-age arc. I’m less impressed with the fact that he is, by far, the one with the most active sex life, because while it shows that it’s possible for someone to learn and grow from failed relationships, even that young, it also plays into the promiscuous, flighty stereotype. The text does attempt to address this in the later stages with Elliot bracing for someone to reject him for admitting he’s bisexual, but it’s little more than a lampshade acknowledging that he fits the stereotype. As a bisexual person myself, I’m honestly conflicted about this, because there’s some good and some bad about Elliot as bi rep.

I think that pales in comparison to his place in the story as the outsider with a clear savior complex. While it’s not “white savior” in the classic sense, because everyone in this book is white, it’s impossible not to view the various fantasy species as Other when so much of the plot revolves around inter-species tension, whether it’s on the societal or personal level. But here comes Elliot, the snarky bratty pacifist who’s so much smarter than everyone else, he’s going to prove to this entire fantasy world that war isn’t the answer and his way is soooooo much better. The fact that nearly everyone in our world would agree–war is awful and we’d be better off without it–doesn’t mean he isn’t tromping in to impose his thinking on inferior (to his view) cultures. I can agree with his moral viewpoint without endorsing his actions or attitudes.

Also, I don’t like Elliot as a person. I can’t simply label his meanness as bullying, because that implies he’s seeking some sort of power over the people he mistreats, and he mostly isn’t. He’s just a deeply unpleasant person who takes literal years to realize other people have feelings too, and his behavior for 70% of the story is disgusting and cruel. I can tell I’m supposed to like him, because oh look he’s a sad boy with a bad home life and he’s unwanted and unloved and that’s why he’s the way he is…but I stopped falling for that trick years ago. I’ve had enough people in my life who were constantly, offhandedly cruel but somehow expected me to understand that they didn’t really mean it, they were just joking, hey why are you so offended. But that’s not even the case with Elliot, because we’re inside his head, and he’s not joking. He really does think everyone else is stupid, and even by the end of the book when he can grudgingly admit that some people aren’t so bad, I still didn’t like him.

On a smaller but still dissatisfying note, Serene got tiring quickly. The whole “elves are sexist but in favor of women” was a joke that started out decent but didn’t last through the whole book, and it’s not empowering for me as a woman to have a female character being as much of a raging misandrist as some real-world men are misogynist. It’s not a subversion, it’s just a reversal, and it’s not interesting for long.

So there are my issues with the story. I also have issues with the writing itself. I appreciate the effort put into showing how characters are feeling–especially Luke, who gets most of his characterization through displaying how angry or not he is with whatever insulting thing Elliot’s just said. The slow burn of this romance is telegraphed through four years of schooling and over four hundred pages–that’s the other thing that made this read at all bearable for me.

But the rest of the plot is thinner than a steamrolled penny and has pacing issues out the wazoo. If I lost focus for even a second and accidentally skipped a paragraph, the characters who I thought were in the library might suddenly be in the middle of a battle. Fights started out of seemingly nothing. Conversations usually seemed to start somewhere in the middle with no context. Scene breaks might cover thirty seconds, or months. There was no real structure beyond “this part of the book is this year of school and Elliot is this age” and the knowledge that time does indeed proceed forward, not backward, not sideways, as there’s no time travel. Events that most other books would emphasize were breezed past so we could have more time with Elliot being cranky–instead of those events being opportunities for him to grow as a character through his actions, they’re wayposts, mere plot points the story has to have but doesn’t want to linger on, so we can get back to the “good” part, the constant teenage angst.

I might have loved this when I was a teenager myself, but as an adult, I have no patience with it. Even knowing that this humor is supposed to be genre-mocking, at least partially tongue-in-cheek, most of it didn’t land for me, because as hard as I tried, Elliot never grew more funny or likable.

#115 – Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

  • Read: 8/3/20 – 8/6/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo (Keep It Simple version: set in Japan)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set on an island
  • Mount TBR: 103/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout this novel, moments of emotion I connected to. I have been depressed in my life; I have been alone; I have questioned my worth as a person because of my mental illness.

But if the character I was most interested in, who I most sympathized with, was Naoko, who quite obviously was never going to survive this story, then I don’t think this book was written for me.

This work is deeply misogynistic, but what I’m having trouble with is separating the misogyny that’s realistic/expected for the time and place, and thus appropriate for the story as a work of historical fiction, from the misogyny that’s a part of the author’s worldview. Yes, this book has a male protagonist, Toru, surrounded by complex female characters who are all important to him in some way and drive the plot forward. Generally that’s a good thing, but here, all of the women are portrayed as badly damaged. Naoko is beautiful and pure(ish) and lovable, but also struggling with an unnamed but obviously complex mental illness that isolates her from Toru. Midori is cute and fun and much more available (despite having an offscreen boyfriend for most of the book) but also emotionally manipulative and sometimes downright abusive. Reiko generally functions as the wise mentor character, as much as possible while still acknowledging that she has her own issues, but then at the very end she’s out of the care facility and sexually available to Toru, in a scene that I both saw coming from miles away and yet still can’t quite believe actually happened.

When you boil this story down to its bones, Toru himself might not view all women in terms of their sexual availability; he tires of meaningless sex with random women quickly, he decides to wait for Naoko and thus refuses Midori at first, and with Midori herself, they’re friends long before sex enters the picture. So Toru doesn’t fare too badly with me for his treatment of women, and the mistakes he makes along the way are understandable given his circumstances. He learns; he grows.

But I can’t help feeling that author sees women that way, because ultimately if there’s a named woman in this book, she’s got to perform a sexual act with the protagonist at some point. Maybe they serve another purpose in the story (Naoko being symbolic of Toru’s past, Reiko as the mentor, Midori as the future or at least its possibilities) but none of them escape the need to be sexually available to the protagonist to justify their place in the story. Reiko bothers me most in this context–I can understand why Naoko and Midori are viewed in terms of sex, they’re the two spokes of the past-future false love triangle. But why did Toru need to sleep with Reiko? It doesn’t further his arc, he would have “chosen” Midori in the end anyway. It doesn’t further hers, because if it does then that means sex made her a “real” person again after her long isolation and that’s just gross, thanks I hate it.

I almost put this book down long before any of this twisted sex-death dynamic came to light, because there’s a short list of famous works that are always red flags to me when I see them referenced, and The Great Gatsby is front and center here early on. If a creator draws on that (or a few other select titles) I’m almost guaranteed not to enjoy the work they made because there’s a fundamental disconnect between what they value and think is good, and what I value and think is good. I kept going in this case because it was clear that reading literature was part of Toru’s characterization as the young college student, and it didn’t necessarily predict that the entire work was going to be tainted by association. And since it’s been a long time since I was forced to pick apart Gatsby sentence by sentence for my high school English class, I don’t immediately see parallels between the stories that make any sense–this isn’t derivative of the classic or leaning on it thematically. Yet in the end, I’m wishing I had paid attention to that red flag, because ultimately I’m drained by this and honestly believe that I would be better off not having read it, despite those brief flashes of brilliance and connection I had.

This is a depressing work dealing with heavy topics in such a way that I didn’t gain any catharsis from it. It takes a rather grim view of mental health, despite individual characters doing their best to heal or stay strong in the face of illness; Naoko’s suicide was both predictable and inevitable. The lack of resolution in the ending leaves me unsettled in a way I don’t enjoy.

This Month’s TBR: August 2020

Last month, I failed to finish my planned TBR for the first time in 2020. No time to berate myself for it–I knew it was an ambitious amount to read, and coupled with working as hard as I did on my editing, I’m not surprised I burnt myself out.

I fell behind on Around the Year: I didn’t read The Man Who Loved Children or Rosewater. In the second case, I tried, but after getting through the prologue I decided it was too heavy a read for my mood just then. These are top priorities in August so I’m not playing catch-up forever.

The rest of the list:

  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy*
  • Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  • In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
  • The Great Passage, by Shion Miura
  • Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

All of the new books on the TBR count for more than one challenge, so I’ll be wasting as little time as possible getting back on track to finish the yearly ones on time.

(Seriously considering going lighter next year, again. I know I’ve said that before, but I’m honestly considering Mount TBR and one other year-long challenge, with no monthlies. I need to go easier on myself.)

The caveat here, that asterisk (*) on War and Peace, is that I have no intention of trying to finish it in August, only start it. I’ve got that slotted in for Around the Year for the third week in November, “A classic book you’ve always meant to read.” First of all, I’ve read 1000+ page books in less than a week, but in both specific cases I can remember, they were Stephen King novels (The Stand and Under the Dome) not classic Russian literature. My plan has always been to read it a chapter (or two or three) a day while reading other books, even though that’s not my usual style. Second, if I want to implement that plan, waiting until Thanksgiving to get started means I won’t finish by the end of the year.

I could be wrong, of course–I might get started and enjoy it so much I read it continuously until I’m done. Though that would probably mean I don’t finish the rest of this month’s TBR, which isn’t ideal.

Either way, I’m pushing past the burnout that hit me late in July. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, currently reading In Other Lands, which I hope to have finished by the time this post goes up Wednesday morning. Sure, it’s about 500 pages, but 500 pages of genre-mocking fantasy-humor. No problem, right? That should only take me a few days.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: July 2020!

The biggest news, obviously, is from Camp NaNo. I “won” on day 25, and see that final week of high word counts? I did the math on how much of the draft I had left to edit when I won, and to finish by the end of August I had to average 1910 words/day.

Obviously that meant I started pumping out 3-4K/day instead. I want to be done before the end of August! So there’s my first goal for this month.

In the reading world, that writing productivity came at a cost. I did not finish my July TBR, partially because I chose some heavy books; partially because I added two new reads to it for my indie-author book club; and partially because I hit a serious quality slump overall and felt like reading books I didn’t like for the sake of challenges was getting old. Yes, I’ve always done that; yes, reading widely means I’ll find unexpected favorites in the piles of trash. But it all hit me at once and I gave up (temporarily) on keeping up with Around the Year and PopSugar, in favor of reading whatever I wanted for a while.

All that being said, I still did read a lot, finishing fourteen books and DNF’ing just one.

My crafting hobbies took a hit. I didn’t work on that big cross stitch project at all, hence the lack of update picture. I haven’t knit anything since the first big heat wave hit in June. I did some sewing, but not much. I did a little art journaling, but again, not much–I’ll need to do more over the next few weeks if, say, I wanted to return to my art journal post series. Which I do.

Exercise! I’m running again! Slowly, and sometimes my lungs burn more than I feel like they should, but I’m out there doing it! Since I’ve started again my goal is three times a week, but sometimes it only ends up being twice. Still better than nothing, and I’m walking for as many of my errands as possible: I learned it’s fifteen minutes on foot to the nearest hardware store, when I needed to buy succulent potting mix to re-pot my beloved snake plant.

So if my writing goal for August is finish this draft ASAP, my rest-of-life goal is improve my status quo. Keep reading lots but get back on track with my challenges–I’ll be posting this month’s TBR on Wednesday. Keep running, but more often. Keep journaling, but more regularly.

I’m not looking to overhaul my life in 30 days, I just want to spruce it up a little.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #29)

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#109 – Your Irresistible Love, by Layla Hagen

  • Read: 7/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 97/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that didn’t take long. DNF @ 27%, and let me show you the quote that did it.

“Nothing. She’s a grown woman. We have to respect her decisions.”

Out of context, I’m all for this. In context, it pissed me off to no end. The hero says this to his younger brother because they’ve both been excluded from attending their sister’s divorce hearing; she doesn’t want them there, and so they’re not going.

Too bad this is a complete 180 for the hero, who has been irritating me right from the beginning with his utter inability to respect the heroine’s boundaries. She says she can’t accept his gift of a spa afternoon because she barely knows him; he refuses to take it back and insists she use it. She says she wants to explore San Francisco on her own because she’s new to town; he insists on going with her. She explicitly states that they can’t date because she’s a consultant newly assigned to his company and there’s a clause about it in her contract; he asks, “Is there really no way around that?”

He’s a control freak, and he gets what he wants. I was tolerating him even though he was acting inappropriately because the heroine a) was constantly flirting right back, which made it seem more like a game than being pursued by a creeper; and b) never stuck to those boundaries she attempted to set for more than two minutes at a time. She uses that gift card. She goes with him around San Francisco and has a great day. And at the point where I’ve given up reading, she’s actually considering how to get around that no-dating-the-boss bit of her contract. She’s clearly enabling his pursuit, despite her lip service to the contrary. So their dynamic isn’t one that sets my world on fire, but I didn’t consider it as harmful in this case as I so often do in other stories when a man thinks it’s sexy to keep pushing a woman to accept him.

But if the hero outright states that he’ll respect his sister’s decisions, while constantly challenging his love interests…

That doesn’t sit right with me.

I wasn’t really enjoying the book anyway, it’s got plenty of other issues. Stilted and unnatural dialogue, flat characters, weird pacing. I was hanging on in case things got better when they actually got together, but now I see I don’t need to, because I simply can’t respect the hero and his double standard for women’s autonomy.

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#110 – Knocking Boots, by Willow Winters and Vivian Wood

  • Read: 7/24/20 – 7/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 98/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

On top of everything else I didn’t like about this book, it has the absolute worst description of a penis that I’ve ever read in a romance novel: “…two soda cans stacked end to end.”

First of all, nobody’s schlong is really that big. Second, even if I’m wrong about that and this gargantuan penis does exist, that’s the least sexy way possible to describe it. I am not attracted to a man because he has a big penis, and I am definitely not attracted to the idea of two soda cans stuffed into someone’s jeans.

And that’s a microcosm for a lot of my issues with the book. The situations don’t make sense or aren’t realistic, and then also aren’t sexy. If I’m a lonely single thirty-year old woman who’s having fertility issues, you want to guess who one of the last people on earth I would talk to them about would be? The hot bartender I have a crush on. (I mean, I wouldn’t be telling any bartender, but especially not the hot one I have a crush on.)

If this is supposed to show me how close they are before their fake-then-maybe-real relationship starts, it doesn’t, because HE’S A BARTENDER. YOU ARE PAYING HIM TIPS TO LISTEN TO YOUR PROBLEMS. The book doesn’t even pretend to examine the customer/employee dynamic, the hot bartender is a totally fine target for the heroine’s lust and it’s totally okay that she starts hanging around the employees-only sections of the bar without explicit permission and no there couldn’t possibly be any fallout for the business if this relationship tanks, why would you think that?

Another supposed-to-be-sexy-but-isn’t situation: heroine paints an erotic picture, it’s for sale at her friend’s booth at an art fair. She calls him up, hey want to go on a fake date to this art fair? He sees the painting and buys it after finding out she painted it. She’s embarrassed but turned on.

A) if you’re that embarrassed by your work, why is it for sale in a public place? B) if you’re not embarrassed in general but you didn’t want Mr. Bartender seeing it, why did you bring him? C) if you allowed both of those conditions to be met because you actually did want him to see it, then why are you embarrassed at all? What am I supposed to get from this scene? Because it doesn’t make sense.

The plot is a basic case of baby lust vs. commitment-phobia, and yeah, that’s a thing, but the bartender doesn’t even really get over his “I don’t want to settle down” attitude. At one point (I forget whether this is during actual sex or just one of his fantasies) he’s “cured” by wanting to give the heroine the baby she so desperately desires, and then poof! his issue is gone. There’s no real self-examination, and his semi-tragic backstory to explain why he’s anti-commitment doesn’t really enter into it. It’s just over! Time for a happy ending!

Even if this is a trope I actually wanted to read, this is a really poor example of it. Not recommended.

#111 – The Runaway Bride, by Sandra Chastain

  • Read: 7/25/20 – 7/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 99/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I did a double take when I checked the publication date for this. 1999? This reads like an ’80s romance novel.

The characters are all uniformly bland, mostly because they’re all defined by being stubborn. Both of our lovebirds are stubborn, refusing to bow to the dictates of their parents and/or society. All of the supporting characters are also primarily defined by being stubborn–the plucky little urchin Joe/Josie living a pickpocket-runaway lifestyle, unmarried Ginny with her baby on the way who refuses to give up hope that she can make a good life for herself Out West, the fathers and business partners and villains–all just stubborn with little else in the way of personality.

I picked this up originally because the setting and time period were unusual for the historical romances I’ve encountered–post-Civil-War America (not during) and at least partially set in the West, but definitely not a typical cowboy Western. I thought romance in the era of railroad expansion might be interesting, but it wasn’t. It was bland. The railroad plot drove the story far more than the romance did, aided by what I consider to be the biggest flaw of the book–absolute transparency about what the villains were up to. Every so often there’d be a scene break and we’d peek in on some rich jerk back East plotting the downfall of our hero and his father. So when the big explosion happened, derailing the train and putting everyone in danger, there was no mystery–obviously someone was out to get them. Obviously somebody set those explosives, we already watched them cackle devilishly about it. So there was no tension. And we know all along who the “spy” in the hero’s camp is, but I don’t think knowing that adds to the story in any way, despite the spy getting his own romantic subplot.

The story wanted to make sure I had every bit of information I needed to understand what was going on, to the point where nothing was surprising and I didn’t have to think at all.

Lastly, it should be said that, this being set in the era of major westward expansion, Native Americans show up in the story. Early mentions of them being obstacles to the railroad spur set my teeth on edge, despite being historically accurate; but these were mostly coming from the mouths of the villains, so it was bearable. When they appear later as actual characters, they were generally treated with the sort of racism that also appears to be historically accurate, but that didn’t make it easier to read. The hero and heroine in their own fashions work as best they can within the context of their setting limitations to be “good,” egalitarian people and treat the Native characters well, but whether or not it would have actually happened that way (surely not everyone in that time period was awful, there must have been outliers) it came across strongly as putting modern views retroactively onto historical characters. I would rather have seen a plot line that didn’t require a potential feud with a Native tribe at all, so all of this could have been avoided.

The actual romantic elements of this romance were stilted and strange at best, while the larger story suffered from a lack of tension. I’m giving it that second star mostly because it was more entertaining than the two romances I saddled with one star a piece last week, but really it’s more of a one and a half. Nothing stands out in this book as noteworthy that would make me want to recommend it or reread it.

#112 – Blood of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 7/27/20 – 7/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 100/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

[StrongBad voice] IT’S OVERRRRRR!!!

Lots of you aren’t going to get that reference, but it’s exactly how I feel so I don’t care.

I don’t really care about this ending, either. I’m honestly a little amazed that once again, Hobb manages to tie up so many plot threads so neatly; but I’m just as amazed how little it affected me after spending three books with these characters.

Maybe because each individual ending felt so lackluster within the whole.

I was tolerating the Tats/Thymara/Repskal love triangle, even though I generally dislike the trope, because it was being used to give us useful information about the characters and to show the growth pains of founding a new society that could shed the restrictions of the old one. I was still sure pretty much the whole time that Tats was end-game, and no surprise there, I was right. But having Repskal sink too far into the Elderling memories and become a different person should have been a bigger plot point than simply making him ineligible for Thymara’s affections. After her rejection, he goes off to fight the big battle at the climax and I honestly thought he might die, just to drive the point home, as Greft did back in book 2. But no, he and a few other dragons and keepers finish the book offscreen in Chelced. I’m not saying he needed to die, but I don’t think that ending is satisfying.

Introducing a “love” triangle in the dragons to mirror them (sort of) at this late stage in the story felt odd and unnecessary. Tintaglia returning to the young dragons after her absence and finding them altered by their long contact with humans was great–her bewilderment at Kalo’s treatment of her was priceless, and this is one of the stronger aspects of the book, that the human/dragon changes aren’t a one-way street. But the plot couldn’t ignore Icefyre’s existence so it either had to kill him off or give him something to do, and that something was apparently be the spoke of a mating triangle.

(Also, doesn’t it invalidate the Tawny Man trilogy somewhat that killing/releasing Icefyre was the Big Quest of the series, and releasing him meant mating with Tintaglia so dragons get to survive, only it ends up she gets another mate entirely? I know that’s not clear at the time that that’s possible, or even from the outset of this series when the new generation are disfigured runts who won’t all survive, but still, if Icefyre had been killed in Fool’s Fate instead, Tintaglia’s arc here would have been different but she still would have had a viable mate available by the end. Takes some of the narrative wind out of the TM trilogy’s sails.)

Selden’s plot was more developed here than in previous books, though still thin compared to others. I’m not sure it had the room to breathe as much as it should have, but it wasn’t bad and I’m not unhappy with it.

Reyn and Malta and their baby? I don’t know, I never felt the tension. Maybe I was too sure the kid wouldn’t die, and I didn’t really believe Tintaglia would, so it fell flat.

As for Leftrin and Alice and Hest, Sedric and Carson, it all came out pretty much exactly as I expected (and as it should.) I enjoyed Sedric’s confrontation with Hest, and honestly the high point of the book for me was Hest’s eventual fate. But Leftrin and Alice deciding to get married and stay in Kelsingra was such a foregone conclusion that having to lay it out felt weird.

Ultimately, this is a technically competent ending to the series in that it leaves few threads loose and provides clear resolutions to everything the books have been juggling, but somehow most of it failed to move me emotionally even though I was invested in these characters earlier in the series (notably book 2, which I thought was amazing and rated 5 stars.)

Let Me Tell You a Story #33: How I Got Here

For the last two weeks, I’ve been participating more actively in the #writeblr community on Tumblr–I’ve always been there, but now I’m making a renewed effort to be sociable and take part in a few of the weekly events others host.

One of those is Storyteller Saturday, when writers post and answer questions relating to themselves, their style, their process, and how writing affect their lives.

This past Saturday, one of the open community questions was, in a nutshell, “tell us about your journey as a writer.” It took me half an hour to explain everything that got me where I am now, and while it’s a bit more informal than the posts I usually make here, I thought it was worth sharing with you as well.


Buckle up, kiddos, I’m older than lots of you so I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

I wrote my first book in third grade (I think. I remember which school I was at for sure, I moved a lot as a kid. Pretty sure it was third, could have been as late as fifth. I may have erroneously told this story before as second grade.) The school had just managed to buy a spiral-binding machine, was excited about it, and decided to get good use out of it every student was going to write a book for them to bind.

Mine was about a bunch of snack food coming to life in the pantry and making friends (or not) with each other. I liked having a “real” book in my hands so much when it was done that I wrote another book before the end of the year, but it was a bunch of ghost stories I “wrote” by taking ones I’d already read and changing a few details or adding a plot twist or two. My memory of it feels like fan fiction but in reality I’m sure it was much closer to plagiarism.

I don’t remember writing much in middle school; I also don’t really remember if there was a reason why, specifically. It’s just sort of a blank space. By high school I was writing lots of short stories, ranging from proto-romances to weird, experimental pieces that blended reality and fantasy in absurd ways and really leaned in on the weirdness/alienation/isolation I felt at the time, even when I couldn’t explain why I felt so different from everyone else. It’s easy to look back more than twenty years later and say well you were bisexual but you didn’t know it yet and blame that, but most of what I remember feeling didn’t have much to do with sex or attraction or my crushes–I just didn’t understand why I was “weird” and everyone else was “normal.” Didn’t everyone think about weird things sometimes, or was that really just me?

I took two admission-by-submission writing seminars in college, one for poetry and one for short stories. Despite the fact that I haven’t written poetry since college, I think I got more out of that course than the stories one, in terms of thinking about language. I have none of the material anymore that I wrote for either one, which only saddens me in one case: I managed to write a proper sonnet on the subject of an origami crane, likening the construction of the poem itself to the artificiality of the folded paper. I remember feeling like I had never written anything better. (In terms of poetry, honestly, I probably haven’t and possibly never could manage it again.) The story course, on the other hand, was taught by a professor who may have had good intentions about pushing the students towards “better” writing, but mostly just yelled at us. I stopped taking him seriously after he said (paraphrased from memory) “Science-fiction will never be as popular or influential as real literature.”

Yeah, he was anti-genre-fiction. We didn’t get along by the end of the semester.

But all the writing I did that year (I took both classes as a sophomore) did get me writing “for fun” again, and through the rest of college I attempted to write some longer fantasy works that never got finished, and probably wouldn’t have been novels even if I had finished them, but definitely were too big for short stories.

I discovered NaNoWriMo in 2003, the year after I graduated, but too late to actually participate, so I made my own over Christmas break that year, writing 51K on a single (unfinished, long-lost) story, my longest work to date. I did it a few more times and “won” but rarely finished the story after hitting 50K.

I took another long break from writing in my late twenties and earliest thirties, and for that, I mostly blame my nearly-ten years of World of Warcraft. Playing an MMO as seriously as I did, for as long, just takes so much time. I did other things for fun, of course–I had other hobbies. But writing wasn’t one of them, not for a long time.

Then comes Reddit. I discovered r/WritingPrompts and made an account and started writing nearly every day. (Yes, I still have the stuff I wrote and posted safe on my hard drive, but no, I no longer have that account. I took it down several years ago because I had posted too much personal information in other subs to feel safe maintaining it.)

Between that writing, and some other communities I was participating in, I was really starting to polish my chops. Eventually, after reading one of my stories, a person whose opinion I respected said to me “I hope you’re taking your writing seriously.”

And I realized I wasn’t. I was doing it for fun (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but I had plenty of evidence sitting in front of me that I could do more with my skill than I was.

A few months earlier, I had killed some time on a vacation writing about 24K of a weird little post-apocalyptic romance story, partially inspired by TellTale’s The Walking Dead video game, but once I got home I set it aside.

After deciding to take my writing seriously, I told myself I would take that overgrown plot bunny and turn it into a publishable work in 2015, starting on the first and having the book out by the end of the year.

And I did it. That plot bunny became What We Need to Survive. For NaNo ‘15, I wrote the first 2/3 or so of the first draft of its sequel, which I published in 2016, then the final book of the trilogy in 2017.

I WAS A REAL AUTHOR.

But I haven’t published since. Over the next two years, I dealt with serious mental health issues, a new (better) job that required a complete schedule/life overhaul, and two deaths in my extended family. I was still writing–I have three different stories that have at least a complete first draft done, plus several more in partial drafts–but nothing seemed to be worth focusing on the same way I did the What We Need series. And, you know, grief and stress and illness.

I started 2020 by picking back up my NaNo ‘16 novel, which started life as This Novel Has No Title, Just Words and a Tune, thank you Elton John. Big, gay, double-couple rock-band romance. Ambitious. Dear to my heart.

Messy as hell.

I took a stab at rewriting it in 2018 and didn’t finish, posting about it off and on as #rockstarnovel. It seemed too hard, because rereading made it clear I had given far more narrative weight to one couple over the other, but I wasn’t ready to cut the dead weight, because rearranging to focus just on the “better” couple’s story line would gut the book and change some character motivations.

This year, I bit the bullet and did it. It’s just one story now instead of two intertwined, and it’s going to be better for it.

My goal is still to publish by the end of the year, despite (waves hands vaguely in the air) everything 2020 is throwing at us. I have a week left on Camp NaNo, which I’ve spent on the third draft of Fifty-Five Days–it has a real title now! I’m about halfway through the first pass at polishing, word-count-wise. This time is on cleaning up my excesses, cutting the unnecessary, fixing details. Once that’s done, it’s time to comb through it for filler words and proofreading problems!

Then it’s time to finally let someone else read it. No one has. No one.

But that’s where I am. I will get another book out this year, dammit.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #28)

#106 – Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

  • Read: 7/16/20 – 7/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 95/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book under 300 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

A startlingly different picture of a Utopian society and what the ultimate fate is for mankind. I’ve read things like part of it–I can see traces of this story sprinkled throughout modern science and speculative fiction–but never anything approaching its whole. This was a unique experience, and that’s most of why I like it so much, despite some obvious flaws.

Discussing everything I found fascinating would make this review into a dissertation, so I’ll limit myself to highlights.

Framing the early part of the story through Stormgren and his “friendship” with one of the alien Overlords was a charming and inventive way to assure us of their relative benevolence. Usually when a story talks about the world uniting in peace, it’s against an alien threat, not under alien guidance. The Overlords are undoubtedly dictators, and but once you know their role in the full story they’re both morally questionable and ultimately sympathetic. So establishing this aura of reluctant power early was key in driving the mystery of “what the heck is going on here?”

Choosing to leave that POV character behind and time jump forward for the middle part of the book left me briefly reeling, but after a quick overview on how the Overlords restructured society, we get new characters to keep us entertained with how both like and unlike us (now) they are. For a book written nearly seventy years ago, I was genuinely surprised by how many things Clarke predicted for his Utopian society have actually happened in real life, unaided by aliens. His view of those changes wasn’t perfect, of course, limited by the technology and social patterns of his own time, but especially compared with other classic sci-fi I’ve read, this one is eerily prescient.

But this is also when I need to address the elephant in the room. For a good chunk of that Utopian description, I was wondering how he was going to deal with racial equality, or if he was going to address it at all. His thinking on what it would look like manages to be both progressive for its time and woefully naive. He explicitly has a POV character reflect on how his skin color doesn’t matter now but would have limited him in the past, okay. But in describing the few characters of color in the story, he uses terms that are frowned upon now (but language does evolve, so…) And, he manages to exoticize one of those characters by emphasizing her beauty, but she’s explicitly mixed-race, so part of her beauty is apparently whiteness. Not ideal. The real kicker, though, is that his ultimate marker for the success of racial equality (for black people, anyway) is the reclamation and destigmatization of the n-word, which yes, he did include in full. Really? That’s the high bar you set?

And on top of all that, no other races are even mentioned. This utopia fixed racism against black people, so let’s clap our hands together and say “that’s that, then” and go home happy with ourselves.

Progressive for the time, but still woefully naive.

Moving on the ending–well, I didn’t see that coming. The foreshadowing offers enough clues to make sure you feel like you don’t have the whole picture, but when that picture is revealed, it’s a real doozy. Normally I’m lax about spoilers in reviews, but I don’t want to give this away, because it was so out-there, so “this could only happen in classic sci-fi, it would be laughed at now.” I’ve skimmed other reviews and I almost can’t blame readers who felt like this was a curveball, too much, too silly, too strange. But I loved it. I loved it because I’ve always had a soft spot in my daydreaming brain for (view spoiler) and it’s so rare these days to see those taken seriously, they’ve really gone out of vogue.

I definitely recommend this for classic sci-fi fans who might have missed it (I mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey is by far Clarke’s best-known work these days) and anyone who wants a bit of a brain stretch they’d never find in modern fiction.

#107 – The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice, by E.S. Barrison

  • Read: 7/18/20 – 7/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Bear with me, this is going to get complicated and go to some uncomfortable places, but there are good things along the way, too.

A few months back I came to the realization that in a lot of cases I don’t like what seems to be a “good” story because its priorities don’t match mine. This story has good bones. This story as a debut makes me think this author is going places, because the concept and world-building feel fresh in recombining ideas I’ve seen before (and in some cases, that I love) into something original.

But the text itself prioritizes plot over character over lore. That doesn’t match my priorities, and that’s certainly not the author’s fault. But I also don’t believe it’s the right balance for this story.

Massive, massive spoilers ahead, and I’m not going to mark them all because it would look like I’m trying to leak a classified document. Stop here if that’s not what you want from a review, and take away from this that the book is good enough that I wished it were also better than it is.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I love that the core of this story is about the love between two people becoming the strength they need to defy a world order that would stifle them both into nothing. Sign me up, I am on board. What I don’t love is that Brent and Bria love each other because. There’s no romance, there’s no growth of their relationship. They were in kiddie love before the story starts, then circumstance and a few poor choices separated them, then they were in love again; it’s all tell and no show.

I love that Brent is an atypical, clumsy, bumbling, endearing protagonist. He is a disaster and I want good things for him. But I don’t love that he never finishes his sentences because of an overuse of ellipses in dialogue (not limited to him but worst with him.) I love that the story puts his mind and identity at risk, because that’s an interesting type of danger, but I don’t love that it means Bria has to keep dragging him back to reality (constant emotional support) when I don’t see evidence she gets equal support from Brent.

That leads to my next issue: just how often is it really necessary to have Bria nearly raped? I’m not opposed to sexual violence being included in a story, but this casual and repeated treatment of it just hurt to read. I have actually lost count of how often it happens, and in nearly every case, she’s pretty much fine in the next scene–no one does much to acknowledge what has happened to her (aside from Caroline remarking that one of her assailants deserved his fate, I did appreciate that.) The story moves on as if it weren’t a traumatic event. This is in pretty marked contrast to the treatment of the little girl’s soul that Brent releases–she was molested, and when Brent loses his identity in hers, he experiences some of that horror, and it’s taken seriously. It’s just not a good look that rape matters when the male suffers it vicariously, when the female lead can’t take ten steps without somebody trying to assault her, but don’t worry, she’s fine. (This is, by far, my biggest complaint about the book.)

As for the relative lack of attention to world-building, that’s really an odd choice here, because there’s plenty of magic, and it gets explained and structured well enough I could mostly follow it, yet there’s very little sense of place. The settings for scenes rarely get described beyond the most basic, and since the tunnels can take B+B anywhere, distance doesn’t matter and nothing feels grounded. So that’s weak, but on the other hand, I love that the structure of the world is “here’s these two apparently opposed systems, the Order and the Mist Keepers” and you’re meant to think Brent should be a Mist Keeper, except they’re actually both bad? The Mist Keepers are actually sort of awful people who hate magic that isn’t like theirs? I love it! I love that the whole system of Brent’s world is “evil” and he and Bria escape for a while to a distant city where magic is accepted and they can live peacefully for a bit! I love that Brent reinvolves himself in his former world because he feels responsible for the monster he accidentally let loose! I love that he (apparently) sacrificed himself to defeat it! It’s a solid cliffhanger ending. What I don’t love is that I could rarely “see” the story in my head because it took place in settings given only the most generic of descriptions.

So to bring it back to my original hierarchy, this book is plot-based, and a lot about the plot is solid and interesting. But by focusing on moving the action briskly from one point to the next, we lose out on character development and sense of place, both of which I think would enrich this story more than having some of the subplots or minor characters that are squeezed in.

I do want to know what happens, though. Cautiously optimistic for the eventual sequel.

#108 – An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

  • Read: 7/21/20 – 7/24/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the New York Times ‘100 Notable Books’ list for any year
  • Mount TBR: 96/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Though I didn’t pick it up specifically because it was an Oprah pick, this is an incredibly “book club” book. What I mean is that I’d rather talk about what it wants to say rather than what it actually said.

Though Roy’s arrest and trial happen at the speed of light, barely a single chapter, the shadow it casts over the story is inescapable. The point isn’t the process; the point is the aftermath. And on the surface, yes, it’s awful and I’m queueing up books about prison abolition so I can learn more about it.

But for a book with this little plot, a book that should be a character study while we watch the shifting relationships unfold, I don’t like any of the characters. Not even Roy, by the end, whom I felt incredible sympathy for throughout most of the book.

I thought–I hoped–that this would give me a more nuanced look at infidelity by approaching it from the incarcerated-husband angle. I hate books about cheating, and I inevitably hate cheaters. I don’t think infidelity is interesting, but usually when I’m decrying it as the central plot point or theme of a work, I’m railing against some Old White Male Author whose literary “brilliance” is an excuse to write a blatant self-insert protagonist who gets to have an affair with a beautiful, often much younger woman. Whether the story is autobiographical or merely a fantasy of what they wish they could get away with, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and a twisting stomach.

Here, it could have been more interesting, and I’m truly disappointed that it wasn’t. Roy was sympathetic until he got out of prison and fell into the arms, kitchen, and bed of the first woman he recognized from high school. (And I don’t understand her motivations at all, having a brief fling with a guy you haven’t seen in years and don’t really know, then acting like he should move in and forget about trying to go back to his old life.) Also his treatment of Celestial at the very end; telling her he could rape her if he wanted to, then expecting brownie points for not raping her. Absolutely disgusting. I tried to keep an open mind about Celestial, but even if I could forgive her the loneliness of being separated from her husband for so long, she was selfish about everything else in her life too, so why would I think for a second that she wouldn’t end up cheating? And Andre was a placeholder, a trope, the best friend. Andre was the biggest disappointment of the whole book, not even because he knowingly got involved with a married woman, but because he never managed to convince me he mattered.

The central problem I have with this setup is that none of the main characters, at any point, actually seemed to love each other. I’m not expecting romance-levels of devotion or high melodrama. Roy and Celestial never had a marriage worth saving, but Celestial and Andre were even worse. There’s no on-page evidence that they actually care about each other, Andre isn’t even believable as the best friend. Andre’s constant close-lipped, “this is how it is, accept it” attitude gives him an out from actually having to say to Roy that he loves Celestial, and I simply don’t believe that he does, because he has the least personality of anyone in the whole book.

The only character I believe actually loved their spouse was Big Roy. Big Roy is a treasure.

If I’m supposed to be invested in the outcome of this tangled set of relationships, shouldn’t the characters be worth caring about? Shouldn’t there be love present, shouldn’t I either be rooting for Roy to win Celestial back, or even Andre to stay with the woman he loves? But neither side of this “love” triangle is worth investing in, because the point was never the love, it was the struggle.

Alternately, if the point of the book is “you can’t go home again”–because that’s definitely the message I got from the ending–then why isn’t this just Roy’s story of getting out, finding that his wife has essentially left him, then reintegrating in society with a new woman and a new job, as he does in a one-page letter in the epilogue?

As usual, I’m coming out of a book about cheating thinking that everyone involved is a bad person in some way. I know that doesn’t align with popular opinion, but if this book made me angry about our broken justice system (and it did manage that!) it didn’t get me invested in the fallout of justice’s failure. I still don’t find infidelity compelling enough to carry a story. Morally gray characters will only keep me going if there’s something believable or interesting (like love!) to make me want to examine their “hard” choices, but here, the emotions are simply too shallow or not even present at all.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #27)

#103 – Sphere, by Michael Crichton

  • Read: 7/10/20 – 7/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 93/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with the night sky on the cover (or a black cover)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Given that I saw the movie once, twenty years ago, and remember not being impressed, I was prepared to be disappointed by this. I recalled a few key events of the plot, but not the ending, and of course I didn’t know what got changed or cut for the adaptation anyway.

To my page-turning delight, I was not disappointed. For a good chunk of the book, I can honestly say I was enthralled. Give me unreliable narrators, mysterious technology of unknown origin, and lots of action, and I will be glued to the page. It’s been a while since I read a thriller that was actually thrilling.

But this isn’t flawless, and some I can forgive more than others. Crichton’s writing style has always been more adequate than good, and this one in particular is heavy on dialogue and military jargon that hasn’t aged well. In fact, this book is so reliant on then-current technology for its setting that a reader who was not alive in 1987 might be mystified by some of it, and god only knows this plot wouldn’t work half so well with 2020 technology. It’s still good sci-fi if you also consider it historical fiction of a quite recent time period.

So that’s reasonable in my eyes, but the character issues…those are dicier. Part of the reason this feels so heavy on dialogue is that a great deal of the conflict is character-based, which requires more development than say, Jurassic Park. Not that it’s not a fantastic book/movie for other reasons, but those characters are pretty thin. Here, though, by the end those well-developed characters (relatively speaking, for a Crichton novel) are broken back down to incredibly simple archetypes as part of demonstrating how they would break under stress–the hyper-intelligent black man becomes paranoid that the two white characters are teaming up against him because of his race; the white woman is convinced she’s a constant victim of sexism throughout her life, culminating in the remaining man trying to wrest control from her; that one remaining man, a middle-aged white psychologist, cannot conceive that he might be the one at fault and is quick to diagnose the others as the problems.

All of it is reasonable, sure; it could happen that way. But it all felt simplistic, reductionist. And because of the events leading up to this flattened view of the characters, because of the pacing which had a bunch of solid action before a meandering and philosophical climax, I did feel a bit let down by the ending. Not in what happened, precisely, but in how it unfolded. The beginning was a big of a slog to set up the mystery, the middle was fun and strange and sometimes pulse-pounding, but the end was cerebral and reflective, lacking some of the tension I wanted.

#104 – The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

  • Read: 7/11/20 – 7/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 94/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have so many issues with this that I’m not even sure how to make a structured review out of them. I’m usually pretty good at that.

It’s too long and too slow. Lots of padding. Some of the padding I actually liked–sure, the descriptions of Janus Rock and how lighthouses work didn’t need to be as fleshed out as they were for the story to function, but at least they were interesting to me. The plot did not justify all the extraneous POV characters who took control for a few pages to little purpose, nor did I want to read the history of every person who had ever had even the most tangential connection to the main characters, especially the kid.

The first half and second half felt like different books. The first half is centered on isolation and grief and family and the lighthouse; the second half is “this is where everything goes wrong and now everyone’s life is constantly miserable forever.”

The ending is unsatisfying. It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it provides no clear message and gives no closure.

None of the characters felt sympathetic to me. The narrative sure spent lots of time explaining everyone’s motivations for their selfish actions, but failed to make me feel anything about them other than bewilderment or disgust. No one was great, but Isabel was the worst–I could tolerate her at first by reminding myself that her selfishness was born from intense grief, but when they got found out and she turned on Tom in a fit of ridiculous melodrama, I couldn’t pretend anymore. Her argument was basically “You didn’t help me keep committing this crime so clearly you never loved me or our fake daughter and I will hate you forever!” Am I supposed to feel bad for this woman? Because I barely did to begin with, and after that point in the story I definitely didn’t.

(As a side note, strangely enough, I was actually hoping this might be good because I have the movie tie-in cover, and somehow, despite his popularity, I’ve never seen a movie starring Michael Fassbender. I hear he’s great, but the only thing I’ve seen from his entire career is 300, and he had such a small part, and also I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I’m not watching this movie. Even if it’s better than the book, that still doesn’t mean it would be good, and since I didn’t like the story at all…)

#105 – Like Falling Stars, by Avalon Roselin

  • Read: 7/14/20 – 7/16/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is outside my usual reading tastes–I rarely read middle-grade anymore and I’ve had a bad run lately with fairy-tale-like books–but it was one of this month’s selections for the indie-author book club I belong to. I ended up with some strongly mixed feelings, so let’s start with the good stuff.

I liked a lot about this. Structurally it’s basically a slow-burn friend-mance; I recognize a lot of story beats from a typical romance, though friendship is the end goal here, as is carefully and tactfully pointed out from time to time. And that’s a better take on the young(ish) girl/immortal-and-much-older man dynamic that never seems to go completely out of style. Faeries and humans are different enough, and Nicolas himself isolated enough, that it’s more believable that Ann is opening him up to friendship and not romantic love.

I love that Nicolas is a crafter/artist. He sews, he paints, he bakes, he candy-makes. (Yes, I made up that word for to get a rhyme. What can I say, this is a pretty lighthearted read.) He’s stuffy and stiff-necked and insecure, while also being intelligent and yes, kind, when he’s motivated to be. His fumbling early attempts to be a good host are adorable, and everything related to the in-universe book Caring For Your Human was utterly charming.

Ann I found to be more challenging to know and like as a character. In the end, there’s some justification for that, and clues to her history hidden within the issues I had with her, so I can’t say much without spoiling that completely. But the very vagueness of her amnesia made her difficult to pin down, unpredictable. I can appreciate the craft involved in her portrayal, but retroactively it doesn’t really make me more comfortable with her or her role in the story. (Also, she treats everyone she meets like they already know she has amnesia, even when she doesn’t tell them, and every single one of them takes it completely in stride. I’m trying to chalk that up to “this is a fairy tale” but that threw me whenever it happened.)

Which leads me to the things I didn’t care for as much. Ann is one step up from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in function, and I don’t like that dynamic in general, but especially when 90% of the other characters are male…seriously, where are the women in Faerie? There’s the Queen, she’s important, and there are some random girl faeries at the Yule party. (I don’t recall any really being mentioned earlier on at the fall festival.) All of Nicolas’ friends/former friends are male–his predecessor was female but she’s long gone. The town librarian is male and has a boyfriend he constantly mentions. So the only other woman of importance in the story is the witch…who is not the greatest person at any point in the story for a number of reasons.

Yeah, sure I love that the book is queer-inclusive, but it rings a little hollow if the only queer relationships shown are m/m, even when romantic relationships aren’t the point of the story. Why don’t any of those random female faeries at the Yule party that Ann makes friends with for about ten seconds introduce their girlfriends? On top of all of the important friendships in Nicolas’ past being exclusively male relationships, this felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth. It feels like male relationships are being prioritized (aside from Nicolas’ growing friendship with Ann–but hey, her friendship “fixes” his other friendships, so it’s still kind of about men.)

So Ann does have an arc of her own, which means she’s not fully MPDG, but if half of her purpose is to discover who she is, then the other half is to make Nicolas less of a jerk through the power of friendship. I don’t think it’s the greatest look, especially for a younger target audience, that the heroine (who has a murky backstory for reasons) is constantly spending a great deal of her emotional energy trying to better the life of the hero who has a rich and complex backstory complete with lost friendships and long-held grudges, who is part of a richly detailed and complex society, and what’s more, who has power in that society. That imbalance between the development of their characters, while understandable eventually for Plot Reasons, made me uncomfortable the whole way through.

My last complaint is that this book felt longer than its actual run time. It meanders through the plot at a relaxed pace, and the narrative style often errs on the side of wordy and complex, which I think is strange for a MG novel–usually those are written more simply, with straight-forward grammar and structure.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Checking In

Today is the halfway point, so I thought it would be a good time to update.

My combined word count as of yesterday for writing/editing: 32,980/50,000.

It’s clear I’m going to “win,” because boy, howdy, is line editing faster for me than writing new material. My highest daily word count so far is 4,113, and on the days I was tracking my start and stop times, I clocked rates of anywhere from 1500-2000 words an hour.

The funny thing is, I don’t actually know how long the second draft of Fifty-Five Days is that I’m editing, so I don’t know how much more I have to go beyond the standard 50K goal. I wrote it completely on 4thewords, divided into separate chapter files. But I’ve got the original and my failed 2018 rewrite stored there, too, for easy access; each draft in a separate folder under the parent project. I know the project as a whole is currently at 300K–but the individual folders don’t have totals! I’ll either have to add the count for each chapter up (not a chore I look forward to) or transfer all the material to a single document that will count for me (not something I plan to do until I have a draft someone else gets to read.)

Most of my novel drafts clock in somewhere between 95-110K, but even if that “feels” right for this, that’s still a big window. And it actually could be longer, I cut quite a few chapters but I think I added at least as many new ones.

(sigh)

Whatever the total is, the plan at this point is to keep working until it’s done. Draft four (or maybe, more accurately, 3.5) can start immediately after that, no break necessary, when I drag this draft over the coals of my filler-word list to make the language even tighter and neater than I’m doing now.

The world may have gone to pieces around me in the spring, and I had some setbacks, but Camp NaNo is giving me the push to get back to work and hopefully still get this book out in 2020. That was the goal, and I’m sticking to it!

Down the TBR Hole #32

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

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

My TBR has grown a bit in recent weeks, thanks to me joining an independent-author book club (more on that later!) and many excellent book lists going around for marginalized groups.

It’s a bit late this month, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get done: time to nitpick my TBR and see what can get cut!

#1 – The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, by Esther Perel

I saw someone in my Tumblr circle mention this and thought it sounded interesting, not so much in a “maybe cheating isn’t so bad” way but a “we don’t talk about this much in any nuanced way in society” kind of way. And though my personal stance on infidelity is about as hard-nosed as there is, and I don’t think this book would change my mind about that, it could still be interesting. On the other hand, the reviews point to lots of anecdotes, little data, and sweeping generalizations about other cultures. Pass.

#2 – The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson

I clearly remember reading The Lottery in middle school, and as an adult I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It wasn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it enough to want to read more by Jackson. This seems like an excellent next read (though I’m pretty sure I have more of her works on the TBR somewhere–I think I already okayed The Haunting of Hill House to stay on my TBR, and if I haven’t, when I get to it, I likely will.

So, yeah, this stays.

#3-10 – Dark Academia List Recs, various authors

The next few books all come from an unusual book rec list I saw exactly once and haven’t spied since: “female-written dark academia books that aren’t The Secret History.” I had read TSH and loved it, so I dug through the list and put everything that sounded even vaguely interesting on my TBR.

But in the years since, I’ve grown less interested in “dark academia” as a genre/aesthetic due to criticisms of both its general whiteness and lack of inclusion of other cultures, and the view from actual academia that it romanticizes their work/lifestyle in unhealthy ways while ignoring its difficulties and, you know, the actual work they do.

So with that in mind, I’m approaching this as “would I still want to read this book if I had heard about it from another source? can it stand on its own without the association?”

#3: The Chinese Garden, by Rosemary Manning — Queer boarding school story set in the 1920s, written in the 1960s? That’s enough of a hook on its own, this stays.

#4: Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey — A 1940s murder mystery set at a college. Nope, I’m good, thanks.

#5: Olivia, by Dorothy Strachey — More queer boarding schools! This one is touted as “a classic of lesbian fiction,” so yeah, I’m still interested.

#6: Regiment of Women, by Clemence Dane — An illicit lesbian affair between two teachers at a finishing school, which is undoubtedly why it made its way onto my TBR. But the blurb is almost nothing to go on, and many of the few reviews discuss how this comes across as anti-homosexuality, while others claim its portrayal of the “evil” lesbian is worthwhile because it displays far more nuance than the heterosexual ending the heroine gets. It sounds challenging and complicated, and if my goal were to deeply study portrayals of queerness through history, I’d want to read this even though it sounds like I wouldn’t enjoy it. But my TBR is (mostly) about reading for pleasure, so this goes.

#7: The Small Room, by May Sarton

Apparently the entire point of this novel is the view of college life as a pristine, privileged bubble of learning, and the dark part is when scandal strikes. Maybe it would still be interesting, but it doesn’t appear to have anything else to offer. It goes too.

#8: Frost in May, by Antonia White

Semi-autobiographical fiction, written in the 1930s, about a young girl sent to a convent when her parent converts to Catholicism. So not my thing.

#9 – The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson

A coming-of-age, “how do I fit in” story of an Australian country girl going off to a city private school. And it was published in 1910. The big draw seems to be the timelessness of the story–many reviewers commented that the struggles of the main character could have happened much the same way a hundred years later. But I’m not specifically in the market for these stories, especially after my last bildungsroman read was actually painful. Almost made it, but I’ll pass.

#10 Miss Timmin’s School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy

Remember how at the top I said part of the problem with dark academia is its whiteness? Well, here we’ve got a boarding school novel set in India and written by an Indian author. That makes me inclined to keep it as part of broadening my horizons. Problem is, the reviews overall aren’t great, and some specifically challenge its presentation of the queer elements of the story, which doesn’t give me high hopes. I think, coupled with me wanting to shed the aesthetic as much as possible, this should probably go too. Plus it’s a mystery at heart, one of my least favorite genres.


I cut 7/10 this month, and it definitely felt good–these were mostly impulsive additions that I probably never would have gotten to, anyway. As always, if you’ve read any of these and have opinions to share, let me know in the comments!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #26)

#100 – Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 7/1/20 – 7/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 90/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a 5-star prediction [holy crap was I wrong about that]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Given the nature of the first book’s ending, I expected many things from this book. I expected Breq to take her shiny new ship and shiny new officers and go to the system where Lieutenant’s Awn’s sister was and get involved deeply in politics there and muck things up in an effort to eventually make them better, while figuring out how to stymie the Lord of the Radch’s next plan for civil war with herself.

I expected all of that, and I got it. What I did not expect was that it would bore me half out of my mind.

What this book did not give me was any sort of emotional connection to any character, least of all Breq herself, whom I was so heavily invested in before. As her identity as an AI is no longer a novelty to be explored by the text, in this story her near-emotionless state of being is a dull slog as she batters her heavy-handed way through one transparent social justice issue after another. It’s not that I don’t think someone should do their best to fix things like domestic abuse, extreme poverty and its attendant social isolation, and wage slavery–Breq has power and consistently attempts to use it for good–but there’s no personal stake in it to show me why she’s invested, because the personal stake I thought she was meant to have, the sister, had almost nothing to do with anything and definitely wasn’t involved in ninety-five percent of the politicking. It’s a variation on the white savior trope, shifted to accommodate that no one in this universe is actually white; but no matter everyone’s skin colors, the point stands, because Breq is an outsider with sweeping power who marches in, decides to fix everything, doesn’t do enough to consult with the actual people she’s “saving,” and messes up along the way. (She does get called on it and allows one of her lieutenants to set up a consultation office, but doesn’t do anything directly except to back off slightly herself. No matter how many people say to her face that she’s mishandling things, she’s still convinced she was right to get involved because Justice is Good.)

At points it was actually painful for me to read how thinly and obviously all of these terrible injustices could be fixed so that Breq could move along to her next objective. Let’s just stack every intractable social issue in her way so she can knock them over like dominoes! Breq can fix anything!

And then at the very end, we get back to the “real” plot where the Lord of the Radch is presumably amassing an army of stolen ancillaries in secret behind an unused gate in an empty system where no one ever goes, except maybe it’s not her? Maybe they should probably deal with that but the book ends without a tangible cliffhanger or any clear forward momentum for the final book? Maybe this was just a killing-time side trip that took up way too much space because the actual “mystery” of what’s going on behind that gate couldn’t possibly fill more than fifty pages and something had to take up the other 300?

After how much I adored the first book, this was such a terrible disappointment. I have the final book and I’m probably still going to read it for completion’s sake, but it will be a while before I can muster the energy because now I’m no longer excited about this series in the slightest.

#101 – The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

  • Read: 7/5/20 – 7/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 91/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with an “-ing” word in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a translated book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I tried to like it. I even tried to like it for its own sake, and not because I have fond memories of the first movie. (I’ve seen the second several times, not because it’s good–it isn’t–but I was just the right age in the years following its release to have an adolescent crush on Jonathan Brandis. Ah, I’ve made myself sad now.)

But this is just clunky, pedestrian storytelling at best and slogging stupidity at worst. This happened. Then this happened. Then Atreyu did this. Then Bastian did that. It was almost tolerable until the midpoint, while the story had some clear momentum and a goal in mind, but the second half is a directionless mire of Bastian becoming a terrible person. I might have appreciated the balance of symbolism there (Bastian saves Fantastica, then Fantastica in the form of his friends Atreyu and Falkor “save” him in return) if Fantastica in the form of AURYN wasn’t the very thing that was ruining him in the first place. What am positive message am I meant to get from that? Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Thanks, got it, not sure what it’s doing chained around the neck of a childhood fantasy hero. Bastian’s redemption isn’t even well-written, it just kind of happens; he only gives up AURYN after it holds no more power because he has no more memories for it to take. That’s not showing him to really be making a choice to set aside power, is it?

Even more than its garbled message though, I take issue with the style. It’s a fairy tale to the nth degree, where nothing has to have any kind of explanation or make even the slightest lick of sense. The “world-building” consists of a small set of rules that are constantly overturned for plot convenience. (Does Fantastica have borders? You’ll get four different answers depending on which part of the book you’re reading.) Events don’t lead to each other with any kind of pattern or logic, it’s all just “check out this cool place where Bastian climbs a big tree” and then “now he’s in a desert but it’s all different colors and there’s a death lion” followed by “now there’s a bunch of knights and a tourney for some reason” and then “watch him wander aimlessly while alienating his friends.” Everything that could have been wondrous to me was spoiled by the boring, repetitive language used to describe it, all telling, no showing. (Which, to be fair to the author, is generally the style of fairy tales and not a criticism I’ve reserved for this work alone.)

Sometimes I can look at a work for a younger target audience and say “yeah, I may not like it much as an adult but I would have LOVED this then.” But not in this case. I would have been as bored with this book at ten as I am at forty.

#102 – General Winston’s Daughter, by Sharon Shinn

  • Read: 7/8/20 – 7/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 92/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Original 2015 rating: 3 stars, no review. (I didn’t start reviewing every book I read until 2016.)

I’ve lowered this to two upon rereading. Whatever charm I saw it in the first time around has mostly vanished under the weight of the Imperialism for Dummies layout of the story. Sheltered and wealthy girl travels to a foreign country occupied by her nation’s army, learns that colonizing places is bad and of course the natives don’t want them there, falls out of love with her pro-empire army officer fiance and then in love with another officer who’s only in the military because he’s a foreigner from another subjugated nation and it’s basically the only decent career path open to him. Think England and India, because I sure did, though this is all fantasy; you could make a compelling argument that Aeberelle is a hybrid of Victorian England and 1940’s wartime USA, which I got a strong vibe of from the constant parties thrown for young women to flirt with all those handsome officers. Xan’tai isn’t culturally like India (in fact very little is said about its culture to draw any sort of real-world parallel with) but fits the pattern of older colony whose people become somewhat accepted into the home society, though never regarded as anything but second-class citizens.

The nation where the story actually takes place, Chiarrin, doesn’t closely resemble any culture I know about at all, but that doesn’t detract from the story.

So, as a work of fantasy, this feels thin, probably because it spends most of its runtime inside Averie’s head dealing with her teenage flights of emotional fancy and the growing pains of realizing her country is a racist bully. As a romance, it’s even thinner, because she has to spend half the book falling out of love with her fiance before she can “realize” she’s in love with other man, and he’s just not well-developed enough for me to believe that. Do I like Ket personally and would I want to get to know him better? Sure, the few personality traits he has are ones that appeal to my tastes. But most of his actual screen time is being politely stoic about all the racism around him, including the unintentional stuff from the heroine, and then saving her occasionally from scrapes she gets into.

If you feel like I’ve been writing a one-star review for this book so far, I can’t blame you. Centering a YA fantasy-romance on a white girl starting to unlearn her racist ideas and fall for the “exotic” hero who rescues her from danger…it’s pretty bad. (And yes, the text does call him “exotic and appealing” once.)

But there are a few good points as well, mostly in isolated plot moments that stand out as unusual compared to my other reading. The breakup scene between the heroine and her fiance was actually kind of brilliant for being a mutual decision portrayed as sad and full of regret for what could have been; even if the fiance is a pro-colonizing moral trashfire, it’s clear that he’s emotionally invested and really heart-broken–he would have been a good husband who cared about the heroine. There’s a serious plot twist late in the book that I won’t spoil, but knowing about it for this reread, I was looking for the foreshadowing I missed originally and I’m impressed with how it’s present, but it can all be adequately explained in context, so the surprise really is surprising. And the heroine’s characterization carries her right through to her happy ending; she’s compassionate and impulsive through and through, and that informs how she decides to move forward with her life at the end, when events have freed her from what would have been her life if she had married as originally planned, and she pursues her foreign lover. It’s clear she’s changed over the course of the story, but the axis of that change is intellectual, not emotional–she hasn’t had her personality beaten out of her by the events of the book. She’s just trying to be a better person now.

(I could write probably another five hundred words on whether or not her choices in the ending qualify her as a white savior or not, but at this point, does it matter? It’s clear I’m not recommending this book to anyone, despite my general love for Sharon Shinn. This one’s not even close to her best work, and though I haven’t read everything of hers–yet–I’d say it’s probably in the running for worst.)