This Week, I Read… (2021 #20)

#53 – The Falconer, by Elizabeth May

  • Mount TBR: 50/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Finally got around to reading this, years after the hype. I actually own the whole trilogy, thanks to the ebooks going on sale for 99 cents a piece, but I’m not inclined to go on with the series.

Why not?

Let’s start with the most obvious: why bestow upon your main character the title of “Falconer” when there are no birds of any kind in the entire book? This just goes unremarked upon for half the book until Mr. Dark and Broody Fae finally explains what the title means and why Aileana is one. Even if she doesn’t have a falcon.

It’s meaningless. And no, at the moment, I don’t care if she gets a bird in the second or third book. It’s the damn title of this one.

So it’s a well-established fact that I hate love triangles as a trope, it’s one in a million if I can even tolerate one in a story. But here, I finally have a new experience–I actually prefer the losing man. I like Gavin 1000% better than Kiaran. I’m not an angsty teenager anymore, I don’t want the many-hundreds-of-years-old supernatural love interest who’s damaged and mysterious but loves the naive young heroine because she’s just so damn plucky. I want the good, solid dude who’s right there in front of me, being a friend, being considerate as much as possible, doing the right thing, the one who’s loyal and steadfast rather than capricious or downright evil.

As much as anyone gets to have a personality in the midst of this action-action-action fest that barely slows down to think, Gavin comes out on top, and I’d marry him pretty willingly in our heroine’s shoes. When it’s first announced to her, I thought, “Cool, she’s going to marry someone who knows her secret, they could work something out about her quest for vengeance and fae-killing, etc, while still maintaining a veneer of respectability in the human world.”

…but no, that would actually be interesting, so she’s got to end the book kissing Kiaran and being all sad that she has to lock him in the mystical prison in order to save the world. You know, just like Buffy had to kill Angel to close the portal to Hell…wait, was I not supposed to notice that?

I’m not the first reviewer to notice similarities to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in tone and overall plot concepts more than actual details, but Kiaran is early-seasons Angel down to his bones, and Aileana wishes she had as much personality or depth as Buffy. She doesn’t. As for whether this is near-plagiarism-similar to another particular fae YA series, well, I’ve never heard of that one before and thus haven’t read it, so I can’t say. I can say that aside from moving the standard Fae Dark Romance concept to a steampunk historical Scotland, it’s wildly unoriginal. I’ve seen all this before many, many times, and by not giving me my damn falcon companion to bond with, and ignoring a wealth of potential in making Gavin the winner of the love triangle, it’s repeatedly choosing the safe, well-tread path.

Also, even though I knew there was a cliffhanger so I wasn’t shocked by it, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed with how clumsy and abrupt it was. That ending is just bad.

#54 – The Prince and Other Writings, by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn

  • Mount TBR: 51/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: An anthology
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In this case, I want to make it clear that my rating is not a reflection of how “good” the book was, but how much I got out of it. I’m not trying to trash a classic of philosophy and political thought. But I also don’t read much about philosophy or political thought, and this work reminded me why.

It’s dry as hell.

I admit to skimming, past a certain point, because especially in “The Prince,” which leads the collection, Machiavelli follows an incredibly clear formula: open a chapter with his thesis statement, explain it a little in generalities, mention a few applicable real-world examples, and then go in-depth on one or more of those examples, before summing his point up at the end. I was able to skip most of the in-depth assessments, because they were basically meaningless to me, as I am not a student of Italian history and had no idea who most of the figures he mentioned were. Some of them continue to loom large in historical perspective today, but many don’t.

What did I actually take away from this? Well, mostly, a rebuttal of the reason I read it in the first place. This is well outside my comfort zone, but I’ve been hearing the descriptor “Machiavellian” thrown around idly for years, and like many, I’d come to understand that it meant cruel or even flat-out evil. I thought, if this is such a foundational work that the author gets his own adjective, I should probably read it at some point, yes?

But I didn’t get a sense of cruelty or evil from his philosophizing at all. Sure, he’s definitely espousing “the ends justify the means” as an overall theme, and he advises duplicity in leaders, to project an image of what he considers “good” while sometimes doing bad behind the scenes in order to promote stability. So from a broadly modern perspective, he’s less than perfectly moral. But he does spend a chapter pointing out that acquiring power through criminal activities isn’t a strong foundation for power. And I discovered that the famous “better to be feared than loved” tidbit is a misquote.

He’s not evil, or promoting evil. He’s just a realist and a pragmatist, from a time in history and political structure incredibly different from ours. No, I personally don’t agree with the idea that the only way for a prince to be a strong leader is to have a kick-ass military. But in context, I do understand why Machiavelli thought that, and advised his own patron thus. I don’t think most of this is applicable to modern day life, but it’s still useful to understand how Machiavelli changed political thought with his writing.

So I’m glad I read it, even if I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m glad I have a more accurate understanding (even if it’s still a basic one, because politics is Not My Thing) of what this famous person really said, versus what common knowledge claims he said. And while I don’t think I was ever using it that much, I’m going to stop throwing around the term “Machiavellian,” because it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, but I alone can’t stop the tide of people using it incorrectly. (Or, if you want to be really pedantic, using it correctly because that’s what the term has come to mean, even if that meaning is now divorced from its source. Because I can’t in good descriptive faith argue that “Machiavellian” doesn’t carry connotations of evil and cruelty–it does. What I am arguing is that it shouldn’t, but that’s not a fight linguistics will ever win.)

This Week, I Read… (2021 #19)

#50 – Persepolis Rising, by James S.A. Corey

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: More than one author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

So I’m about to spend this review criticizing and nitpicking what is essentially a really strong book. Do I like it as much as several of the others in the series? No. But I also wouldn’t still be reading the series if it had fallen off a cliff already.

Consider everything after this to be major spoiler territory, and these to be the rantings of a deeply invested fan who has gripes, but nothing earth-shattering enough to abandon ship.

Listen, authors, I know one of the themes in this story is “history repeats itself,” but did we really need to spend several prolonged action sequences blowing up Medina Station again? We fought a huge battle on it when it was still the Behemoth and it seems like we can’t go two books since without having to take a chunk or three out of this ship. I’m sure the science behind what they did was smart, it pretty much always is, but I admit that the action/sabotage sections made my eyes glaze over more than a little and I ended up skimming them by the end of the book because they just kept blowing stuff up.

(Once they were instead blowing stuff up on the Storm, I started paying closer attention again. Taking an enemy ship like that was cool and honestly unexpected.)

I’m groaning at the renewed (future) importance of my least favorite POV character to ever show up in the series, Elvi Okoye. While I’m glad we’re finally circling back to the mysteries of the protomolecule and the hyper-advanced, unknown enemy that took out their civilization, I can’t exactly be thrilled knowing she’s coming back, whether as a POV character or not, because she was the worst part of Cibola Burn. I suppose I can hope that the thirty intervening years have made her wiser, or at least less annoying…

While I mostly like how our core crew have aged up over the time jump, and how the authors have shorthanded the missing years by showing us minor and believable changes to each individual and their relationships, I really felt like Alex got shortchanged in this book, with a hand-waved second marriage and basically nothing to do with himself. Even Bobbie’s best-friend-ship with him, while excellent, doesn’t give him any real importance to the plot–everything he contributes to the insurgency is basically “this is how the Laconians either are or aren’t like the Martian military I remember in ways we can exploit” and Bobbie can and does provide that exact same role and information. (Because I am reading this after the end of the fifth season of the show, I know that Alex was killed off, a major deviation from the books, and while that was for reasons relating to the actor and not the story, I’m beginning to see why they felt like they could get away with it, plot-wise. Alex just isn’t important here, at all. And I wonder if he will be going forward.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find Avasarala still alive, as she’s always been a favorite. I found Drummer ending up as a war leader as weird and uncomfortable as she herself did, in-universe, but instead of that drawing me closer to her as a reader, I felt her POV chapters alienating. I guess because I knew her first in her greatly expanded role on the show (being a show-watcher rather than a reader until book/season 4, when I finally caught up) I feel like she’s been so many things, because she’s been so many different characters, quite literally, since show!Drummer took over the narrative of two book characters in addition to her own. This didn’t feel like a natural evolution for her, the way the Roci crew felt in their older versions; and I do get that she’s in a position she never expected and was unprepared for, so that’s deliberate. But I think her chapters were some of the least interesting in the book.

I think that’s it, my list of complaints. As I said, still a good book, and it takes the series in an interesting direction. I do think it’s a solid opening to the beginning of the end, and I’m still going on with the series, but I had issues I wanted to whine about.

#51 – Deliver Me, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 48/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Poorly constructed, poorly researched, poor representation of mental illness, and some tropes I simply don’t like, though that is of course a matter of personal taste.

I got this free in a bundle and it’s my first Rochon read, though I’ve been hearing good things about her for years. I dearly hope that this is not representative of her more current works.

So let’s tackle these issues one by one. Poor construction: first, the whole book is building up to the climactic charity bachelor auction, and I have no problem with that, but then the story ends abruptly at the same time the auction does, with the heroine “buying” the hero from it, some time (several days?) after she literally walks out on him after sex and does her absolute best to ghost him over what we know is a complete misunderstanding. I’ll talk more about the miscommunication aspect of this later, but after the hero’s repeated attempts to get to the bottom of why she left seemingly without warning or reason, he doesn’t really have the chance to apologize or defend himself properly, but then the heroine forgives him anyway for basically no reason. Now, we the reader know that he wasn’t actually cheating on the heroine, but she pulls a one-eighty and forgives him on the spot, when he sees him onstage, because…he’s just so sexy? I’m not really sure. That happened to fall at the bottom of the page on my e-reader, so imagine my surprise when I flick to the next page and see the end matter–the book ends quite literally with the big auction, there’s no denouement, there’s no explanation of why she changed her mind, there’s not even an epilogue to show them several months or years down the road being happy together. It’s just OVER.

Second issue with poor construction: the multi-chapter subplot about the second couple who are patients of the hero, complete with an extra POV character, is jarringly distracting and (in my opinion) wholly unnecessary. This book would have been long enough to qualify as a novel without it, so it’s not helpful padding, and I’ll get more into why later, but I believe this subplot actively undermines the main plot.

Poorly researched: I can cover this one pretty quickly. I’m no medical expert, but when the hero early on in the story performs an emergency c-section on a conscious patient, without any form of anaesthesia and without her consent, I was not impressed. No, I’m serious. At the top of the page, the woman very clearly says “I don’t want a c-section” and the next few paragraphs are the hero shushing her and doing anyway. I honestly don’t know the protocols for informed consent in emergency situations, and under what circumstances doctors are allowed to exercise their best judgment and operate without informed consent, but whatever they are, I don’t think it’s just merrily slicing into a woman who moments ago explicitly withheld it.

There weren’t any more insanely obvious medical blunders for the rest of the book, but I also didn’t have much of a sense of realness from the hospital, either. Much later, a side character in the subplot makes an observation about knowing how to scrub up properly from watching “ER,” and that really crystallized the level of medical accuracy in this book to me.

Okay, next issue. Poor representation of mental illness. The entire subplot is about a couple where the wife has bipolar disorder, hides that fact, and her treatment for it, from her husband, and then goes off the rails when her pregnancy screws with her medication regimen, which fails to control her symptoms.

Where the hell do I even start with this? She’s depicted as a shrewish, terrible woman, and yes, I do think that’s mostly because of her mental illness. Bad look to start with. Then add to that, that she thinks her husband will leave her if he finds out she’s ill. Not a good look either. Her paranoid delusions all center on her husband cheating on her–which he’s not–and her erratic behavior includes not following her doctor’s orders about bed rest, which eventually leads to the premature (but ultimately happy and successful) birth of their child.

Now, to be fair, the husband is an absolutely stand-up guy through all of this, and the couple does get a happy ending. So I’m not accusing the author of believing or endorsing the idea that mentally ill people are either incapable or undeserving of romantic fulfillment.

But the problem is that if the point of this subplot is to mirror the main plot, then it’s a terrible idea to have the main couple be a player with a string of clingy ex-girlfriends matched up with a woman who ghosts him because she believes he’s cheating on her. See where I’m going with this? By having the subplot LITERALLY be about a mentally ill woman’s paranoid delusions, it’s drawing a parallel between those and the miscommunication of the main plot. THE HEROINE IS NOT CRAZY, SHE’S JUST INCORRECT. And implying she’s “crazy” for thinking the hero might be cheating on her (even if we know he isn’t!) is doing a disservice to women who have been or really are being cheated on, because a common backlash from the men is “you’re crazy!” Um, no. No to all of this.

The tropes I don’t personally like, but aren’t necessarily big issues the same way: yes, the entire conflict between the leads boils down to a miscommunication, which results in an unsuccessful ghosting, which leads to the hero being really pushy about tracking her down and finding out what’s going on. I hate plots where the love interests refuse to talk to each other for no good reason. Also, I didn’t love that when these two get horizontal, there’s no mention of any kind of birth control in the room with them, nor was it established that they’d had an earlier conversation about it. As much as I dread the “man wants to go bareback, woman bites her lip and says okay, i’m on the pill” scene that half the bad romance novels I read inevitably rely on, at least those books are talking about it! At least we establish there’s not going to be an accidental pregnancy in fifty pages! And the hero is an OB-GYN, so there’s literally no excuse for these two not to have a rational conversation about how they’re going to handle birth control.

I’m genuinely struggling to find anything good about this book.

#52 – Broken Harbor, by Tana French

  • Mount TBR: 49/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I said when I reviewed The Secret Place that if I got a chance to read an earlier book in the Murder Squad series, I would take it. Sure, I jumped backwards from #5 all the way to #4, but that’s what fell into my hands at a used book sale.

Did I like it better? Yes. I certainly read it faster–this had far better pacing, and even when new information came up and I said, “aha! I know what happened now!” I also knew there was X number of pages left for the book to add further complications and show me I was wrong. I felt like this plot had a much clearer progression from point to point to point, and always made it clear what you were meant to think about the new twist or reveal, even when you (I) knew that couldn’t be the full answer yet.

I’m still not a mystery fan, I doubt this series will ever convert me to the genre as a whole, because this is far different from the mysteries I’ve read before (my other Tana French read excluded.) Maybe I was reading too many stories that relied on obvious twists or cheap surprises, but the two French novels I’ve read so far are definitely far more reflective and interested in thematic cohesion than the mysteries I’m familiar with–The Secret Place was about friendship, primarily, and Broken Harbor examines family bonds, mental health, and the boundary between civilization and “wildness.” The commitment to exploring those themes deeply is evident in every aspect of the story.

Unmarked spoilers throughout the rest of the review, because some things I want to talk about, I can’t really talk around.

My complaints are simple: despite the better pacing it still feels wordy, on occasion, especially in the many interrogation scenes; and in some senses I’m satisfied by the ending, but in others, I’m not. I understand why the detective acted the way he did re: the case and his job, but I’m not sure I fully get why the book ended where it did with him and his sister–those final pages lacked any sort of punch for me and felt incomplete.

Whereas something that was deliberately left incomplete–the identity/existence of the possible animal intruder in the house–doesn’t bother me at all. It’s immaterial to me whether there was actually an animal or not, as Pat’s behavior was unhinged either way and clearly contributed to the deterioration of his family life. (The theory posited by some reviewers that it was mold toxicity from the poorly constructed house itself definitely has legs, though that’s an interpretation of events that I hadn’t considered myself. I suppose that, in reading this after more than a year of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, I was more willing to believe that the physical isolation of the house and the social isolation of their situation was enough, over time, to send the adults in stress-induced irrational behavior, which caused the chain of events being investigated. That certainly seems to be the case for Conor, who spent comparatively little time in the house itself, though it would have made sense for his hide to also be compromised by mold, I suppose.)

I’ll end this review basically the same way as the last one–I’m still not a mystery fan, but I would read another French novel, if one comes my way. And maybe even start at the beginning!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #18)

#48 – The Vagrant, by Peter Newman

  • Mount TBR: 46/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A non-human character
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I did like enough about it to finish it, despite the concerns and complaints this review will list in detail; I don’t care for it enough to keep going with the series.

I started this book almost two months ago, but in the middle of what eventually became obvious was a major reading slump. After 60 pages, I put the book on hold, reasoning that I was frustrated with reading in general and not with this specific book.

When I picked it back up, I started over, and this time, I annotated it to help myself pay more attention, and to pick at the edges of the mysteries that lie thick on the ground in this story. The “eight years ago” narrative line did eventually answer most of my questions–those it didn’t were almost uniformly about world-building details I was struggling with.

So there’s my first major complaint: this world is going for “cool” and “dark” without really having a cohesive style. Sometimes it’s idyllic landscape, sometimes it’s the Blasted Lands (which I will forever think of as a zone in World of Warcraft, but I guess the author hasn’t played that.) The few cities had distinct but fairly generic personalities–one was a little Blade Runner, because there were neon signs everywhere, while another felt like a standard large fantasy town, and eventually the Shining City is certainly shiny, but also devoid of any originality.

The infernal aspects of the world-building–literally, the demons and how they worked–started out as an interesting concept, which I interpreted as them basically being incompatible with reality as we know it, and to combat that, they anchored themselves (in various and generally disgusting ways) to living flesh. Gross, creepy, excellent. But my early notes about what I pictured the Usurper and the Uncivil and the fallen Knights as actually looking like, or how I imagined they functioned, didn’t end up jiving with information that came later. And yeah, readers can be wrong about things that authors set out clearly, but this felt more like I had developed a framework for the infernals that was more codified than what the author himself envisioned, because there were contradictions, and there were gaps, and whenever I encountered one I got frustrated.

Another frustration quickly sprouted from the style of the prose. What at first was a charming way to make sure I’m paying enough attention to connect some dots eventually became a slog. Yes, make me work for the connections about characters and plot. No, don’t make me dig through every single line of a fight scene trying to figure out whose limbs are being cut off and who is buried under rubble and who died. There is a constant and deliberate lack of clarity to the narrative that I feel would serve the story better if it were saved for those big special occasions–who is the Vagrant, why can’t he talk, how did he end up with the baby–than spreading it like a frosting over literally everything down to the smallest and most mundane details.

This extends to names, as many characters don’t have them at all, or only get them late in the story, and even when they do, they are often still referred to by epithets. Harm doesn’t need to constantly be “the green-eyed man,” or I don’t know, maybe he does, because half the time when he or the Vagrant look at something, the text doesn’t say “The Vagrant looked at the sky,” it says, “Amber eyes searched the clouds.”

That’s another complaint–the detachment. At the bottom of page 107, I scrawled a note to myself: “I’ve just hit on what I don’t like about this narrative style–the descriptions sound like I’m reading a screenplay.” The sentence which triggered this revelation reads: “Sweaty faces shine in shielded lamps.” It’s the first sentence after a scene break, and it frustrated me because I could see the effect of the description in my head–sweat glowing by lantern light in an otherwise dark space–but I didn’t know who those faces belonged to! I didn’t know who to picture because that sentence told me nothing about where the scene had jumped to! The following line tells me that men and women are in tunnels–okay, I’m in tunnels, but who are the men and women? The third sentence finally gives me a character name and I know I’m back with Tough Call’s gang.

And this, too, is a constant problem. Not every chapter or scene break takes that long to establish who I’m reading about and where we are, but throughout the story, there’s this repeated stepping back from the characters, a distancing, by referring to their actions in that deliberately obscure way. “Reluctantly, amber eyes open.” “Breath labours in the dark.” “A small foot twitches.” I know that active verbs are great and conjugations of “to be” are easy to overuse, but it’s possible to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Let my brain rest on some easy verbs and sentence constructions once in a while! Not everything has to be so vague and portentous!

Final stylistic complaint: I dislike present tense narratives in general, but lots of people like them, so whatever, authors are going to keep using present tense and sometimes I’m going to end up reading it. But I absolutely fail to understand the benefits of using it for the past story line. If the main bulk of the story is “now” and uses present tense, shouldn’t the “eight years ago” use past tense? Because, you know, it’s the past?

So after all of that, what did I even like about this? The baby. The goat–the tiny and rare scenes written from her viewpoint are generally hilarious. Harm ended up being okay, in shouldering the weight of one-sided conversations with the silent Vagrant. Though I question the wisdom of having a mute protagonist paired with a deliberately vague and detached narrative style (seems like an obvious recipe for the difficulty I had connecting to the story) I do think Harm brings out the Vagrant’s desire to communicate as they get to know each other, and their deepening relationship as they bond over their struggles to save people, keep themselves and the baby safe, and still find a way to journey onward…okay, that was compelling enough to keep going even when I was frustrated by nearly everything else.

But the ending? No, sorry, this book failed to get me invested enough to care about why our protagonist achieved his apparent goal then decides to reject the dominant social order to do his own thing. I get it–it’s super clear, even for this often-vague story, because the reason is exposited immediately after it happens. But I didn’t care. And I don’t have any need to find out what happens to our ragtag found family of weirdos afterward.

Hm, I hadn’t considered that before. Found family, as a trope, pretty much relies on emotional investment in developed characters, whereas this story opted for (mostly) flat characters viewed from a safely detached distance. No wonder I couldn’t get into it, these goals are fundamentally opposed.

#49 – Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayşe Kulin, translated by John W. Baker

  • Mount TBR: 47/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This book is saved from a single-star rating because I did learn a fair bit about Turkey’s history and the context of its neutrality during WWII.

Very little else about this was interesting, and in fact, the blurb gives the impression that it’s at least partially a romance, but it’s not. It’s not even really about the couple themselves.

Loosely, this is story about family set against the backdrop of war, but even that falls apart as the novel goes on, because the members of the family that were so important in the setup of the story and consistently present in the first half were ignored for the second half, when the plot followed the politicking necessary to make the train journey happen, and introduced many, many, many side characters for horrible things to happen to before and during the journey on the titular train.

I strongly dislike this story’s absolute lack of any recognizable structure. Flashbacks take over without much logic to where they’re placed. Characters are introduced as needed and discarded quickly and often as soon as they’re not necessary to the ultimate goal: getting on the train. I find this flattens the characters, who could otherwise be interesting or at least sympathetic, in favor of making sure the reader knows how truly noble Turkey and the Turkish people are for helping these poor, passive, helpless Jewish people. (There is no subtlety to the messaging in this as a foreign reader.)

Wouldn’t I be more invested in their lives if they were more than the thin stereotypes I’ve seen from so many other war novels?

Even the supposedly “main” couple didn’t generate much sympathy, because the first half of the story spent so much time harping on how selfish their families thought they were for running away together (essentially.) I’m all for “true love > everything else” as a motivation, but since their romance is told to us as a past event and we only witness the tiniest bit of it ourselves as a flashback, the fact that the story strongly emphasized the disruption they caused rather than their happiness together made them less sympathetic. Sure, it’s terrible that they ended up caught in a war because of where they chose to settle when they left Turkey, but it’s terrible in an abstract, academic sense, rather than an immediate one.

I also question the usefulness of the many, many loose threads of side stories left hanging after the train journey ends. If the author introduced us to a buffet of minor characters and attempted to get us invested in their lives, then why does it suddenly refocus on the main family to the exclusion of all else? I could list several examples, but I’ll let the most chilling one cover them all: why did one of the passengers get raped by an unknown assailant (everyone assumes one of the German soldiers on the train) but then forgotten about a handful of pages later? If we never find out who did it, and we barely cover the strain it causes between her and her husband (it’s mentioned, and he wants to go fight the soldiers to vent some rage, but nothing comes of it) then why include it at all? I made this complaint about All the Light We Cannot See as well, that a basically gratuitous rape scene was included to quickly stand in for the horrors of war to women, but neither story gives the trauma of rape any real depth or consideration. It’s there to check a box that some authors apparently think need ticking: this is a war story, and rape happens in war (I’m not arguing that) so some woman needs to get raped before the end of the story.

But no, they really, really don’t, not if it’s a mere footnote of suffering that has no impact on the plot and is never even resolved, in this case.

To wrap this up, I’ll mention I experienced many of the same language and translation issues other reviewers have suffered–this is not elegant prose in English, and because I speak zero Turkish, I’ll never know if the original is better in that regard. But beautiful language wouldn’t have saved this plot, and the plot isn’t the responsibility of the translator.

I can’t recommend this to anyone, and if, like me, this is sitting around in your TBR because you got it for free on World Book Day, I wouldn’t feel bad about discarding this unread.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #17)

#47 – The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

  • Mount TBR: 45/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book with illustrations
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A quote from the final pages sums up my problem with this book, and with almost any book I’ve read that promises deep insights into life, the universe, or human spirituality:

“If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them.”

I won’t say that I got nothing from this book, but I got very, very little. For every line that resonated with me, for every tiny chunk of fable that seemed to make clear a fundamental truth about existence, there were five more bits that I read and thought, “how antiquated,” or “how limiting,” or, “how vague.”

Because in trying to be all things to all people, to reach as wide an audience as possible (as it clearly has) it has to be vague and applicable to everyone. I won’t attribute capitalist motives to an author who took twelve years to write a book of not even a hundred pages, published almost a hundred years ago: trying to view it through today’s modern lens takes this laughably out of context. But as I read, I did get a sense of the author seeing himself as the prophet bringing this pablum to the masses, and while a quick read of the history of the book and its author makes it clear the content draws on multiple religious faiths, the bones of it are obviously Christian, right down to the Scripture-like style.

Which can be beautiful, at times, even as it is vague, high-minded tripe.

I’m wary of any book that promises spiritual revelation. And now that I’ve read this one, I’m skeptical of its ability to reveal truth when it’s so riddled with contradiction–in particular, the fact that the entire story is framed as the Prophet delivering wisdom through speech, yet “…in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.” So all of us normal people, we talk just to hear ourselves and it’s useless, but you, special Mr. Prophet, you drop pearls of brilliance twenty-six times in a row? Plus, of course, that built-in “get out of jail free” card, the line I quoted at the beginning of the review, that tells the reader “hey, it’s okay to not fully understand this, don’t think about it too hard” because it all might unravel if you do. Yet, clearly the author thought about all of this very hard–I would never have guessed it took so long to write such a short book, but I guess if one is selling a philosophy rather than a story, one has to develop it first. And the fable about teaching also boils down to “you already know these things deep inside you, so what can teachers actually do?” Which is also a contradiction–the author is trying to teach me his way of spirituality, and it’s not ingrained in me already–and also rubs badly against my grounding in the sciences, because that’s not how science works.

I won’t say this book is entirely without value, but it’s basically a mirror–when I read it, I agreed with the parts I already agreed with, and rejected the parts that made little sense to me or I outright disagreed with. In the end, it didn’t teach me anything or deliver any kind of spiritual awakening.

That second star in the rating is for the beauty of the language alone, because it is well-crafted, and when I read a few lines out loud to myself, the cadence is charmingly musical and flowing. My view of the actual content is solidly one-star.

And now that I think about it, even writing a review to post qualifies as “talking,” in the sense of communicating ideas through words, so here, too, my thinking about this book is supposedly “half murdered,” yet the reason I write reviews is as much to clarify and codify my feelings and reactions to the books I read, as it is to have other people read the reviews and know my thoughts (and possibly allow my opinion to sway their decision to read the book, or not, depending on the book and the person involved.) Would the author be hostile to the idea of book reviews? An interesting thought experiment.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #16)

#44 – Decidedly Off Limits, by Stina Lindenblatt

  • Mount TBR: 42/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Not terrible, but definitely underwhelming. My list of complaints:

1. It’s overkill to have the main characters be double-off-limits to each other by both being best friends with the other’s sibling. It takes so much explanation at every point where the conflict is on their minds to say “Not only would love interest’s sibling murder me for this, so would my own sibling.” I don’t think it adds anything to the story to have the forbidden aspect, such as it is, coming from both sides.

2. Subtly LGBTQ+ unfriendly. Sure, an incredibly minor character is gay and has a boyfriend who shows up briefly in a clear display of tokenism, but sprinkled throughout the narrative are really small digs at the idea of a straight character possibly being queer. None of those jokes landed and all of them annoyed me. Worse than that, Kelsey turns down a potential date by blurting out that she’s a lesbian, and later that bites her in the ass because the guy she turned down tries to set her up with his cousin. I could not have rolled my eyes harder.

3. Little major character development. The core conflict–the forbidden aspect of their relationship–doesn’t require them to grow as people to overcome, basically they just have to stop letting it matter. (Ideally it shouldn’t matter, they’re adults, so on and so forth, but I’ve definitely known people to whom this kind of thing does matter, so I’m not knocking the subgenre as a whole.) The individual character arcs are the same–both leads find a fulfilling hobby. Which isn’t exactly deep, and I think has drastically different results in their two cases: Kelsey magically becomes good at photography almost overnight and lands a swanky freelancing gig based on no portfolio to speak of, just the few shots in a steamy calendar shoot that was a major (and majorly silly) plot point in the middle of the story. I think this is bad, because the growth felt artificial and her victory was just handed to her. Whereas Trent decides to take a cooking class to spend time with Kelsey (her first foray into finding a hobby) and is surprised both by how comfortable he feels with it (even before he’s “good” at it) and how much he enjoys it. He spends the rest of the book quietly cooking for himself and occasionally others, and that growth arc caps off with the much more realistic “win” of hosting a huge family Thanksgiving. I really, really like this arc, minor as it is, because it’s such a domestic thing for this workaholic man to find himself enjoying, and only once is there an incredibly small joke about how it might threaten his masculinity. He’s just allowed to enjoy it, and it doesn’t have to give him new career opportunities or fix his self-worth or anything. (But it is so good relative to his counterpart that it makes her personal arc look even worse by comparison.)

4. Too many silly plot points. Did we really need so many romance standards crammed into a single book? The cooking lesson. Kelsey’s female friends giving her a sexy confidence makeover. The sexy photo shoot. The switcheroo shenanigans at the vacation house. The charity date auction. This book was definitely longer than it needed to be overall, but I would have rather had some time devoted to better character development than shoehorn in one more dramatic plot event.

5. Unnecessary jealousy subplots. Trent possibly ending up with Holly instead of Kelsey in the beginning felt integral to the plot, even if I think it went on too long–and did the two leads really need to hide their fling from yet another person, when they were already hiding it from both their potentially murderous siblings? But it made far more sense than the late-game “will Kelsey go back to Owen” fakeout that felt out of place, slowed down the pace of an already beleaguered climax, and came off as entirely ridiculous when Kelsey had to put her old engagement ring back on for yet another “we’re not really dating but we have to pretend” twist on this plot.

I’ve made enough complaints that I’m wondering why my gut says two stars and not just the one, but while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it–it just didn’t impress me. And it’s not substantially worse that other recent books I’ve rated two stars, so I’ll roll with it. Either way, I don’t recommend this.

#45 – Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Mount TBR: 43/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Chapter title page has art (illustrated by the author, no less)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t had an experience quite like that since I first read Les Miserables in eighth grade. It took me just over a month of steady, dogged reading, and I carried that book with me everywhere–to every class in school, every time I was sitting in the backseat of the car while running errands with my parents, every time I read before bed.

Vanity Fair reminds me a lot of Les Mis, not in tone or subject matter, but in my sheer determination to get through it, even when it’s slow going. Because I started this book in February. The wit and charm and lively characters carried me through the first two hundred pages fairly easily, but then I began to lose steam. I took what I thought was a short break to read something else before going on, and when I went back, suddenly it was hard to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I told myself to keep going. After all, I was still enjoying it–it wasn’t the same feeling of epic struggle to stay interested that I had with War and Peace last year. I liked this book, yet somehow, I couldn’t motivate myself to read it.

Pretty soon it became clear the problem wasn’t Vanity Fair itself, or at least, not mostly. I was just in the worst reading slump of my adult life, because nothing I read could hold my attention long. I took almost an entire month off reading, but when the mood struck to try again, I’d either try a new book and set it down after five pages, or nibble at the edges of Vanity Fair. When I declared (to myself) that my reading slump was over, I was just past 400 pages in.

Like magic, once I’d warmed up with a few light reads, the pages began to fly by again. I could finish several chapters in a sitting, and genuinely want to read more.

But this is a book review, right? Not the story of my reading slump. So what was it that was giving me difficulty, specifically, about this work?

The names. Formal name etiquette in British high society is just the pits. Our main character, Rebecca, probably showed up in the text under about a dozen different names or epithets throughout the course of the story, because she’s got her first name, her full name, her nickname, her married name both formally as Mrs. Husband’s Name and Becky/Rebecca Husband’s Name, and of course any given description posing as a person that Thackeray wanted to attach to her. Eventually at the very end she’s mostly Mrs. Becky, which I didn’t recall being used much before. On top of that, there were other instances when a change of status caused me some confusion, because first we have Pitt Crawley, no title attached, son of Sir Pitt Crawley, but when the elder Crawley dies, of course Pitt becomes Sir Pitt because the title passes on, even though that’s also the name of the now-dead character. Any male character in the military might be referred to by his rank rather than his name, and when multiple military figures are in the same paragraph (as they often are) they are all referred to by an inconsistent mix of their names and ranks.

And all of this is happening constantly through the entire nearly-700-pages of the novel. It’s exhausting.

When this was published, I have no doubt this was common enough that readers had little issue with it. Now? I often had to stop to parse who was who because of the constant flux of designations.

If I could strip that stylistic inconsistency out, that would fix a lot of my problems with reading this right away. However, there were still others. While the core cast of characters is relatively small compared to some epic classics of this length, Thackeray does like to veer off on tangents frequently and spend a chapter or three detailing the life and situation of a minor character. That’s something I remember loving in Les Mis, which, again, is the thing I have read that is most like this book; but here, somehow I was never as fascinated by these little portraits as I was when Hugo did it. Here I was invested in Becky and Amelia and William Dobbin (in fact, the resolution of his story is the primary reason I finished this book at all–I was hanging on for that happy ending.) But I did not find myself particularly interested in Lord Steyne or Mrs. Major O’Dowd or the Gaunt family. The minor characters were not completely without charm to me, as I particularly liked the single-page tale of Becky’s little French maid abandoning her. What the girl took, what became of her, how she fared after Becky’s tyranny, that was all grand. But it was also short, and seeing as it came immediately after we read of Becky’s downfall, it felt timely and appropriate. Many of the other, larger tangents from the main story line left me scratching my head about why I was suddenly learning new names or jumping to a different country. I admit to skimming some of the side bits that seemed less relevant or interesting, in order to get back to the “good” parts.

How do I feel three months later now that I’m finally done? It was a long walk to that happy ending I was 95% sure was coming. I’m pleased to be finished but not particularly eager to try any other Thackeray works, because while I liked many things about his style–the wit and humor, the insertion of himself as narrator into the story (occasionally) as a character, the biting satire–there’s also simply too much dead weight to carry in order to get to all of that. I’m glad I read it, but I never need to reread it. It’s rare for me to find myself finishing a classic novel without either loving it to pieces (My Antonia, Les Mis, Jane Eyre) or hating it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (too many to name.) But I found this book simply good–not great, not terrible.

#46 – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Mount TBR: 44/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 72, just past 10%, as per my usual cutoff.

I read Kostova’s The Swan Thieves several years ago, long enough that I had to remind myself from my review what I thought about it, but I actually picked up The Historian only a year or so after I read it, I’m still so backlogged. I gave Thieves three stars and said of it (briefly paraphrasing) “The mystery was dull but I liked the way she talked about art and artists, and that carried me through.”

I found no similar luck with this novel. Even viewing it as a sort of fantasy work rather than historical fiction, I found it plodding and frustrating. (So did the unknown person who began annotating my secondhand copy–the first sixty pages are full of questions and notes and exclamations, but then they begin to thin out, and I leafed through to see how long they last. They’re completely absent after page 150 or so, and I can’t find any indication the previous reader finished the book, either.)

There’s one central failure that’s most responsible for hampering my interest. I thought I was prepared for Kostova’s wordy style, having read another of her novels, if a later one where she might have refined her prose somewhat. But this is verbose to the point of preciousness, especially in Rossi’s letters, one of our three parallel narratives. The other two–Paul and his daughter Siena–are also pedantic narrators, but the letters are full of dire melodrama and ostentatious phrasing. (I guess to make them sound like they’re old, but I found it more irritating than archaic.) Setting that aside, I also wish Paul and Siena hadn’t basically sounded like the same person, not because I had any trouble differentiating their chapters from each other–the content usually made that clear very quickly–but because I think a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter (or her older self in some cases) shouldn’t speak or write exactly alike. I feel like that’s a basic ask from an author, to make separate narrators sound like different people.

If the mystery had been more compelling or the pace of the plot quicker, I might have been able to grit my teeth and deal with these issues, but in putting all those problems together, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll enjoy the next six hundred pages any more than I did the first seventy-two.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #15)

#40 – Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry

  • Mount TBR: 38/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Even forewarned that this is a companion novel, and not a direct sequel, to The Giver, I was a little bewildered reading it. It seems to be completely unrelated, and when I got to the interview with the author at the end, and she says you can choose to believe a certain offscreen character mentioned is Jonas, or not, I was like…WTF?

But I guess I can twist my brain around to the idea that this squalid, harsh village coexists with Jonas’ hyper-regimented, sanitized community. The impression that I got was that the network of communities like his was fairly vast, and that “Elsewhere” was as mythic and unreal as “release” was. And the ending of the first book is pretty ambiguous about where he goes and what happens to him, so…

Setting that issue aside, I was disappointed with Blue as a work able to stand on its own. Even without trying to imagine any connection, it’s a weak story, with little world-building, a thin plot, and flat characters.

So I’m always going to have a soft spot for fiction that heavily features crafting of any type–though I was thrown by the constant conflating of weaving and embroidery, as the latter was clearly what Kira was actually doing to the ceremonial robe. They’re not the same thing, and there’s even less excuse for mixing up the two than there is the constant confusion people come to me with about knitting and crochet!

But that’s about the only reason I have to like Kira, who is an incredibly passive protagonist. I get it, she’s young, she’s bereaved, she’s very nearly an outcast from society. But she does very little for most of the book except perform the actions expected of her and be vaguely anxious about things, and then the ending? “I could go with my father and friend somewhere else where I wouldn’t be an outcast, but instead I’m choosing to remain here and vaguely try to shape a better future for these people who have been nothing but horrible to me?” Um, no. I don’t agree with that personally, but more importantly as a criticism of the story, I don’t really believe that’s a choice Kira would make. Though she’s given little personality, she’s stubborn for sure (she does decide to try to rebuild her burned-down home, bravo,) but she’s also keenly aware of her own lack of power, so suddenly seizing what little she has available and deciding to try to do something with it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I genuinely thought she was going to go to the other village, and once I read the author’s interview at the end and discovered the third book is a direct sequel and the plot is Matt (now Matty, with his second syllable indicating he’s older) trying to get Kira to join him and her father–what, we need a whole book to accomplish something I don’t understand why she didn’t do in the first place?

I’m tempted to give up on the series here, but I do already own Messenger, thanks to finding it at a used book sale, and vague not-quite-spoilers have promised it holds some answers. I guess I’m frustrated but invested enough to at least read that, then decide if getting my hands on Son is worth it.

#41 – Man vs. Durian, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 39/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Set in autumn
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I think I might like this one best of the whole series, but it’s still got its issues.

Same basic complaints as with all the others: no subtlety in the presentation, both leads tell you precisely how they feel at all times, really hammering down on the foodie-ness, tired of hearing about durian (as opposed to pie in the first novel and ice cream in the second.)

My extra complaint about this plot specifically is that Peter is basically perfect, and while I certainly like my romantic heroes to be decent human beings, the central conflict of Valerie’s “he’s too good to be true and I am a crazy mess so this can’t work out”–well, that doesn’t work so well when the hero is actually flawless. Because what is Peter’s flaw? The only major one the story presents is his lack of career ambition, and that’s just not a big deal, because it’s not like he’s a total slacker who couch-surfs his friends’ places because he doesn’t have a job or a place to live. He has both of those things. So he doesn’t want to be a high-powered businessman and make a million dollars a year. So what?

And the story basically has that same attitude, that it’s okay not to make your job your life, and I approve. But as the other half to Valerie’s complicated issues surrounding workplace sexual harassment, family stuff, career stagnation, etc., Peter’s half of the story seems pretty weak, depth-wise. I thought maybe the plot was going to play up a commitment-phobic aspect to him, since it mentions how he’s had so many girlfriends over the years, which at first I thought meant he would be super picky and never satisfied with anyone, hence the high turnover rate. But it’s painted more as a need for him to always be in a relationship, simply because he likes being in them, he loves falling in love. Which is a pretty benign view and hard to argue with. Again, he’s basically perfect.

And that’s what kept this from being a perfect read for me. I’ve accepted that I’m not a huge fan of Lau’s general writing style, though I do like (for the most part) her characters and plots, I just wish the narratives weren’t so flat and obvious in presentation. So while I’m probably not going to make much effort to read her other works, I do think overall they’re good romances that readers are more likely to enjoy than not, and I’d definitely recommend them for foodie people (despite what I feel is phrase overuse related to food in each novel–the novella doesn’t suffer from this same problem, as its premise is not food-related.

#42 – The House by the River, by Lena Manta, translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft

  • Mount TBR: 40/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 82, after the end of the “The First Years” section.

I was bored out of my mind.

Eighty pages of older men falling in love with younger women (but it’s okay because it’s not really pedophilia if you wait a few years for them to turn eighteen,) and endless tired metaphors about rivers, and high-strung daughters getting married or running away. And it’s all just set-up for the individual sections about the daughters, apparently! I felt like I was speed-running the mother’s entire life, and WWII with its Nazi occupation was just a bump in the road.

I will admit there’s a possibility the book gets better when it decides to focus on one daughter at a time instead of trying to tackle them all at once, but the writing style is so bland that I don’t care enough to find out, and I don’t like any of the characters, because (as much as they have personalities at all) they’re all basically the same–shouting, moody, dramatic women of various ages, with the mother being the worst, lamenting constantly about how it’s so horrible that all her daughters want to leave home and have their own lives and woe is me, I’ll be all alone in my old age.

I simply don’t have the patience for it. Moving on.

#43 – Messenger, by Lois Lowry

  • Mount TBR: 41/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This series just gets worse with every book, doesn’t it?

Once again, Lowry uses dystopian structure combined with an almost fairy-tale-like directness of style to write a sanitized sociopolitical fable for young readers.

The message is…well, the proper thing to call it is pro-immigration, but in reality it comes off far more like anti-anti-immigration. It spends less time making sure the reader knows that new people coming into the community are good for the health of the community (and deserving of respect and compassion for their own sake,) and more time focusing the bad, horrible, selfish people who once were immigrants themselves and now want to keep everything to themselves.

Even though I agree that immigration is good, actually, this left a sour taste in my mouth.

Where it fails even harder in its messaging, though, is a lack of root cause for these changes. Okay, sure, people in the Village are making trades that are giving away parts of their souls for things they want, and that’s making them harsh and unfeeling. But is the new Trademaster who is enabling this the villian? Nope, he’s not actually that important a character and no direct blame is ever laid at his feet for the changes in the Village. Is it something about the Forest, which is also changing, darkening, becoming more threatening? Not really, because that’s also implied to be a sort of spiritual outgrowth of the mood of the Village–they increasingly don’t want newcomers, which tells the Forest to make the journey harder on anyone who tries. And to be fair, I like that as a fantasy concept in isolation, especially the bit about the Warnings, the Forest telling people never to come back. But both of these things are just symptoms of the Village’s malaise, and it’s never indicated why the Village has changed. I’m not the best at deciphering politics, I’ve never studied the subject, but even I know that when the mood of a community shifts drastically in a short time, it’s because something has happened. There’s some vague allusions to what might be called an economic downturn in a more realistic setting–the conversation Leader has with Matty about fishing–but even then the text makes clear that they’re not sure if they actually have fewer resources, or if it’s perception bias. (Or if it’s a result of the changes to Forest, which occurred to me, and I’m not sure if it occurred to the author–then it would be a symptom, too, of the plague of selfishness, and not one of the causes. This messaging is messy!)

The end result is that no explanation is ever given and I am left to wonder why any of this is happening in the first place.

On top of that that, as if that weren’t enough to dislike the book, I was thrown off by the pacing, and by the expectations set by the blurb, which makes it sound like the journey to get Kira is the point of the book. It’s not. It’s an afterthought squeezed into the final act to bring some sense of urgency to the wave of anti-immigration sentiment, and also messily throw in some danger from the Forest, which turns actively hostile. The resolution of that plot point is…vague? Metaphysical? Weird and disconnected from even the weird plot of the rest of the book? And the very ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.

So yeah, there’s another book, but no, I don’t care any more, I’m not going to read it, especially as the little digging into it I’ve done is that it’s both significantly longer, significantly weirder, and by many people’s estimation, even worse than any of its predecessors.

A Bona Fide Reading Slump

Some of you may have noticed that I posted two book reviews last Friday. Does this mean I’m back?

Honestly, I’m not sure.

April was mostly a huge black hole of stress, and that included the only actual reading slump I’ve ever had. I didn’t finish a single book for twenty-nine days, and that is by far a record. Even before I started tracking my habits on Goodreads, even before I went on a used book sale spree for three years and ended up with hundreds of unread books lying around–I was still reading. Sure, it was the same three dozen fantasy and sci-fi novels in heavy rotation, with some library books thrown in from time to time for variety, but as soon as I’d finished one book, I’d pick up another. I doubt I’ve gone even as much as a week without devoting time to reading for my entire life, not even just as an adult.

I’m one of the kids who got in trouble for not paying attention in class, not because I was talking or daydreaming, but because I was trying to hide a book under the desk and read instead of listening to the teacher.

I don’t know how to be a person who doesn’t read. I’m a reader. Even before I’m a writer, I’m a reader.

So when I suddenly didn’t want to read anymore, I almost didn’t know what to do with myself, and I certainly didn’t know what to do with a blog about reading and writing and my author platform, when I wasn’t actively doing any of those things.

(I’m writing a little every day to keep my streak on 4thewords going, but it’s mostly journaling–I’ve set aside my physical journals for the time being in favor of typing it all out and getting credit for my word count. But fiction? Stories? Novels? Nope, nothing’s happening there.)

Intellectually I understand that burnout is real, and very few people can maintain the sort of intense relationship with any hobby that I have with reading for an extended period of time, and it’s always okay to take a break, etc. etc. But actually feeling like I might never want to read again, having reading become a source of guilt and stress rather than comfort and enjoyment…

I freaked out. I thought, “What’s going to be my hobby now? Should I learn something new?” I’ve been looking at miniature model kits, thanks to a friend who’s recently discovered them. I researched paint-by-numbers kits for adults, because way back when in high school, I did a fairly big one, and I remember enjoying it. I’ve been crafting a lot lately with materials I have at home already–sewing and spinning mostly, and the needlepoint that I’ve shown off before in my monthly wrap-up posts. Since crafting has been supplying so much of my dopamine lately, I even toyed with the idea (again) of doing a craft blog (again, I’ve had two in the past.) I decided against it for now, as it seemed like too much work.

But there’s been an itch in the back of my mind, telling me, “This isn’t forever. You’ll want to read again soon.”

For a lot of people, and even for me with many of my other hobbies, taking a month-long break is nothing. I’ve sometimes gone years without knitting or crocheting, and my sewing definitely goes in phases. So has my bookbinding. But reading isn’t a craft. I don’t even really consider it a hobby, because it’s just something I’ve always done, and I never questioned that I always would.

So, yeah, April shook me up a little.

I kept reading new books a few pages at a time, only to set them down after five minutes and give up trying for days at a time. The one that stuck (somehow, inexplicably) was A Walk in the Woods, despite the fact that I ended up hating it. It was pretty easy to read, and by the time I knew I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to drop it unfinished, I wanted to finish it so that I’d finally have a book to review again, even if it was going to be a poor one.

I finished it, I wrote the review, and I felt lighter. And I also thought, “Okay, what am I going to read next?” And typed up a nice, lengthy journal entry about my feelings and potential next books to read. (I chose romance for its general aura of digestibility, and it worked, since I finished another book the next day.)

But where do I go from here? Even when I don’t feel like I’m holding up my end of the social media bargain as an author–I’ve done basically nothing to promote my newest book, and I’m stalled on writing its sequel or anything else of significance–I still read books and post reviews. If I’m not doing that, why even bother with a blog? Would I simply disappear from the Internet?

Well, no, probably not yet. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. Hopefully I’ll read another book and have at least one more review to post next Friday. I’m still coming up dry on other ideas for posts, so there won’t be any writing-related content any time soon. So, I’m back? Tentatively. As a book review blog. Which was fully a third of my content anyway, so it feels like the best place to ease back into blogging.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#39 – Ice Cream Lover, by Jackie Lau

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of the Month Wrap-Up: March 2021!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #13)

#36 – Virtual Light, by William Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#37 – A Hero to Keep, by Susan Gable

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

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

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

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

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