This Week, I Read… (2017 #19)

57 - Between Shades of Gray

#57 – Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

I was a child when the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. occurred, and though I remember it happening, it didn’t come with the same fanfare and celebration as the Berlin Wall falling, at least not on American news television. I knew in a vague way that for the countries to have regained their independence from Russia, they must have been independent to begin with, but the fabled Russian Empire was a monolith of the past–surely those countries had been swallowed up long ago?

Not so. I had no idea until I read this that the Baltic countries were annexed during World War II. Blame my history teachers, because their focus was entirely on Germany and Japan–I think Russia was hardly mentioned.

And I certainly had no idea of the atrocities committed. Sepetys writes about one family’s horrific journey with such simple, compelling language that I found the book nearly impossible to put down–if I could have finished it before bed, I would have, but I really did need to get to sleep so I finished it the next morning before work. It’s that gripping, a tale of great sadness that still–somehow–manages to end with a flare of hope and light.

This book is going to stay with me a long time.

58 - Nothing Personal

#58 – Nothing Personal, by Rosalind James

I always have to give props to office romances where the characters actually work, and here, well, they work overtime. Seriously.

But the very nature of this story is its own downfall. The major point of conflict between Rae and Alex is that she’s been assigned to his company as oversight–so for her to end up sleeping with him is bad news for everyone. He knows it, she knows it, and yet, attraction and emotion prove too much and she falls into bed with him anyway.

Honestly, they’re both to blame–her for compromising her position, and him for encouraging a secret office affair–but in the actual moment, it seemed to me that Alex was taking advantage of Rae’s weakened emotional state, because of the stress of her grandmother’s health problems. One can argue that she initiated and he was only trying to comfort her, but really, he knew what was at stake too, and should have been the clear-headed one. (His twin brother Gabe, who I adored in the first book in this series? Never would have done that. He was a stand-up guy through and through.)

I get that Alex is supposed to be the casual ladies’ man, and Rae is the one who changes him for the better because he actually gets emotionally involved, but his redemption isn’t complete as James perhaps intends it to be. I still find him to be a jerk a lot of the time.

And don’t even get me started on the corporate espionage subplot. It started too late in the book to seem like more than an afterthought, and the climax was so obviously a setup for Rae to prove her smarts. Not impressed.

All that being said, I do have the third and final book in the series, and I intend to read it. Hopefully this was just a hiccup in quality.

59 - A View of the Harbour

#59 – A View of the Harbour, by Elizabeth Taylor

This is the most beautifully written book to ever bore me to near-tears.

Let me explain.

Taylor writes with a lyrical style that for some readers might be a bit purple, but to me was elegantly descriptive and brilliantly toned. When the narration steps back from the characters in brief moments of observation, her grasp of the human condition is sharp and witty.

Too bad the characters range from bland to hateful, from irritating to loathsome. Oh, look, it’s a tiny miserable village where everyone is in everyone else’s business. The dying lady harasses her daughters and watches people come and go at her window. A young widow is lonely and tries feebly to reach out to her neighbors but ends up drinking every night instead. A woman carries on an affair with her best friend’s husband while living next door to them. The wife is oblivious–their oldest daughter catches on.

An out-of-town “artist” who hardly ever paints ties everything together and provides a heavy metaphor for the whole book when he finally does paint one view–and guess what, it’s of the harbor! Look how different it looks from the real thing!

Why do serious, literary novels always involve miserable people and adultery? I’m bored.

60 - Collision

#60 – Collision, by Evie Harper

DNF @ 21%, because like its name, this was a train wreck of a story.

First, some technical issues. Nothing screams low-effort like a poorly formatted ebook. My Kindle edition changed font type and size several times over the course of the prologue and the three-and-a-half chapters I read. And the last paragraph of each chapter was in bold, for some reason? I thought it was another glitch at first–heaven only knows how many I’ve had to iron out from my own works when I’m formatting–but it kept happening, so it must be deliberate. To me, bolding the last bit for emphasis seems like the author is trying too hard.

Now, the story issues. The story is told in alternating first-person present-tense narration. I have a personal distaste for present tense works, but I’m willing to set that aside if the story calls for it–I don’t think it does here. And worse, the prologue is set in the past, Slater giving his account of his experiences as a foster child of eleven–but the narrative style is precisely the same as adult Slater, which also ends up being the same as Piper, his love interest. First person narrators need to sound distinct from each other.

Then, there’s the setup. Piper walks into a bar, sees Slater, and pretty much immediately follows him to the men’s bathroom so they can bang. No slut-shaming here, consenting adults and all, but she meets him again the weekend after that, and again, and again. They have four bathroom hookups before he decides to ask her on a real date.

Only then do we find out (at 20% in, a full fifth of the way through the story) what the conflict between our two lovers is.

He hates Child Protective Services because he escaped an abusive foster home, and she’s a CPS agent who went into that line of work because she was also in the system, but never made it past the group-home stage; no one want to adopt her because of her stutter.

Really? Really? How ridiculous is that, that two random people who decide to bone each other weekly for a month in bar bathroom both happen to be former system kids, and they’re perfectly opposed? I’m supposed to believe that?

I gave up when Piper launched into a full chapter of weepy, sentimental backstory about her childhood, because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

61 - Life of Pi

#61 – Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

A book I enjoyed less and less as it went on.

Parts I and II, to me, seem to embody the struggle of two common pieces of writing advice; avoid excessive backstory and don’t let your characters be alone too much. Part I is almost entirely backstory, with a few short chapters of a different POV, that of an interviewer reflecting on his subject, thrown in for context; Part II, the bulk of the book, is Pi on the lifeboat with Richard Parker, the oddly named tiger. (Technically not alone, but certainly lacking for human companionship.)

I enjoyed Part I the most. I loved the gentle exploration of how swimming, religion, and growing up in a zoo shaped Pi into who he was, and how they inadvertently prepared him for his trials at sea. Despite being an atheist myself, I loved how Pi saw no conflict in practicing three religions at once, believing devotedly in all three and seeing the best in each. And as I didn’t know much about Hinduism, I appreciated the brief glimpse into its practices as well.

I got really bored spending chapter after chapter cooped up in the boat with Pi in Part II. I started smelling the whiffs of unreliable narrator early on, and his story only became more and more outlandish, never quite rivaling The Odyssey for audacity, but certainly straining credible suspension of disbelief. At first I was caught up in the minutiae of survival just as Pi was (if you look at my own works, I’m sure you can see that’s kind of my jam) but by the end of that section, it was a slog to keep going.

Which echoes the wearying nature of Pi’s journey, of course, but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read.

Part III, despite being the shortest, was the worst test of my patience. The constant back-and-forth between Pi and his interrogators, stripped of all description of place or tone or body language, seemed interminable even though it hardly took up any space at all. And since I knew what was coming–they weren’t going to believe him–the ending lacked impact for me. It doesn’t matter to me whether the outrageous tale I read was true, or whether Pi built it upon the much more plausible version he told under scrutiny, the one including the cook and the sailor and his mother. I truly don’t care. And since apparently that’s the end of the book, where I’m supposed to care…? I was just disappointed.

I do believe, though, if the fantastic version of the story is supposed to be the true one, that Richard Parker leapt off into the jungle without a goodbye. Tigers don’t strike me as overly sentimental creatures.

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