This Week, I Read… (2017 #21)

65 - People of the Book

#65 – People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

How could I not love a brilliantly crafted historical fiction piece about chasing down the history of a book?

Through the course of this story, I learned about manuscript conservation and restoration; Bosnian politics in both the WWII era and the 1990s; Jewish family customs, holiday practices, and burial rites throughout a good chunk of history; the Spanish Inquisition; inter-faith tensions in the Middle East; and brain surgery.

Yep, all that in one book.

On top of bringing so many scattered subjects together under one narrative umbrella, which is a feat itself, the pacing was just perfect. It begins with a first-person section from the POV of Dr. Hanna Heath, the conservationist who’s asked to work on preserving the book, and as each mystery in its pages is investigated, the story switches to a third-person section detailing the story the anomaly, ranging from WWII Sarajevo to 15th-century Spain.

Just when I was used to that pattern, one of the final sections threw me for a loop–a historical first-person section from the POV of the manuscript’s illuminator. A brilliant move, to make that particular section more immediate and personal by breaking the 1st-person-present/3rd-person-past seesaw.

And then, Lola, a character from the first flashback section, comes back in the present day for a first-person POV of her own. I’m not going to lie, I almost teared up. I was moved and charmed and really, this story was amazing. If you like books and small mysteries and history, at least. Which I do.

66 - Asking For Trouble

#66 – Asking for Trouble, by Rosalind James

As the youngest sibling in my family, and as a woman who struggled for years with What I Wanted To Do When I Grew Up, I found the heroine Alyssa easy to relate to. Her successes always seem small when compared to those of her twin older brothers (Gabe and Alec from books 1 + 2) and her failures seem bigger. She starts the book suddenly without either a job or a relationship, trying to find something to do with herself that matters.

And finding herself in close proximity to our hero, Joe. This romance works two tropes pretty successfully–the childhood crush (she’s known Joe since she was a teenager) and the sibling’s best friend (Joe was one of Alec’s roommates in college and is currently his business partner.) So tension abounds, and for good reason.

What I liked best about this story is that that tension never felt false or forced. Joe is a classic workaholic introvert who is big and tough physically, and stoic to cover up a surprisingly vulnerable heart underneath. I praised Gabe in book 1 for being thoughtful, a trait I value highly in my own relationships, but Joe’s lack of awareness of what Alyssa expects of him feels genuine, and is something he learns to overcome.

The conflict points in the relationship make sense, and the two actually talk about them instead of letting them fester. Something I desperately wish more romances did instead of relying on blatantly fixable misunderstandings to create tension.

I like this final book in the Kincaids series best of the three, and I look forward to starting James’ Escape to New Zealand series soon, of which I have the first three books in a bundle pack. Despite my qualms about some of the things in the previous book, overall James has proved to be a solidly realistic writer with a smooth narrative style which doesn’t rely on lazy tropes to move her stories forward. The romance world needs more like her.

67 - Seveneves

#67 – Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I’m not going to talk about the plot. The only thing I could do would be to spoil it, because BOY HOWDY DO YOU WANT TO GO INTO THIS BOOK BLIND. You shouldn’t even have read the book blurb on the back cover (it’s got major spoilers) or have peeked at the first line. Nope.

What I do want to talk about is how amazing this hard sci-fi is. I enjoy science-fantasy just fine, if the piece knows that’s what it is, but bad science fiction that gets science horribly wrong just exhausts me.

But Stephenson is a marvel of incorporating accurate, actual science into his works and then extrapolating it so far that it’s simultaneously unrecognizable and perfectly logical. It’s brilliantly accessible. In an 880-page tome, I didn’t have to look up a single word I didn’t know. Any scientific term I wasn’t already familiar with from my studies (and some of them I did) was immediately explained in a non-condescending way. Any word or abbreviation Stephenson made up for the story was immediately defined. I never felt lost or confused by the rigorous science, and it all served a purpose in the story.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how feminist this was. Not in the flaunting or agenda-touting way, just that women are the most important characters in the book. A strong female friendship is the backbone of the first two-thirds of the story, which threw me for a loop. Other women don’t get along so well, but it’s never jealousy over a man, petty backbiting, or gossip–the antagonistic relationships develop out of serious root causes.

I wish the fact that I read a book by a male author who treats female characters like actual people weren’t so surprising; but then, of what I’ve read, that list of authors is quite short, so I’ll take it where I can get it. And if it comes with a gripping, epic sci-fi storyline, so much the better.

68 - Light Years

# 68 – Light Years, by James Salter

DNF at a miraculous page 53. Yes, I usually give books til page 100 before I toss them, but I didn’t need to read any further before my opinion on this work solidified.

This is some of the worst Old White Male Fiction has to offer, and it wasn’t going to get any better.

From a technical standpoint, I can’t believe this made it past editing into print. Light Years has some of the most florid, overworked prose I’ve ever read. There is no noun to minor to be matched with an adjective, no verb strong enough not to need an adverb. I waded through entire paragraphs, sometimes even pages, where the only verbs were “to be” conjugates, which was an exhausting experience.

Then there’s the rampant head-hopping, and its strange baby cousin, room-hopping. A great deal of time is spent describing the house, the river, the bathroom, the kitchen, and sometimes it’s all at the same time. There were descriptors I honestly couldn’t match to a place or object–Salter could be describing gulls one sentence and Nedra in her kitchen the next, and pronoun confusion abounded. Sentence fragments piled up into word heaps that held no meaning. Similes assaulted me like cold rain. (See what I did there? That’s about the level we’re talking.)

Even setting aside the dumpster-fire aspect of the language, the story is beyond boring. Did we really need an entire chapter of stilted conversation between Viri and his new tailor about how he wanted his shirts made? How many books about shallow rich people and their shallow problems do we need? How many tales about failing marriages and adultery? What could possibly still be interesting about bored people making trouble for themselves because they don’t appreciate what they have? Why is this tripe still lauded as brilliant when it’s nothing more than literary masturbation?

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