This Week, I Read… (2018 #33)

113 - The Once and Future King

#113 – The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

All I knew about this before reading it was that it was a “fantasy classic” version of the legend of King Arthur.

I did not know it was going to teach me over a dozen new vocabulary words, or that it was stuffed with absurd and anachronistic humor.

That tone took me a while to get used to–it actually helped me to think of this as a Monty-Python-esque book, though obviously this predates MP. But just as I was getting used to it, and to the archaic Middle-English-derived terminology, both were backed down on.

After the end of the first part, Arthur’s childhood up to the Sword in the Stone, I stopped running across new words, having apparently exhausted White’s vocabulary, but the humor also stopped being funny, which may be in part because there was far less of it. It’s almost as if the first book were written for children but the others for adults? I realize now these were published separately and later compiled into this now-standard edition, but the seams between them show clearly.

I lost interest long before I finished, because I know the legend. I know all the story beats, and without that humor from the first part carrying over into the other three, this was a dull read.

114 - The Archived

#114 – The Archived, by Victoria Schwab

This was a real page-turner for me, with a truly unique take on death and the afterlife that I feel like I never in a million years could have dreamed up.

Add a surprise at the end that I one-hundred-percent did not see coming, and I raced to the end of the book.

Which is actually the part that disappointed me, a little. After some fantastic world-building that comes in perfectly paced, bite-sized pieces, everything comes together in a climax that felt rushed. I won’t spoil the specifics, because I want to recommend this book for everyone to read themselves, but I did think the final confrontation would have benefited from a slower pace to allow for more suspense and dread.

But that’s it, really, for my complaining. Mac, as the narrator, never annoyed me the way teen heroines so often do. Wesley is fabulous from the moment we meet him right to the end, with a sense of humor more nuanced than teen-boy characters usually get. The world concept is fascinating and downright creepy, and the mystery aspects of the plot were carefully crafted and excellently paced.

115 - The Gift of Rain

#115 – The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng

DNF @ 10% (page 43.) Because life is too short, and my TBR pile too high, to read nonfiction thinly disguised as fiction.

In those 43 pages, I got some truly beautiful prose about the setting (Penang, an island off the Malay Peninsula;) a shortened version of its history as a colonial outpost and later a vital, thriving port; a lot of mentions of “the war” (WWII;) and some basic principles of aikido, which the narrator learned as a teenager and taught as an adult.

What I pointedly did not get was even the slightest sliver of personality from either character in the present (Philip and Machiko) or Philip’s mentor in the past, Endo.

The only thing Philip does is whine about being old. Machiko is a plot device who needs Philip to tell her his life story. Endo is the stereotypical Japanese martial artist, a strict but benevolent teacher. I’ve seen him in a dozen different movies.

Your prose can be gorgeous (that’s why this is a 2-star DNF instead of a 1) but if your characters are still made of cardboard 10% in, I’m not holding out much hope they’re going to get better.

116 - Lavinia

#116 – Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The language, tone, and setting are magnificent. I can picture the quiet, misty, early-morning world of a pre-Rome Italy clearly through Le Guin’s imagery, a place where the gods are honored devoutly but without melodrama or excess, a place where life is good and peace reigns.

Until the Trojans show up.

I couldn’t make it through The Aeneid because epic verse is simply not my thing. But I looked forward to filling in the rest of the story with Le Guin’s expansion/reimagination of Lavinia, a pivotal figure around which the war erupts, though the poem never has her speak a single word.

I’m a bit confused by what I got. Obviously the plot is the same, up to the point where The Aeneid ends; after that, we’re in new territory, which is what interested me most.

The very beginning of the story introduces Lavinia and her land, which I liked. A huge chunk of the book then takes us through the events of the latter portion of The Aeneid, but from her perspective–yet we still get the bulk of the war itself, since she narrates it as if she were there, explaining that she pieced it all together from the tales of the wounded first, then the survivors.

So there is still a huge amount of time devoted to the battles, and the endless lists of names I disliked so much from the poem, so-and-so killed such-and-such, even though they’ve never been mentioned before and never will be again. I could have done without that.

After the war, the three years of Lavinia’s marriage to Aeneas–the entire purpose of the war, might I remind you–was a handful of pages where not much happened, then the rest of the book wrapped up in about thirty pages that cover FIFTY YEARS. When Lavinia mentioned what a fine man her son Silvius still was at fifty, I had to reread the page because I was sure I couldn’t be reading it right, but yeah, decades glossed over.

In the end, I feel as if, with its reliance on gods and oracles, this setting/story builds Lavinia as a character, where she was only a name and a plot device in the original epic, yet still manages to deprive her of any agency. She follows her fate for most of the book, knowingly. She’s also somehow in communion with Vergil and learns of various prophecies and events from him (eg, she knows Aeneas will only rule three years after their marriage.) So the first decision she makes truly on her own (as I far as I can tell) doesn’t come until she refuses to be parted from her son–thirty pages before the end.

The pacing is just terrible, and Lavinia still isn’t fleshed out enough to stand as the narrator, when those post-Aeneas years are entirely her talking about the problems and exploits of her son and stepson. She’s still no one if not viewed in relationship to a man from her life–she’s never truly a person of her own.

117 - The Man Who Loved Dogs

#117 – The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura

DNF @ 10% (page 60.) That got me through the first four chapters, which was all three POV characters at least once.

I’m always hesitant to criticize works in translation for their unreadability, because without reading it in the original language I won’t know how much is the fault of the author, and how much the translator. But this was some of the densest, most forbidding prose I’ve ever seen.

Most sentences were actually paragraphs, outside of dialogue. I’m not such a ruthless reader-editor that I insist on single clauses only, but when those paragraphs can be as long as half the page, and loaded with wordy descriptions and heavy political ideas as well, reading was both confusing and tiring.

Also, many things seem to be deliberately obscured for little or no reason. On being introduced to Ramon, one of the three POV characters, he meets with a woman that both he and the narrative text call Caridad. He asks if she’s brought along Luis. At this point, I’m thinking (ex-) wife or former lover, and maybe their child together? But it’s not clarified. After a while, a dead boy is mentioned, Pablo, as Caridad’s son. On the next page, Pablo is referenced again, this time as Ramon’s brother.

Wait, so Caridad, this woman Ramon is speaking to in a cryptic tone about “The Party” and various political intrigues is his mother? Whom he calls by her first name? Because that’s not at all where I thought this was going. And why exactly did I have to read half the chapter to “discover” this information, when the second half of the chapter launches into the story of Ramon’s family and how he became estranged from his mother? That at least did explain the first-name, cold-tone thing, but why couldn’t I have just known she was his mother to begin with?

This was already a difficult enough read without the author needlessly withholding important information.

118 - The Proposition

#118 – The Proposition, by Kate Ashley

This isn’t a romance, it’s three lazy tropes in a trench coat pretending.

1. I Need a Baby, Now, Mister
2. Sure, He’s a Terrible Womanizer, But I Can Fix Him with Love
3. I Have a Gay Best Friend But the Rest of the Story is Homophobic as Hell

Add to that some laughably bad grammar, tons of family side characters who have no personalities, only hot tempers and sass, and middling-to-bad sex scenes. What do you get?

One of the worst romances I’ve read all year.

I won’t criticize anyone who enjoys reading romances because of their tropes. Baby-hungry heroines are a thing, and I respect that. But Aidan is AWFUL. I would not want to procreate with that man if the future of humanity depended on it. He’s introduced repeatedly as “sex on a stick” but oddly enough, the only physical detail I remember being mentioned is his eye color? Not even his hair or his build. Of course, later, during sexy times, he’s all muscular and lean, like nearly every romance hero, but for all I knew before that he could have been an amorphous alien blob stuffed into a business suit. He’s arrogant about his sexual prowess while being completely emotionally stunted. He sends mixed messages to Emma about where their “relationship” stands. He constantly uses homophobic language and misogynist terms as insults (calling himself a “pansy” or “pussy” whenever brain threatened him with any feeling that isn’t lust; saying “It’s amazing I didn’t turn out gay, surrounded by all that estrogen” in referring to his four older sisters. I could go on, but it’s too gross.)

And the plot, thin and tattered as it is, makes a huge point of HIS ABSOLUTE INABILITY TO LEARN FROM HIS PAST MISTAKES. He tries to self-sabotage his relationship with Em in the EXACT same way he did his fiancee years before.

It ends with a cliffhanger–will Em fight for Aidan? Can Aidan stop getting in his own way, and maybe revive their love?–but honestly, I don’t want them together, so I actively don’t ever want to read the rest of their story. Em’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, the way she allowed herself to emotionally invest in this horrible, horrible man, but I wouldn’t wish a marriage and family with Aidan on my worst enemy.

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