This Week, I Read… (2019 #32)

101 - Blackout

#101 – Blackout, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 7/29/19 – 8/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (31/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

[SPOILER-HEAVY. HEAVIER THAN USUAL, ANYWAY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]

You’d think, when one of my major complaints about Deadline was that I didn’t care for Shaun’s narration, the reintroduction of Georgia to the mix would make this a better book, and it does in some ways. But not enough. While this does fix some of my issues with the second book, there are enough new problems that on the whole, I’m pretty damn disappointed.

The narrative style, no matter who’s talking, remains incredibly repetitive. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t in Feed, only that I probably didn’t notice it as much because I was so drawn in by the shiny new world-building so I gulped down every word without complaint. But there’s nothing new here in that regard. Some of the rules of the world have changed over the course of the story, because medical research keeps dropping in their laps at every turn, but I didn’t find any of it as fascinating at the original setup. This book isn’t about zombies, it’s about the world that living with zombies created, and the political conspiracies surrounding that, and that just got old after a while.

Let me break that down a bit.

I was impressed, back in Feed, with Grant’s extrapolation of what American government would become in response to the crisis. I saw parallels to the non-zombie surveillance state we’re approaching (or are already in, depending on where in the country you live, how much technology you’re surrounded by, and how paranoid your perception of your environment is. That’s not a argument I want to have through this review, though.) I was impressed.

By the end of that book, it’s clear that, as with most zombie-based media, the zombies aren’t the point. They’re a condition of the world that causes other things to happen, and they get progressively less interesting and less important as the story goes on. Blackout doesn’t do this differently. The entire plot is a lather, rinse, repeat cycle of Something Important Happens which then gives our heroes information the government doesn’t want them to have or share, then the conspiracy engineers a zombie outbreak to put our heroes in harm’s way so hopefully they get killed, either by the zombies or by the cleanup to suppress the zombies. Sometimes the outbreak is just a few scientists in a lab, sometimes it takes out a city, sometimes it takes out Florida, because why not? Why not destroy an entire state to prove just how serious this conspiracy is? (Yeah, so that was a mistake in planning on the conspiracy’s part, but not on the author’s. If the stakes are that huge, why did I not feel more invested, like I did back in Feed?)

I won’t say the conspiracy itself was fully predictable, though I’d guessed some of its parameters. But the plot structure was incredibly predictable. Coupled with the insane amounts of repetition (Shaun still has to constantly remark on his craziness, the cans of Coke, every blood test has to be shown and always uses the same language to describe it, and so forth) I found myself skimming a lot of the non-dialogue, especially in the second half of the book, especially in Shaun’s chapters. If I ever ran into anything that confused me, I paged back until I found what explained it, but I feel like I have a good handle on the story now that I’ve finished.

And I’m just not particularly impressed with the payoff. It felt anticlimactic, honestly. It shouldn’t–I understand the importance of the themes involved and the choices made, and in summary, it’s a great ending. But I didn’t feel it while I was reading. It took too long to get here, and I had to wade through too much crap on the way. I didn’t feel much when a character died near the end, because developing side characters has never been a strength of this series, it’s all the Shaun and Georgia show. I can appreciate seeing the return of key figures we haven’t seen much of since Feed–the Masons, Rick, Ryman–but they’re still essentially bit players, and the moral conflicts their appearances create are brushed past really, really quickly.

The best parts of the book, to me, were Georgia’s chapters in the first half, before her escape from captivity, only I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time because I was so impatient for her reunion with Shaun. Which led to the plot twist that I hadn’t predicted, because who goes there? Even though I know, intellectually, that it’s not incest, and that it explains so much, I couldn’t find myself fully on board with them being a couple. Not because of the faux-incest moral quandary I might have been suffering, but because of those very anomalies in their relationship that the story has spent two and a half books skirting around. We’ve had the pleasure of living inside both Shaun and Georgia’s heads for over a thousand pages at that point, and neither of them ever thought about this until now? It’s simply not creditable. Yes, they were keeping their relationship secret from those around them. Yes, they never wrote anything pertaining to it down. BUT WE THE READERS HAD ACCESS TO THEIR INNER LIVES AND WE STILL WEREN’T EVER TOLD? Sitting on that for two and a half books just to make it a big reveal was ridiculous. The first book had so little relating to romance or sex in it, I was wondering if Shaun, Georgia, or both weren’t intended to be read as asexual (or aromantic, or both.) Shaun’s one-night stand with Becks in the second book made me wonder where on earth he’d gotten any sexual experience at all, because as far as I knew he was a virgin, since the narrative had never taken the time to explain that he might have been having casual sex with random women in his younger years or anything similar, but also never hinted he was sleeping with his “sister.”

Hindsight now shows me all those anomalies were leading to this revelation, but when I look at them together, my brain doesn’t go “okay, so it’s incest,” it still says “these two simply aren’t interested in romantic or sexual relationships because their unusual upbringing pair-bonded them as co-dependent siblings instead” and I think I can be forgiven for not spinning that myself into the faux-incest, what Georgia later claims is close to an obvious taboo, when she reflects on how almost no one figured it out.

I HAD ACCESS TO YOUR INNER LIVES FOR A THOUSAND PAGES AND I DIDN’T FIGURE IT OUT. HOW COULD YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES POSSIBLY HAVE DONE IT?

I honestly think this twist is a real failure of storytelling. Even though I didn’t figure it out beforehand, when it was revealed, I didn’t smack my forehead and go “Of course!” I was still pretty much, “huh?” about it, and if that’s honestly the lay of the land, the story Grant wanted to tell, I would have been much more interested in knowing from the start and watching the two of them struggle to find time for each other while both keeping it a secret under dire circumstances and also trying to save the world from the zombie-government conspiracy. I truly think that would have been a much more engaging story, with another layer of conflict that would make the stakes more personal.

102 - All the Birds in the Sky

#102 – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

  • Read: 8/2/19 – 8/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (66/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A bird in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All book reviews come with personal bias attached–as much as many reviewers (myself often included) like to think we are working from some hypothetically universal standard of “good” writing, we can’t always agree on what those standards are and how to apply them fairly across all books. I say this now, because I’m about to write a negative review for this book, but for once, I recognize that my intense dislike is coming from a deeply personal place, and that my experience with it isn’t necessarily a good sign post for whether or not this book is worth reading. I often write bad reviews for books because of things that I don’t think other people want to be reading–unchallenged racism, sexism, homophobia, or pedophilia being the big ones, and I stand by those. I will continue to do my part warning people away from books that promote harmful ideologies, whenever I can.

That isn’t the case here. I can’t stand this book because it reminds me too much of how I wrote when I was a teenager, and of all of the people who read my work then and told me how terrible it was.

Yeah, it’s personal.

So, I didn’t finish. I read the first hundred pages, and I gave up. I couldn’t stand the constant misery, and I mean that quite seriously. Laurence and Patricia don’t have much more personality than “I’m so weird and nonconformist that everyone bullies me.” Laurence is science-flavored on top of that, Patricia witch-flavored. But they’re such thin characters, and they simply can’t support a story solely about the two of them without more development. To pile on extra misery, all of the members of both families are also horrible people who also mistreat them in some way. In that sort of environment I’d expect the two of them to become close friends, to be the only spot of good in each other’s awful lives–but despite the overall narrative the blurb is trying to sell me, I’m not at all convinced these two are friends at all–they tolerate each other at best, and at worst they spend weeks not speaking to each other–and this setup does not have me confident that they’re going to eventually fall in love. I’d be laughing at the reviews that call this book “romantic” if I weren’t so disappointed, because I adore real romance, and I don’t feel like I’m going to get that here.

Let’s go back to that science vs. witchcraft characterization. Because at a hundred pages in, I had only just gotten what looked like a plot, rather than chapter upon chapter of “look at how miserable and bullied these two kids are, don’t you feel for them?” Theodolphus Rose, master assassin posing as a school counselor, tells Patricia that Laurence is an enemy of nature and must be killed. That’s the conflict, and in other circumstances I might be interested–pitting kids against each other isn’t new at all, but done well, it can certainly be compelling. Pitting potential romantic partners against each other can be awesome, whatever age group. So I’m not opposed to this basic plot. I am opposed to it taking almost one hundred pages to show up, and I’m opposed to the flimsy world-building that has done nothing to define the relative power of science and witchcraft. At first (in the very first chapter when I still thought I might like this book, it looked like my kind of weird,) I was enchanted by Patricia’s magic and her talking to birds and going to the forest to see the Parliament. But there’s no rules to anything related to magic, and without any sort of standards or explanations, there’s really no upper limit on what magic can do in a story, whereas the real world has definite limits on science. Without the author setting up a system deliberately to make science and magic balanced, I find myself assuming magic can be more powerful (if Patricia ever gets access to it again, if not, this will be a dull story I didn’t finish) so magic will obviously win. And that’s just not interesting, if there’s an obvious winner before the battle is even fought. Now, there are ways to subvert that expectation, and there are ways to move forward from the point where I stopped reading that might result in a better book than I expect it to be. But that low bar I have set in my mind is a result of that slapdash, flimsy world-building that amounts to “this is basically contemporary fiction but I want to put whatever I want into it and call it sci-fi and magical realism at the same time.”

I don’t have a problem with genre-mixing. I’d be a giant hypocrite if I did. But a work doesn’t get a free pass on mixing genres sloppily because it’s quirky.

It’s the “quirky” thing that really gets me. I love absurdist humor, and there are elements of it here. Theodolphus’ introduction at the mall almost had me laughing, it was so over the top and ridiculous, in just the way I like. I can’t take it seriously in context, because it’s so off-tone from everything else I read surrounding it, but in isolation it was hilarious and I loved it. For a brief moment, I felt like the author was channeling Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and I was on board. But if the whole book is meant to be absurdist, it doesn’t go far enough, and absurdity for its own sake is exactly what my teenage writing (yeah, we’re back to the personal part) was mocked by my peers for. And occasionally my teachers as well.

I was a weird kid. I have no problem admitting that, though I was never bullied anything like Laurence and Patricia are shown to be. I had friends–it’s not impossible to be weird and also have friends. I was also often an unhappy kid–teenagerhood was not particularly a good time for me–and writing was a thing I did to cope. I wrote escapist fantasy. I wrote about magic. I wrote about absurdity. I wrote about depression and misery.

I wrote things in high school that were very like this story, both in tone and overall quality. The nearly universal response to these stories, when I was brave enough to let my friends read them or turn them in for writing assignments, was basically derision and ridicule. “It’s too weird.” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?” “I don’t like how strange it is.” “It doesn’t make sense.” No matter how many times I tried to defend some of the most “weird” pieces by explaining that the absurdity of it was the whole point, the overall reaction was “stop being so childish and write things that make sense.”

I do, now. I’ve found ways to channel my love of the absurd in more palatable directions. I’ve studied my craft and “grown up,” so to speak. I take great pains to make my worlds, no matter how “strange” they are, internally consistent and understandable.

So here’s the incredibly, undeniably personal part that you absolutely shouldn’t apply to yourself and whether or not you want to read this book: I am (mildly) professionally envious and angry that this book is so praised when it reads exactly like the stuff I churning out by the notebook-full at fifteen that everyone hated. It stings. I cringed constantly with second-hand embarrassment while I was reading this, as if all of my flaws had come back to haunt me. Thin world-building because I wanted it the way I wanted it and I didn’t do the work making it cohesive. Awkward and stilted dialogue. An “me against them” mentality in my main characters. No plot to speak of for ages because I was more interested in making my world weird than having a story take place in it.

Objectively speaking–as objectively as possible for me, at this point–I don’t think this is a good book, but obviously its weirdness resonates with a lot of people, and you might enjoy it. If you think it sounds good, then maybe for you, it will be.

Speaking with extreme and noted bias, this book is bad, and I can’t stand it, and I will never finish it and wish I hadn’t spent the few hours I already did attempting to read it. I want that time back.

**After I spent a solid hour writing, rewriting, and editing this review, I wondered if I should even post it in full. After all, it is highly biased and not particularly applicable to other people in many places. I thought about it a lot. I considered where I could cut the stuff that shouldn’t matter to anyone else, the stuff that revealed too much of me, the things that might do more harm than good. But I’ve always written honest reactions to books, because I think reviews are only useful and helpful when they’re honest. So I’m posting the whole thing, because I worked hard putting my thoughts and feelings in order and being up front about my biases. Whether or not this is a helpful, useful review is only part of the point. It was cathartic to write, and if another writer sees this and feels understood, then it’s worth it.

103 - Saga, Vol. 5

#103 – Saga, Vol. 5, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/4/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (32/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

By opening with a short meditation on the reasons people become soldiers, the progression of war from an immediate and visceral concern to a mere background noise to daily life, Volume 5 has jumped back up to five stars, where the series had dipped slightly for me in the middle.

This felt grounded, which is a weird thing to say about a work that thrives on covering serious issues through ludicrous situations. This series is almost nothing but high drama and action, yet it’s constructed on a firm thematic base that supports it, that reminds you the story might look insane on the surface, but it has something to say.

In this volume, particularly, I appreciate Hazel’s occasional spoilers in narration, how unflappably awesome Ghus is at all turns (new favorite side character? quite possibly!), the relatively nuanced look at drug usage (for the short span given to it, anyway,) and the effective use of dreams/nightmares/drug trips to convey the personal history of a few characters. I’m just freaking impressed, because I’ve got a thing about dreams as a trope, they’re almost never as good on the page as the author wants them to be, but here? Fantastic.

Looking forward to the next volume, already got it checked out on Hoopla.

104 - Justice Calling

#104 – Justice Calling, by Annie Bellet

  • Read: 8/4/19 – 8/5/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (67/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A moon in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I almost gave this a second star to reflect that fact that I’m a gamer nerd and got every single reference–but in the end, the author’s gamer cred doesn’t actually make me like the book better, its flaws are so serious.

1. It’s too short. That’s the overarching problem that all the other problems could be considered children of. As I have the digital omnibus of the first three books, and as I had no clear idea how long each one was, I expected to hit the end of the first book in the neighborhood of 30-35% read; it actually came at 24%. It’s not a bad thing that the other two books are apparently longer, but now that I see the first one is barely a hundred pages, that’s not a book, it’s a novella, and it’s trying to fit a book-sized plot into it.

2. Squeezing that much plot in leaves no room for character development. Jade is a bundle of Native American sass, heavy on the sass and suspiciously light on literally anything I would hope to see in a Native narrator. Anything about her background that isn’t directly related to her magic or her tragic backstory is absent, so being Native is just a label–it’s jarring that the only time it comes up is when she lashes out at a dude by calling him “white man.” It was honestly easy to forget her heritage until that point because it had no bearing on her characterization or history. The side characters, Jade’s friends, don’t even fare that well–they get brief physical descriptions when they’re introduced, two of them get clear sexual orientations (either one didn’t, or I missed it in the rush of how fast this story moves), and none of them get anything approaching a personality. They’re just names on a page and physical bodies to be hurt so that Jade has motivation for things.

3. Most of this story is devoted to action, snarkiness, and world-building. The world-building isn’t terribly robust–there’s barely time for it even when it’s clearly important to the story–but what was there was interesting enough that, had this been a full-length novel instead of this bite-sized cliffhanger romance, I might be giving the book a vastly different rating right now. The world has potential, at least. But this is so Action-Packed that the pace crowds out pretty much everything else.

4. This is a romance? What? It’s instant lust, okay, fair, that’s a real thing and I have no problem with romances starting there. But Jade and Alek don’t develop enough of a bond, any kind of bond, to make me believe they’re interested in more than some hot sex, and then we don’t even get to see the hot sex, because the book ends immediately before they jump into bed. (Though without starting the next book, I don’t know if that happens, or it’s just a teaser before some horrible thing occurs to keep them apart for a while longer.) There’s no emotion, there’s no relationship, there’s only unfulfilled lust, and that’s not a romance at all. Again, because THERE’S NO TIME FOR IT.

This book really needs to be twice as long to tell the story it wants to tell. In the final chapters, especially, events that could have been whole scenes on their own, scenes I would have wanted to read, are summarized in a few chapters so we can get to the ending faster. Everything is just woefully underdeveloped.

105 - Moloka'i

#105 – Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert

  • Read: 8/5/19 – 8/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (68/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A flower in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A pretty typical structure of “this is a woman’s life under these historical conditions,” complicated by leprosy. If you choose to look at it from an inspirational viewpoint, it’s quite “having a disease, even one this serious, isn’t necessary the end of your life.” I generally find that sort of narrative bland, and eventually, I did here.

The first hundred pages or so kept my attention, with lots of historical detail and a firmly woven plot introducing Rachel and her family, and their complicated situation. The worst flaw I could pin on the first section of the book was constant head-hopping, a style of writing I find irritating at best and unreadable at worst, but this had a flow to it that wasn’t as disruptive as most cases I’ve read before. So I soldiered on.

Aging Rachel over a section break from seven to seventeen was fine, and I was interested to see how she’d progressed after ten years living on Moloka’i. Slightly disappointed that she was the “special” one of her peers whose leprosy wasn’t actually that bad, that she was basically able-bodied despite the disease. Obviously if she was going to die young, the rest of the book wouldn’t happen, so she couldn’t be at death’s door, but for a story about a woman living with leprosy, it was far more about how the disease shaped the external trappings of her life, rather than her actual body. Both are valuable to the story, of course, but it felt imbalanced, that she was basically healthy compared to everyone else.

The rest of the book rushed through major life events at a speed that left me bewildered. If you’re going to spend the first half of the book painstakingly detailing her childhood and adolescence, then why is her entire adulthood and death in old age rushed through in the second? Serious pacing issues. It felt like I spent the same amount of page time on Rachel’s plight about wanting to live with her uncle instead of the girls’ home, as we did on the birth and giving up for adoption of her daughter. Skip a few pages and you’d miss it entirely! I understand if the author didn’t want to make this a six-hundred page book instead of four hundred, but speeding her adulthood along like that (while also managing to spend a lot of page time worried about the logistics of her travel arrangements) didn’t make me like this book or enjoy its ending. Given the high level of narrative focus and detail in the first half, the second half just felt lazy and flat.

106 - The Right Swipe

#106 – The Right Swipe, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 8/7/19 – 8/9/19
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s rare, but every once in a while I stumble across a romance novel where the characters who are supposed to be falling in love are too busy have fantastic arcs of personal growth that they don’t actually have time for a romance. That’s what’s happened here.

Samson is wonderful and adorable, but his story line is far more focused on his football legacy (which encompasses the controversy about long-term concussion damage to players,) his family issues, and overcoming the grudges of his past than it is on his courtship with Rhiannon. Rhiannon’s story line is more about her business goals, her traumatic former relationship, and overcoming her fear of showing weakness and vulnerability than it is about her courtship with Samson.

Stuffed into all the small spaces in between these huge, life-changing issues are many lesser bits of social consciousness, especially concerning the struggles of those with mental illnesses. And don’t get me wrong, I want my romances to be progressive and socially conscious: I just don’t want them to be so concerned with the big social justice issues that there’s no room left for the romance.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Do I get the sense that Samson and Rhiannon like each other? Absolutely. Want to fall into bed with each other, sometimes despite their better judgment, as often as possible? Hell yes. But do I feel like they’re falling in love? No, not really. Ultimately, I don’t want the romance to be the subplot of the “romance” novel I’m reading, and the romance is really the least important thing in this story. Yes, each of them is the catalyst of change and growth for the other, and that’s fantastic, but there’s very little feeling evident in it–probably more so on Rhiannon’s part than Samson’s, he’s a bit more open.

I will say, on a much more positive note, as this is the first in a new series, I can’t immediately tell from this story who the next romance will focus on. Sometimes in romance series it’s brutally, painfully obvious where the setup for the next book lies, and it’s not at all organic to the story. Here, both Rhiannon’s and Samson’s friends and colleagues are integral parts of their lives, not thrown in to tick off boxes or obviously set up future stories. I’m kind of hoping it’s Katrina, or at least that she’ll get a story eventually if not next, because she was interesting, and the narrative was incredibly sensitive to her deep anxiety (agoraphobia? It’s never stated explicitly, but there are strong elements of both.) As someone who struggles with anxiety myself, I always love to see good portrayals of it in media, something that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

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