This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

144 - What If.jpg

#144 – What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

  • Read: 10/30/19 – 11/1/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (94/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with a question in the title
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

There’s nothing wrong with this book except maybe there’s too much of it.

I love xkcd, I’ve been a fan for years. As my daily/weekly webcomic reading levels dropped because one once-beloved comic or another started getting weird/bad/wordy/unfunny/overly existential, I kept reading xkcd and still do catch up when I remember to.

The humor isn’t the problem, nor is the science (which is broken down to the point where I mostly understood everything, Munroe does have a gift for explaining complex topics to laypeople) nor is the structure. The nature of the book is that it comes in bite-size bits as he answers one absurd question after another.

But by the end, I was getting worn out on the concept itself. I’m used to getting my doses of this highly specific brand of science/math humor spaced out over time. I’m not used to getting punched in the face with it in one book-sized fist. Which is really a problem with my perception of the book and not the book itself.

It’s fantastic and funny and absurd in all the best ways, but maybe, just maybe, it suffers from relying heavily on its one conceptual trick for too long.

145 - The Canterville Ghost.jpg

#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

  • Read: 11/2/19 – 11/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (95/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A ghost story
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My first Oscar Wilde, and it won’t be my last. This was hilarious and quick and charmingly snarky. In fact, it was so quick, and I was enjoying it so much, I wish there were more of it! I didn’t know what to expect going in, as I picked this up entirely for the “ghost story” task of this year’s PopSugar Reading Challenge, and it was free, being a public domain work. I didn’t know I was going to laugh so hard at a ghost failing to frighten the new owners of its residence, at the pomposity of old-tradition Brits and new-money Americans, at the trappings of Gothic Horror that get so easily brushed aside by cheerful and stubborn practicality. This might be one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever read.

146 - They Both Die at the End

#146 – They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera

  • Read: 11/4/19 – 11/5/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (44/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book that takes place in a single day
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I cried a lot and the best parts of this story really got to me, but there was also a lot I was yawning through.

If the point of this book was to capture the intensity of emotion and experience that two young men were facing on their last day alive, to develop their strangers-to-friends-to-“we’d be lovers if there was only more time” romance, then why did we spend so much of the book pulled away into the POV chapters of side characters?

Some of those chapters are arguably necessary for plot setup (mostly the antagonist’s) but most were throwaways from extremely minor characters that were world-building at best, but didn’t actually give me that much more insight into the world.

So that’s the bad part. And, of course, if the “point” of the book isn’t what I felt it was, if we want to explore authorial intent vs. the author is dead and the potential for infinite reader interpretations, then of course some readers won’t think my criticism is a criticism at all.

The good parts. I loved Mateo instantly and had a great deal of trouble connecting to Rufus at first, but as time went by it got easier, and I got the feeling that I the reader am supposed to have trouble because so does Mateo at first. Cool. When the first hints of attraction start popping up, I was completely on board the “JUST KISS ALREADY” train. While I can understand the frustration of the insta-love vibe that was going on near the end, I’m more okay with it here than I usually am, as a trope, because they were have a serious roller-coaster of a day and intense experiences do have a quicker bonding effect on people than drawn-out courtships. I very much liked the “I think I could have fallen in love with you” aspect of their relationship, and don’t have a problem with them both dropping L-bombs early because of the day they’re having and the knowledge of what’s coming.

I think the core of this book is strong, the deliberately heart-wrenching story of two people finding each other nearly too late. But I also think there’s a lot of extraneous stuff that could have been cut, and some that was necessary but could have been presented in a way more organic to the rest of the story than constantly cutting away to the POV chapters of characters we aren’t invested in.

147 - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.jpg

#147 – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

  • Read: 11/5/19 – 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (45/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book published posthumously
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I started out thinking this book was okay, and liked it progressively less and less as it went on.

I don’t think this story works as an epistolary novel, or at least, it needs more attention and care to make it work. The letter writers throughout are wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and educations, and there’s a sameness of tone to the entire book that diminishes the variety of character voice. I do think in the first half, Juliet, Sidney, and Dawsey sound reasonably distinct, but most of the rest of the Islanders are basically the same, made to sound backwards with a few dashes of poor grammar, and in the second half everyone becomes a muddle.

The second problem with the structure is that it made it absurdly easy to skip sections that didn’t interest me as I grew less enchanted with the story, because if the letter was to or from Juliet or Dawsey, I mostly stopped caring. I did skim some of the later letters, and I feel like I have a decent handle on the plot without reading every detail of Isola’s sudden obsession with phrenology or the ridiculously late and short subplot about Sidney’s secretary trying to steal Oscar Wilde’s letters.

Even once I strip the plot down to its core, there are things I didn’t like. The main love triangle was completely without tension, because of course Juliet is going to come to her senses and not marry Mark, he’s an ass. Trying to infuse extra tension by creating a second, weaker love triangle around Dawsey was just stupid, it was killing time so that Juliet still had an obstacle after she realized her feelings for Dawsey, and I didn’t buy it for a second.

I do have a thing for the strong, silent type of hero, so I found Dawsey appealing as an archetype but rather lackluster as an actual character. He seems so vibrant in the first half of the book when we get to read his correspondence, but as soon as he’s in the same zip code, so to speak, as Juliet, we barely see his POV again and he becomes a footnote in everyone else’s letters, which is nuts, since he’s the romantic hero. He doesn’t end up with enough actual page time to properly display his affection for Juliet, so their love story is a rushed but foregone conclusion that the book expects me to be happy about simply because it happens, but not because it did the work making it happen. I felt I was expected to fill in far too many of the blanks myself.

I have not seen the movie yet, but despite my disappointment with the novel, I do still plan on watching it, because a) I’m interested to see how an epistolary novel like this gets adapted, and b) I think if done well, a movie version would solve a lot of the issues I have with the novel’s structure. I haven’t looked into any reviews or discussions of the movie, so I have no idea if general consensus on it is good or terrible, but I can probably spare two hours to find out myself.

148 - Death by Chocolate

#148 – Death by Chocolate, by Sally Berneathy

  • Read: 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (96/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book featuring an amateur detective
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%. I was bored.

Things happened that should have engaged my interest–a little boy mysteriously disappearing only to be found soon after with no explanation of who took him or how he got out of the house; a stake-out spot discovered in the fenced-in yard of an empty house in the neighborhood; one of the protagonist’s neighbors possessing an unusual and useful skill set to go along with her amateur investigating.

But whatever interest I might have mustered for those hooks was swamped by how stupid and irritating the protagonist herself is. Every three sentences it was chocolate this, Coke that, more chocolate, “I shouldn’t be sleeping with my ex but his smile is so gorgeous,” then berating the investigating officer with her “I know what I’m talking about, I saw this on a crime drama” attitude.

She is the worst. And I’ve gathered that she’s got a romance subplot with that officer? If I were him, I would run for the hills.

I simply could not overcome my intense dislike for the protagonist to keep reading, especially coupled with an all-telling, no-showing writing style. I’m not a “cozy mystery” genre fan, so I’m not aware of the general conventions, but this seemed simplistic and dull.

149 - The House on the Beach

#149 – The House on the Beach, by Linda Barrett

  • Read: 11/6/19 – 11/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (97/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Plodding and predictable, without enough conflict, with too much emphasis on the townspeople and not enough on the romance.

Seriously, there’s an entire chapter devoted to a scene in the local diner where seven different old men who eat breakfast together regularly are introduced to the leading lady. One of them is the hero’s father, and one of them she already knows because he rented her “the house on the beach,” but why did we have to bother with the other five? What purpose do they serve in the story? None.

So that was an annoyance, but the larger problem is the slow pace and lack of conflict. The first hurdle to the relationship is the weak and quickly ignored “but I’m not looking for a relationship right now for reasons.” It’s on both sides, but they keep spending time together because they’re attracted to each other anyway, and yeah, they both get over that with very little introspection or discussion.

Once they’re finally together in a bed-sharing kind of way, she finally drops the bomb that leads to the only external conflict; she’s a recent breast cancer survivor with a good prognosis. But of course he freaks out because his wife died a few years back of ovarian cancer and he can’t go through that again.

If that had been properly developed, I might have been more sympathetic. But pains are taken throughout the story, whenever either character thinks about their half of that equation, to demonstrate to the reader that the two situations could hardly be more different: early detection and successful treatment vs. “it’s far too late.” So I’m less inclined to buy Matt’s total freakout, based on the fact that for the rest of the book he’s basically perfect. He’s a great father, a hard-working man, a thoughtful guy, sweet as hell, and never does anything else wrong, so to focus all of his negative emotion and action into this one serious-yet-somehow-also-flimsy breakdown is just unsatisfying.

Really, the only reason this gets two stars from me instead of one is that his kids are cute. Casey and his stuttering, which leads him to bond with the heroine who’s a voice actress, was actually a really good subplot and gave the leads extra reason to spend time together.

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