This Week, I Read… (2020 #1)

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#1 – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

  • Read: 1/1/20 – 1/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 1/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book without the letters A, T, or Y in the title
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new-to-you author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is, perhaps, the most unconventional story about vampires I’ve ever read/watched/experienced.

It’s an alliance between a human and a vampire, but it’s not a romance, at least not in the traditional sense: it’s got a few confused elements of romance, but it’s far more about developing a deep bond with someone that isn’t romantic or sexual or even familial. Sunshine and Con save each other’s lives so often she stops being able to keep accurate track.

I’m there for that bond. I’m there for the mutual suffering that leads to closeness, and the cultural misunderstandings (if vampire can be said to be a different “culture” rather than a different species) that cause the rifts between them that need to be healed through discussion and the kind of tentative reaching-out that is all people who have been burned too often can manage. This books hurts, at the same time it feels so good. This kind of intense relationship is one we don’t usually get as readers without attaching sex or romance to it, or dressing it up in military garb and pinning some patriotism on it. It’s two warriors who will always, always have each other’s backs, even if they didn’t start that way. And that’s a great story.

But as much as I love the emotional guts of it, and I do, it’s overly indulgent in its style and world-building. Now, the world-building is great, the problem is is that there’s too much of it. Sunshine goes on pages-long tangents explaining some aspect of wards or some obscure fact about vampire-related fiction or some detail about their world’s computers, and five minutes later when it’s over I’ve completely forgotten what was being said in the middle of the conversation she zoned out of to tell me about the world she lives in. And this happens constantly. It’s not that any one piece of information isn’t interesting or something I probably would have wanted to know, but as an aggregate, did I really need all of it? Wasn’t there anything that could be cut without sacrificing clarity in order to move the story along faster?

In addition to that, I had to keep reminding myself that Sunshine was in her mid-twenties. The constant whining (often justified but definitely not always,) the tendency to lose focus and go on a tangent at the drop of a hat, the mental inability to use certain words or phrases and leave the reader to fill them in at the “…” at the end of her sentences–all of these together contrived to make her sound like a younger narrator than she is. Yes, she lives alone and has a steady job and a steady boyfriend and she’s not just independent but semi-distant from her family (despite the fact they all work together) and all sorts of other markers of adulthood, so I know she’s an adult, but most of the time she sounds like a teenager. It’s not a deal-breaker but I did sometimes find it irritating.

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#2 – Bound to Be a Bride, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 1/4/20 – 1/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 2/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were aspects of this that were fun enough to keep me reading–Javi and Isabella’s banter being the key one–but most of it was a little too rushed, a little too contrived, a little too inconsistent. Since I know absolutely nothing about this part of history, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I will say that Isabella’s time at the convent teaching her hard work is believable, but the survival skills, not so much.

Good thing the runaway bride meets up with her runaway husband almost immediately so he and his companions can look after her.

This is interesting, in a way, though, as an example of a narrative style that keeps everything snappy and interesting even when the plot or the characters fall apart the second you examine them closely. Isabella is an inconsistent mess of wantonness and sudden shyness; Javi is hell-bent on being a revolutionary and not a husband, until he gets a sweet little thing who likes to be tied up, and then he’s fine with staying in Spain and being himself again for a while. (Actually, now that I type that out, his character arc does make a fair bit of sense in context, it’s just very rushed. Isabella’s still a flip-floppy nightmare.) The entire point of the novella, two people running away from their own marriage only to find each other anyway, is ridiculous to the point where you can almost appreciate it just for its brazenness as a romance plot. So this is bad, yet somehow still really fun? Usually when I rate something this low by a new-to-me author, I’ll ditch whatever other books of theirs I have on my TBR, but the first Regency Reimagined novel, which I also own, sounds a lot like this–kinky fun without being worried too much about making sense. I’m surprisingly okay with that.

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#3 – Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

  • Read: 1/5/20 – 1/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 3/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose last name is one syllable
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a story collection that holds a mirror up to you as the reader and asks, “What would you do?”

Usually when I review an anthology I have to say, well, they’re tough to rate because the stories are all so different, and I liked some better than others. Though in most cases I don’t take the time to do a story-by-story breakdown, especially when there are a lot of stories. But here there’s only four novellas, with the bonus short story in my paperback edition. So it’s far easier to say “I loved these three and didn’t care so much for this one but I see how it fits into the book’s overriding theme.”

Which is what I feel. The one that sticks out to me is “Big Driver,” but mostly because I’m always wary of a male author writing about the experience of rape from a woman’s perspective. In that story, I wasn’t so much looking in the metaphorical mirror and asking, “What would I do if I were her?” I was constantly thinking, “Is this how I would feel if I were her? Does this sound right to me?” It didn’t seem as authentic as the others, though I still appreciate the message it sent.

“1922” was terrifying, and had the strongest supernatural elements of any of them, though it can be interpreted as the narrator’s mind coming loose from its moorings, rather than actual otherworldly happenings, if a reader chooses. I certainly read it that way, though there’s room for interpretation. But as an opening story it’s a solid introduction to the bigger picture. “Big Driver” does carry on that picture, though as I said, it’s not as strong for me. “Fair Extension” surprised me with its apparent lack of closure–Dave Streeter makes his deal with the devil and just gets away with it? It’s rare to approach that sort of tale that way. But the best story, by far, was “A Good Marriage.” That was the clearest moment of “holy hell, what would I do? How on earth could I deal with that?”

As for the bonus story, “Under the Weather,” I actually didn’t like it at all, and I had it figured out almost instantly, and wading through the boring minutiae of the main character’s job to find out if I was right about my suspicions wasn’t tense or interesting, but plodding and dull. That was a swing and a miss for me. But it’s so short, and it’s not in all editions of the book, so I’m not really counting it in my rating.

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#4 – Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

  • Read: 1/8/20 – 1/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 4/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that starts with “A”
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 60%. I know I didn’t have much more to go, page-count-wise, but I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

This book is a mess and I don’t think any of its messages are clear.

On the level of societal commentary, tackling health care issues via patent law and piracy makes it appear to some extent anti-capitalist, but it’s really just anti-monopolist, because mostly everyone is still out to make money. We live in a society, and all that. As an American I’m used to medical dystopias revolving around insurance, rather than drug prices/availability, though this future doesn’t seem to have medical insurance at all, so I guess Big Pharma is the only enemy in that regard. It’s interesting from that perspective, but this story does little to establish the state of the world beyond its level of science and technology. There’s vague reference to “the Collapse” which apparently altered the world to the point of complete political and social restructuring–people can be indentured or enslaved and that’s normal, citizenship is a commodity, the maps would look incredibly different if any were included, I’m sure–but it’s all “this is how the world is now” without much “this is how it got that way.”

On the level of interpersonal relationships, how does this literally get everything wrong, from my perspective, about positive representation? The bisexual main character is shown throughout her life to fall into bed with anyone at the drop of a hat. The nonbinary character is a robot. The man in love with the robot is homophobic to the point where he doesn’t “have sex” with the robot until “she” reveals “she’s” discovered her human brain came from a woman, and changes her pronouns to match, not because “she” cares either way but because it will make him feel more comfortable with “her.” All of these things are harmful tropes or stereotypes.

And what’s more, even if the (cough) “romances” in this story weren’t harmful or degrading, they take up so much space on the page that there’s no tension in the chase between the pirate and her pursuers. At all. The pace is plodding. She has a chapter where there’s a lot of science talk, maybe a flashback about her past, maybe there’s some implied off-screen sex with the dude she rescued at the beginning who is waaaaay younger than her and she’s basically keeping around as a sex toy even though she wants to get rid of him for practical life purposes. (I’m not even going to stop to unpack all that, because it’s also gross and I don’t want to.) Then we switch POVs to the nonbinary robot, who is some ways is actually rather charming in his/her attempts (I’m using both pronouns because both are used in the story at one point or another) to learn and process human behavior. I would have been much happier if the entire book were just Paladin figuring him/herself out in the world of humans, even though I know that’s not a very original story concept; Paladin is by far the most interesting character of this cast. But his/her chapters focus so much on that (and his/her exploration of and research into what robot-human sexual relationships would be like, and eventually are, when “she” and Eliasz finally sleep together, which was a bizarre scene that made no physical sense) that the chasing of the bad guy is a subplot at best when it actually should be the main story line linking these characters together.

Also, am I supposed to feel sympathetic to Jack? She’s a drug pirate, fighting Big Pharma to bring cheap and necessary drugs to the masses who can’t otherwise afford them. That’s Robin-Hood-esque, in a sci-fi kind of way, but her mistake in distributing an addictive drug that’s getting people killed doesn’t hold up well in that light. The drug wasn’t medically necessary to anyone–it’s a stimulant to make doing your job more pleasant–and she wasn’t exactly handling it responsibly, reverse-engineering something that wasn’t yet fully tested or available for public distribution. If she’s so altruistic, shouldn’t she have been making useful things like insulin or anti-cancer meds or basically anything else? It’s lampshaded in the story as not-stupid by saying “well people on [this drug] are more likely to get hired or keep their jobs because they enjoy working, so people without it are at a disadvantage.” Except…it’s not in large-scale distribution yet, so has anyone actually lost their jobs at that point because they don’t have access to the drug?

Jack comes across as a pretty cold, unfeeling person who, past and present, uses sex to manipulate people, justifies her not-life-saving drug-running by saying she’s sticking it to Big Pharma, then screws up royally and gets people killed. Her attempts to “fix” that, even at 60% where I gave up out of annoyance, don’t amount to much at all, which is another reason there’s no tension in this story. She’s not on the verge of some drastic breakthrough to create a drug to counteract the bad one, only pursuit is hot on her heels. Pursuit is too busy falling into bed with each other and drowning in homophobic angst to bother doing their jobs properly.

Even if I only had a little over a hundred more pages to find out how this story turns out, I could not make myself go on any farther. It’s a mess and I just don’t need to know how it ends.

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