This Week, I Read… (2020 #7)

26 - Kitchens of the Great Midwest

#26 – Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

  • Read: 2/11/20 – 2/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 26/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with more than twenty letters in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a recipe
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Ultimately, it’s too cute.

I like the ideas behind it more than the actual execution of it. Have a woman’s life described mostly in her absence, by the people around her, by people increasingly far from her, sounds like a great high concept, especially if the woman the story is about is a wildly popular but mostly reclusive celebrity chef. And the food item that titles each chapter is part of the story of her life, as well.

But I hated the ending. There, I said it. I read the whole book and saw the stories of why these foods were important to her, and then they’re on the menu for the dinner her long-lost mother gets to attend, and look how pretty and cute and meaningful it all is! Look at how well-constructed! But it’s so obvious, so artificial, and and it doesn’t really finish the story at all. By ending with the arrogant self-satisfaction of Cindy, who is just happy she birthed an incredible daughter even if she had nothing to do with her raising…that’s just not motherhood, and it’s not a happy or satisfying ending to me. It smacked me in the face with how obnoxious this book was at its worst.

At its best, though, it captures beautifully the slices of the Midwest that are strange and incomprehensible to outsiders. I saw some of my own childhood in this, and I had to laugh about how perfectly the Norwegian Minnesotans were depicted, not because they’re my people, but because I have a relative by marriage from that pocket of the Midwest and absolutely everything the book said, I’d heard from stories about her family and community.

So the central strength of the book–using a succession of different POV characters to capture as much of the Midwestern food traditions as possible–also becomes its central weakness, because it’s all in service of a narrative and ending that don’t really mean much.

27 - The Return of the Black Widowers

#27 – The Return of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov

  • Read: 2/15/20 – 2/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 27/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: An anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Waaaay back in high school, I did a term paper on Asimov for my American Lit course, but it was entirely focused on his science fiction. I didn’t know he wrote mysteries at all until I found this tucked away on a low shelf at a used book sale. Of course I bought it.

The wit and precision I remember from his other work is present here, and the cleverness, too. As individual stories, I have few real complaints, despite generally disliking mystery. These are much more puzzlers than they are whodunits, and most of the stories resolved with a ending, a revelation, that I found satisfactory. (I say most because some of them are highly academic, and you don’t have a chance of figuring it out if you aren’t familiar with the exact same canon of knowledge as the author.)

The problem I have with this is that putting together this many stories in an anthology is that it shows clearly how formulaic they are. The details repeat in a way that would make sense of stories published over months and years, but are completely redundant when read back to back. The structure of each story is brutally identical, and despite the small idiosyncracies of each man in the Widowers, they all speak with the same high-handed posh manner that made me think they’re British, even though a) this is set in the US, and b) they use none of the British slang that I would expect from male-only rich-people puzzle-solving dinners. They’re all horribly elitist, and it’s grating.

So what it really boils down to is that I like the style of the puzzles, they’re the sparkling gemstones in a terrible setting that detracts from their beauty. I can admire the wit and cleverness while hating that this is an old white boy’s club that makes it a point never to admit women.

28 - Fiona's Flame

#28 – Fiona’s Flame, by Rachael Herron

  • Read: 2/18/20 – 2/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 28/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The longer this went on, the less I liked it. In the first half, I was still thinking this could be a four- or even a five-star read, if it stuck the landing, but it all fell apart so disastrously by the end.

I have so much to complain about that I’m not even sure I can put together a review with coherent flow. Bullet point time!

The Good:

  • Even without having read the first four books in the series, Cypress Hollow is a town with a lot of personality, and this work felt very different from other “small town” romances I’ve read. Points for originality.
  • Both Abe and Fiona start out as quirky but believable characters, and believably compatible. There was a reason I was on board with this story early on, and it’s because they do have real chemistry at first. There are cute moments, and I did like Abe at the beginning, though it didn’t last.

The Bad:

  • Abe is hung up on his ex who left him at the altar eleven years ago, to the point where the first time he hops into bed with Fiona he calls her the wrong name. I’m not annoyed about this because it makes him a jerk, I’m annoyed with the author because it’s really stretching. Eleven years ago? Is he still pining for her or not?
  • Fiona is ALSO hung up on Abe’s ex, because when she’s prettied up apparently she looks enough like the ex to draw comparisons from random townsfolk. Which sends her off into an inferiority spiral that is just exhausting to read.
  • Abe’s ex then manages to get herself cheated on by her husband, the man she left Abe for, and in retaliation she blatantly tries to seduce Abe, but that plot line never goes anywhere, and no character ever seems to acknowledge her behavior. Abe doesn’t fall for it but also doesn’t call her on it, and Fiona, despite the inferiority complex she’s developed, is mildly annoyed at the time but never brings it up again, EVEN WHEN THE WOMAN LATER BEFRIENDS HER. Really, Abe’s ex just takes up way too much of the story.
  • Fiona’s intermittent “swearing” using entirely nonsense words isn’t cute and quirky, it’s just dumb. It makes her sound like a child learning to talk badly. They’re not even the same words, it’s a new one every time and they’re all awful. They chipped away at what liking I had for Fiona every time they appeared.

The Ugly:

  • The first time Fiona nearly died was understandable because of a semi-heroic rescue attempt and some extenuating circumstances. The second time? Definitely Too Stupid To Live Syndrome. And why does she need to nearly die twice? Isn’t that excessive? Is nearly killing Fiona again really the only way to erase the idiocy (see my point below) of the final conflict?
  • The central conflict that sets up Abe and Fiona talking–should we save the lighthouse or tear it down–is ignored for most of the book while they deal with more personal issues of personality, Abe’s ex, family drama, etc. Then at the very end it’s trotted back out for one last showdown where BOTH leads act like irredeemable idiots, no better than viciously mean children, and I’m supposed to believe a) they got that worked up over the lighthouse only to have it not matter at all to them anymore after Fiona nearly gets killed again, and b) that either of them can forgive the horrible things they said to each other in front of half the town?
  • Knitting is a central theme of this series, and I’m keenly aware of this because many, many years ago when I was a die-hard knitter and was much more involved in the online knitting community, I “knew” the author as a knit blogger. When I saw this book available for free and recognized the name, I grabbed it on that strength alone, because her blog was charming and personable and I got kind replies the few times I left comments. But this book has NOTHING to do with knitting, until very late in the story when someone tries to make Fiona learn to knit again after doing poorly at it as a child, so the constant chapter-intro knitting quotes from the fictional town’s fictional knitting goddess supreme felt wildly out of place. Had I read the first four books I doubt I would feel as strongly about this, but when the individual books are designed to be able to be read as stand-alones, this kind of tonal clash doesn’t work, and can’t be carried on the backs of the other books being more knitting-related. This one isn’t. This one barely has a thing to do with knitting for 95% of the story and that five percent that touches on it can’t support the weight of cutesy thematic chapter openings.

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