This Week, I Read… (2020 #25)

#96 – Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert

  • Read: 6/25/20 – 6/26/20
  • The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book about or involving social media
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Redford Morgan is my new book boyfriend. Sensitive, thoughtful, funny, and one hundred percent willing to apologize for his mistakes. And he’s got great hair.

Chloe Brown is somehow simultaneously a hot mess and a completely put together gal. Yes, she’s dealing with a serious disability, but she’s dealing with it. She’s got a coping system, she’s successful at a job that allows her to work around her limitations, and she’s trying her best to live without fear.

I loved this pairing almost unreservedly; the only sticking point for me was early on, when they weren’t yet friends, because I often felt Chloe was coming across in their “banter” as ruder than maybe the author intended me to think she was, for a rom-com sort of situation. Part of that might be the rapid-fire nature of the conversation, where it flies by so fast I don’t pick up tone quite so well, and part of it might be a difference in sense of humor, because Brits and Americans can differ quite a bit there. (I wasn’t actually aware this was set in the UK until I’d gotten through a few pages and recognized enough Britishisms.) It’s not an out-and-out flaw, it’s just something that didn’t resonate with me as well as it probably does other readers. Once Red and Chloe started opening up to each other and becoming friends, I was all good with it.

On top of that, this novel deals with a handful of Serious Issues lightly but with admirable sensitivity; disability, of course, but also interracial dating, classism, and past abusive relationships. Nothing felt like it was there as part of an agenda or a teaching moment; it all read as authentic and important to the story.

A friend got me to read this by raving (a little) about it and the sequel, so I look forward to reading that too!

#97 – The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Read: 6/27/20 – 6/29/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A history or historical fiction
  • Mount TBR: 88/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A well-constructed and thought-provoking piece of navel-gazing about old men and their possibly wasted lives. I probably would have enjoyed it a great deal more if my personal taste was for philosophy rather than emotional connection, because I found no emotional connection to be had with Stevens.

He is undoubtedly in all ways the epitome of English butler-ness; while he spends the entire length of the book pondering the qualities such an individual must possess, and whether one can even be a great butler if not in service to a great man, his actions constantly show us he is that perfect servitor, even when veiled in the one-two punch of unreliability and hindsight. In every instance when he could have chosen to be a human with natural human emotions, he instead suppressed his wants, needs, and even his identity in order to be a more perfect butler.

I understand all of this, and I understand the point it makes. At the end of the day/book/life, the pursuit of professional perfection at the cost of love, family, and other personal concerns only leaves one with the same hollow feeling the book left me with, an absence of emotion and fulfillment. My heart isn’t breaking for the man Stevens could have become if not for the restrictions wrapped around him by society, his employment, and even his father, who raised him both actively and by example to be this perfect, agency-free automaton. I instead feel nothing but vague pity and disgust, because while I might find his situation sad, I find the man that situation created an entirely unsympathetic person; his recalled memories consistently show him being unfailingly polite to his social superiors but often rude, short-tempered, or cold-hearted to everyone else, especially Miss Kenton. Stevens may very well be a great butler, despite serving a man who perhaps was not so great, but he is definitely not a great person, and I don’t generally have sympathy to spare for sad old men who got that way by their own choices.

#98 – The Art of Peeling an Orange, by Victoria Avilan

  • Read: 6/29/20 – 6/30/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the arts
  • Mount TBR: 89/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%. Getting into the high melodrama of this zany plot with unhinged characters would have been a stretch for me anyway, but I was repeatedly distracted by simple errors of realism that could have easily been fixed with little or no detriment to the plot. Two of the worst examples so far: a sixteen-year-old girl can’t become her younger sister’s legal guardian in the US, because she’s a minor and would require one herself; a character dramatically throws together a letter to a celebrity, slaps it in an envelope and runs outside to drop it in a mailbox, then immediately regrets it and wishes to get it back…but it wouldn’t be delivered anyway, because at no point does she add any postage, so perhaps I’m meant to assume she keeps a stack of pre-stamped manila envelopes around, but her life is in shambles and she simply doesn’t come across as that organized a person. (And the letter does reach its intended recipient without hassle.) I can’t suspend my disbelief about the more soap-operatic elements of the story that already strain credulity if I also am constantly fighting obvious mistakes about the way the world works.

#99 – The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

  • Read: 6/30/20 – 7/1/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book that has a book on the cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book about books or a library
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I’m always interested in books about book lovers, but this book felt designed to capitalize on that interest rather than celebrate it. I feel marketed to as a bookworm, rather than provided for.

I understand that not every piece of women’s fiction has to be a trauma-laden sob fest, and not every romance has to be angst-filled, but this didn’t feel fluffy or light to me; it felt shallow. Despite several subplots, there was no real conflict driving the story. We just bumbled along behind Nina as she went about her days, and anything that should have been a conflict was either dealt with promptly and easily, or ignored for most of the story while other things happened then fixed with a wave of the hand and an obvious solution. While there were many minor characters with vastly different (usually stereotypical) personalities on display, somehow they were all incredibly similar in how they related to Nina: each one of them, be they a long-time friend or a newly-met family member, said exactly what they were thinking with no filters and dealt with her in an extremely forthright manner, whether their interactions were positive or negative.

No one in this book possessed a single ounce of subtlety, nor was there ever any subtext for me, the reader, to have to think about. Nothing surprised me. Nothing challenged me.

I didn’t even like the romance subplot, when that should have been the thing I enjoyed most! Tom was so laid back he was practically disengaged from the story entirely, and his not returning Nina’s calls for most of the middle of the book only exacerbated his non-entity-ness. The fade-to-black sex scenes, while appropriate for the style of the narrative, served as further ellipses to his personality, which could have been showcased instead by including more intimacy between him and Nina.

Lastly, and perhaps most tellingly, I found the portrayal of Nina’s anxiety to be thin and disingenuous. For most of the story, it’s just an excuse for preferring to be alone–it isn’t shown to impact her life beyond her penchant for planners, especially as it becomes obvious that despite her repeatedly stated preference, she is constantly with other people–the various book clubs, her friends at the movies or trivia nights, meet-ups with her new family members. The story tells me she’s a hermetic bookworm but shows me she’s a freaking social butterfly whose dance card is so full she can’t even find room for a date for three weeks with Tom when he finally asks. Then, when the plot needs her to, she has a full-blown panic attack. Yes, everyone with anxiety can have a range of symptoms and presentations and one person’s anxiety will look different from another’s. I don’t expect Nina’s to be a carbon copy of mine, but I also don’t expect it to be a plot convenience with absolutely no depth to it. Not impressed.

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