This Week, I Read… (2020 #27)

#103 – Sphere, by Michael Crichton

  • Read: 7/10/20 – 7/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 93/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with the night sky on the cover (or a black cover)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Given that I saw the movie once, twenty years ago, and remember not being impressed, I was prepared to be disappointed by this. I recalled a few key events of the plot, but not the ending, and of course I didn’t know what got changed or cut for the adaptation anyway.

To my page-turning delight, I was not disappointed. For a good chunk of the book, I can honestly say I was enthralled. Give me unreliable narrators, mysterious technology of unknown origin, and lots of action, and I will be glued to the page. It’s been a while since I read a thriller that was actually thrilling.

But this isn’t flawless, and some I can forgive more than others. Crichton’s writing style has always been more adequate than good, and this one in particular is heavy on dialogue and military jargon that hasn’t aged well. In fact, this book is so reliant on then-current technology for its setting that a reader who was not alive in 1987 might be mystified by some of it, and god only knows this plot wouldn’t work half so well with 2020 technology. It’s still good sci-fi if you also consider it historical fiction of a quite recent time period.

So that’s reasonable in my eyes, but the character issues…those are dicier. Part of the reason this feels so heavy on dialogue is that a great deal of the conflict is character-based, which requires more development than say, Jurassic Park. Not that it’s not a fantastic book/movie for other reasons, but those characters are pretty thin. Here, though, by the end those well-developed characters (relatively speaking, for a Crichton novel) are broken back down to incredibly simple archetypes as part of demonstrating how they would break under stress–the hyper-intelligent black man becomes paranoid that the two white characters are teaming up against him because of his race; the white woman is convinced she’s a constant victim of sexism throughout her life, culminating in the remaining man trying to wrest control from her; that one remaining man, a middle-aged white psychologist, cannot conceive that he might be the one at fault and is quick to diagnose the others as the problems.

All of it is reasonable, sure; it could happen that way. But it all felt simplistic, reductionist. And because of the events leading up to this flattened view of the characters, because of the pacing which had a bunch of solid action before a meandering and philosophical climax, I did feel a bit let down by the ending. Not in what happened, precisely, but in how it unfolded. The beginning was a big of a slog to set up the mystery, the middle was fun and strange and sometimes pulse-pounding, but the end was cerebral and reflective, lacking some of the tension I wanted.

#104 – The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

  • Read: 7/11/20 – 7/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 94/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have so many issues with this that I’m not even sure how to make a structured review out of them. I’m usually pretty good at that.

It’s too long and too slow. Lots of padding. Some of the padding I actually liked–sure, the descriptions of Janus Rock and how lighthouses work didn’t need to be as fleshed out as they were for the story to function, but at least they were interesting to me. The plot did not justify all the extraneous POV characters who took control for a few pages to little purpose, nor did I want to read the history of every person who had ever had even the most tangential connection to the main characters, especially the kid.

The first half and second half felt like different books. The first half is centered on isolation and grief and family and the lighthouse; the second half is “this is where everything goes wrong and now everyone’s life is constantly miserable forever.”

The ending is unsatisfying. It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it provides no clear message and gives no closure.

None of the characters felt sympathetic to me. The narrative sure spent lots of time explaining everyone’s motivations for their selfish actions, but failed to make me feel anything about them other than bewilderment or disgust. No one was great, but Isabel was the worst–I could tolerate her at first by reminding myself that her selfishness was born from intense grief, but when they got found out and she turned on Tom in a fit of ridiculous melodrama, I couldn’t pretend anymore. Her argument was basically “You didn’t help me keep committing this crime so clearly you never loved me or our fake daughter and I will hate you forever!” Am I supposed to feel bad for this woman? Because I barely did to begin with, and after that point in the story I definitely didn’t.

(As a side note, strangely enough, I was actually hoping this might be good because I have the movie tie-in cover, and somehow, despite his popularity, I’ve never seen a movie starring Michael Fassbender. I hear he’s great, but the only thing I’ve seen from his entire career is 300, and he had such a small part, and also I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I’m not watching this movie. Even if it’s better than the book, that still doesn’t mean it would be good, and since I didn’t like the story at all…)

#105 – Like Falling Stars, by Avalon Roselin

  • Read: 7/14/20 – 7/16/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is outside my usual reading tastes–I rarely read middle-grade anymore and I’ve had a bad run lately with fairy-tale-like books–but it was one of this month’s selections for the indie-author book club I belong to. I ended up with some strongly mixed feelings, so let’s start with the good stuff.

I liked a lot about this. Structurally it’s basically a slow-burn friend-mance; I recognize a lot of story beats from a typical romance, though friendship is the end goal here, as is carefully and tactfully pointed out from time to time. And that’s a better take on the young(ish) girl/immortal-and-much-older man dynamic that never seems to go completely out of style. Faeries and humans are different enough, and Nicolas himself isolated enough, that it’s more believable that Ann is opening him up to friendship and not romantic love.

I love that Nicolas is a crafter/artist. He sews, he paints, he bakes, he candy-makes. (Yes, I made up that word for to get a rhyme. What can I say, this is a pretty lighthearted read.) He’s stuffy and stiff-necked and insecure, while also being intelligent and yes, kind, when he’s motivated to be. His fumbling early attempts to be a good host are adorable, and everything related to the in-universe book Caring For Your Human was utterly charming.

Ann I found to be more challenging to know and like as a character. In the end, there’s some justification for that, and clues to her history hidden within the issues I had with her, so I can’t say much without spoiling that completely. But the very vagueness of her amnesia made her difficult to pin down, unpredictable. I can appreciate the craft involved in her portrayal, but retroactively it doesn’t really make me more comfortable with her or her role in the story. (Also, she treats everyone she meets like they already know she has amnesia, even when she doesn’t tell them, and every single one of them takes it completely in stride. I’m trying to chalk that up to “this is a fairy tale” but that threw me whenever it happened.)

Which leads me to the things I didn’t care for as much. Ann is one step up from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in function, and I don’t like that dynamic in general, but especially when 90% of the other characters are male…seriously, where are the women in Faerie? There’s the Queen, she’s important, and there are some random girl faeries at the Yule party. (I don’t recall any really being mentioned earlier on at the fall festival.) All of Nicolas’ friends/former friends are male–his predecessor was female but she’s long gone. The town librarian is male and has a boyfriend he constantly mentions. So the only other woman of importance in the story is the witch…who is not the greatest person at any point in the story for a number of reasons.

Yeah, sure I love that the book is queer-inclusive, but it rings a little hollow if the only queer relationships shown are m/m, even when romantic relationships aren’t the point of the story. Why don’t any of those random female faeries at the Yule party that Ann makes friends with for about ten seconds introduce their girlfriends? On top of all of the important friendships in Nicolas’ past being exclusively male relationships, this felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth. It feels like male relationships are being prioritized (aside from Nicolas’ growing friendship with Ann–but hey, her friendship “fixes” his other friendships, so it’s still kind of about men.)

So Ann does have an arc of her own, which means she’s not fully MPDG, but if half of her purpose is to discover who she is, then the other half is to make Nicolas less of a jerk through the power of friendship. I don’t think it’s the greatest look, especially for a younger target audience, that the heroine (who has a murky backstory for reasons) is constantly spending a great deal of her emotional energy trying to better the life of the hero who has a rich and complex backstory complete with lost friendships and long-held grudges, who is part of a richly detailed and complex society, and what’s more, who has power in that society. That imbalance between the development of their characters, while understandable eventually for Plot Reasons, made me uncomfortable the whole way through.

My last complaint is that this book felt longer than its actual run time. It meanders through the plot at a relaxed pace, and the narrative style often errs on the side of wordy and complex, which I think is strange for a MG novel–usually those are written more simply, with straight-forward grammar and structure.

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