This Week, I Read… (2021 #1)

First, I have one last review from 2020, because I was still reading a book when the review post went live that morning, I didn’t finish until just before dinner.

#180 – The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery

  • Mount TBR: 155/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Charming and absolutely lovely.

It’s been a long time since I first met Montgomery’s work as a young girl reading about our beloved Anne, but it was only in the last few years I’d heard about this book, the tale of a repressed adult woman striking out on her own for the first time and finding love. I knew I had to read it, and soon enough I found myself a copy, but I didn’t get to it right away.

I would normally say I regret waiting so long to read a book I ended up loving so much, but this was a truly wonderful way to wrap up the year, with its soft nature scenes and beautifully domestic happiness and message of living without fear. (Some fear of course is useful and rational, but Valancy was suffering a vastly different kind of life than I ever have lived, and she definitely needed to set aside the fears she had and break free.) I read this and felt content and happy and very slightly envious for that beautiful setting, even though I like my home just fine and I’ve done a lot this year to make it prettier, more cozy and comfortable, and generally more pleasant to be in. After I finished this, it was time to make dinner and settle in for the New Year’s Eve celebration, which for me included fancy beer and my newest needlepoint project, because dammit, it’s winter and I’m nesting and this book romanticizes the hell out of nesting behaviors.

I love it and I’m sure it’s going to be a favorite reread for certain types of moods in the future.

Now, we can get started on this year’s reads.

#1 – Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.

  • Mount TBR: 1/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: a genre I rarely/never read (sports fiction)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I chose this as my first read of the new year because it seemed like it might be inspiring in a way that wasn’t “Inspirational ^TM,” but really, as a “runner” myself, this book looks down on me.

My dad used to race. All through my childhood I was wearing old race t-shirts as “messy” clothes at home and gym clothes at school. He did a half-marathon the day before I was born, if I remember my family history correctly.

I didn’t actually take up running until my late twenties, and now, at forty, I’m older than my dad was when he had knee surgery to correct some issues from the insane distances he’d already run in his life. Despite me being merely a “jogger” by this book’s ultra-mega-elite standards, a tourist in the sport, I thought I would get something out of it.

And sometimes, briefly, I did. Sometimes the narrative would describe a certain state of mind, or the necessity of habit and how those habits can simply take over, or that feeling when you didn’t warm up properly and even though you’ve only run for ten strides your legs already feel heavy and unresponsive. I could relate, even at my dilettante, never-entered-a-race level.

But aside from those few moments of clarity, most of this story was a wandering mess with little holding it together. With every new chapter there was a strong chance the POV would switch to a side character who was either a) of little apparent importance, b) entirely new to the story, c) not obviously related to the main character’s story in any way. Sure, Cassidy’s girlfriend gets a short chapter, fine, I see her relevance. But an entire chapter devoted to talking about the dormitory building he lives in and its history? A chapter from the paramour of the football coach who was the one to push for Cassidy’s banishment from the sports program? Why on earth were those a good idea?

Also, throughout the story, I definitely felt like I was not the target audience for a number of reasons. This is a very male book, written by a man, about men, and pretty obviously (to me) for men. There are no major female characters, the minor ones are paper thin, Cassidy’s teammates speak derisively of women in general and female runners in particular (at the beginning when they’re all on about the pudgy lady joggers they pass in the streets, that stung, I’m a pudgy lady jogger.) I get that this is specifically about the highest level of running, which doesn’t include me. And I don’t expect a sports novel from the ’70s to be a beacon of feminist thought. But that doesn’t prevent me as a reader from feeling alienated by the categoric dismissal of my participation in the activity the book is about, while I’m reading it. One section in the middle details the freedom of night running through town, which depending on where you live and how your gender is perceived, is simply not possible for many people, because hey, it’s not usually safe for women to run alone at night. I had accepted that I wouldn’t be able to fully relate to the high caliber of the athletes, but I didn’t expect to have issues of basic safety shoved in my face.

If this book was as famous as the book jacket claims it to be, I had wondered why I never heard of it until a used copy fell into my hands at a sale. But given my experience with the online running community–which, no matter where I’m engaged with it, is much friendlier towards dilettantes like myself than this book is–I wonder if that’s because this work has outlived its time.

#2 – Seaside Dreams, by Melissa Foster

  • Mount TBR: 2/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 17%, page 50 or so. I found the first red flag at only 2%, but it’s disheartening to start DNFing books so early in the year, so I held on until I couldn’t anymore.

In the first fifty pages, these are the things I found questionable or objectionable:

  1. The physical depiction of women. One of the female lead’s friends is described as having breasts “like bowling balls” coupled with a “tiny” waist that eventually leads to a unflattering comparison with Barbie dolls. The protagonist herself is then described as having a decent body for “an almost thirty-year-old”–because women past 30 aren’t apparently allowed to have good physiques–and then there’s a lazy shorthand comparing her body type to two female celebrities (Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence) who I don’t really see as having the same body type, so the comparison isn’t actually helpful, and also who are generally considered pretty damn gorgeous, so am I supposed to think the protagonist is attractive or not? Because if that depiction is supposed to have a tone of “ho-hum, she’s not perfect but she’s okay I guess” but also saying she looks like gorgeous famous women is way off base.
  2. Four adult women whom the narrative unironically pronounces are “besties.” It strikes me as childish. I’ve heard women call each other that occasionally, but more often in jest or with a tongue-in-cheek tone than actually meaning it straight up, and here the first chapter is just littered with the word and I found it irritating.
  3. The male lead is a cop. That’s not automatically a problem in and of itself, especially as this book was published in 2014; while I might want to avoid cop romances more recently for their glorification/romanticization of the profession, I also don’t think it’s anathema. Okay, so he’s new to the area where his love interest lives because he moved after his partner was killed and he wanted to raise his son someplace safer. Okay, still mostly on board, the single-dad angle actually works for me. Then we find out his partner was black. The only character of color introduced so far–I’m obviously meant to assume everyone else is white even if their skin color is never mentioned–and he’s dead, and he’s a prop to motivate the white lead. This was at 16%, and I really argued with myself about setting the book down there, but I decided to finish the chapter at least.
  4. Which led me to the actual last straw only pages later. The cute cop and the commitment-phobic lady get temporarily misty-eyed over the picture of the dead black cop partner while the cop explains his reason for moving, then they’re kissing, then she’s getting an orgasm courtesy of the cop’s fingers.

What. Just. Happened.

I’m not shaming anyone for getting frisky–it’s not the behavior itself that I find questionable. It’s the timing. These two have known each other for not that many days, they were just out at the flea market together before this but she insisted it wasn’t a date even though she was constantly cozying up to him, and then first kiss leads straight to first orgasm with no buildup. AND when she offers on the next page to return the favor orally, he says no, because he “takes intimacy seriously” and she’s not looking for commitment. You do? Really? Is that why you finger-blasted a woman you only just met immediately after telling her about your dead partner? That’s “serious” to you?

The whole scene, I was reading and saying to myself, “Is this really happening? Am I supposed to find this believable?” So I’m not going to finish the book.

#3 – Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn

  • Mount TBR: 3/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A non-fairy-tale retelling
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A Jane Eyre retelling that may have crossed the nebulous border between “faithful” and “rote.”

I love Jane Eyre, but I have only read it once, several years ago, so I was not alarmed when I saw from other reviews that it was “predictable” because it followed the plot of the original so closely. What I remember far more than the basic outline of the story was the memorable character of Jane herself and her lively narrative voice, and that is something I felt lacking in this effort. Jenna is not memorable to me the same way Jane was, and while she shares many of the same traits, there is something lacking in her portrayal to endear her to me the same way.

I believe the genre grafting of sci-fi onto this classic was only a partial success. Many of the new elements are suited to reframing the tale–a rigid system of official citizenship to underpin the class system of the society being the most well-fitting. But while I found the PanEquist religion interesting enough in its own right, I don’t think it was a necessary inclusion for this story, and the question of humanity/cyborg balance on the individual level would have been better left for a work intending to explore it more deeply (as cyberpunk often did beforehand and even up until the time this novel was published, though less so lately.) The use of synthetic humanity to explain the source of the mad wife’s madness I don’t think has aged well, now that we’re in a time when technology is ever more entwined with medicine.

The first word I thought of when I went to sum up what I felt was different about this novel in comparison to its source material was “soulless,” which is unfortunate, given what I just objected to. But in a poetic sense if not a literal one, I think that position is defensible; this is a ghostly imprint of the original with a few new bits drawn in for flavor, but what it adds doesn’t do much to disguise what it lost.

Given that Sharon Shinn has been one of my favorite authors for just over two decades, and that Jane Eyre became a favorite classic several years ago, I honestly expected more of this, but ultimately I think it’s a bad match. Shinn is perfectly capable of writing both fantasy and sci-fi well, but adhering to the formal, flowery speech patterns and agonizing melodrama of Jane Eyre while attempting to create a shiny new sci-fi setting simply didn’t work for me.

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