This Week, I Read… (2021 #9)

#28 – One Bed for Christmas, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 27/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: From my 2020 backlist TBR (first bingo achieved!)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It sets out to be cute and succeeds admirably, but it takes a lot of shortcuts to culminate a friends-to-lovers scenario that has a backstory over a decade long, which we only see the very beginning of. But the story leans hard on that first meeting and doesn’t do much to sketch in what happened in the twelve years between, relying on telling us that Wes has been in love all that time without going into their dynamics.

There’s a lot of telling anyway, because this is structured in a dual first-person POV format, so we’re treated to both Wes’ and Caitlin’s internal monologue. There isn’t all that much time to really differentiate their voices, but in a novella, I wouldn’t expect in-depth character studies. I think the overall tone of the narrative is relatively simplistic because of it, they really do just say how they’re feeling (to us as readers, if not always to each other) and it’s not terrible, but I guess I wanted a little less transparency and a little more showing through body language, tone of voice, etc.

I got this as part of the complete series bundle, and I like it well enough to keep going, to see if expanding the stories to full-novel-length fixes some of the issues I had with the writing.

#29 – The Ultimate Pi Day Party, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 28/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Coming to this straight from the novella that’s first in the series, I had hopes for better character development with more space to let them grow, and I got it.

I also had hopes that the writing style might not be as straightforward–if there’s more length to allow for it, there might be room for more subtlety–but the narrative relies heavily on both leads doing internal monologue like they’re dictating a diary. If that’s just a hallmark of Lau’s style, I’ll deal with it, but I prefer characters who don’t simply state their relevant feelings every two pages.

That being said, the story here is strong. It sidesteps issues of power dynamics (as their relationship starts out as business) by putting consent up front in every romantic or sexual encounter; while focused on the romance, it also touches on the difficulties of making friends or maintaining friendships as adults; it presents an abortion-related backstory for one character in an even-handed, non-judgmental way.

I was impressed with the overall plot and I liked both Josh and Sarah. I’m happy with the inclusion of queer side characters, especially as I know one of them later gets her own novel (since I bought the bundle I have the whole series, yay!) If my biggest complaint is a simplistic style, plus the minor complaint of “yes, I’m a foodie, but even I don’t need to hear about pie quite this much”…well, that’s still a pretty good book. Looking forward to the next one.

#30 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

  • Mount TBR: 29/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A novel that stretches the conventional idea of what a “novel” is in interesting ways, which I give it credit for. It combines philosophy, politics, and story in a structure not at all based on linear time, and the author/narrator takes frequent breaks from the plot to expound his thoughts on life, sex, women, the Bible and religion in general.

Honestly, I should have hated it, especially because the central character is a sex-obsessed womanizer and the larger part of the plot (what little “plot” there is) focuses on infidelity. There’s a multi-layered irony to Tomas, who wrote what turned out to be a politically inflammatory letter to the editor, based on the story of Oedipus, that boils down to “There is no excuse possible for wrongdoing, even in innocence.” Yet he constantly commits wrongs and the whole story seems to be him making excuses for himself, exploring how he structures his worldview in order to continue living as he wants to live.

Meanwhile, at times Kundera as author/narrator takes time to explore the obvious artificiality of his own characters, being critical of them and pointing out that they are all, in some way, extensions of himself that have crossed the boundary between “I” and something else, something different.

Even though I find many of the quasi-moral/philosophical motifs put forth by this work to be disagreeable–even a charitable interpretation of this still leaves women as little more than sex objects, if not in Tomas’ mind specifically, then in the structure of the work itself–I did find it interesting how the narrative presented its ideas. In the end, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I liked it either, but it’s not a book I ever wanted to throw out the window before running to the internet screaming, “How do people even like this? What is redeemable about it?” as I sometimes am tempted to by various classics or extremely popular/hyped modern works.

Though ultimately, if I met someone new and we got to talking about books, if I asked “What’s your favorite book of all time?” and they answered with this title, I’d give them the side-eye and wonder if that’s because they like experimental novel structure married to bizarre philosophy, or because they think sex-obsessed Tomas is some kind of wounded or misunderstood or even aspirational hero.

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