This Week, I Read… (2021 #15)

#40 – Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry

  • Mount TBR: 38/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Even forewarned that this is a companion novel, and not a direct sequel, to The Giver, I was a little bewildered reading it. It seems to be completely unrelated, and when I got to the interview with the author at the end, and she says you can choose to believe a certain offscreen character mentioned is Jonas, or not, I was like…WTF?

But I guess I can twist my brain around to the idea that this squalid, harsh village coexists with Jonas’ hyper-regimented, sanitized community. The impression that I got was that the network of communities like his was fairly vast, and that “Elsewhere” was as mythic and unreal as “release” was. And the ending of the first book is pretty ambiguous about where he goes and what happens to him, so…

Setting that issue aside, I was disappointed with Blue as a work able to stand on its own. Even without trying to imagine any connection, it’s a weak story, with little world-building, a thin plot, and flat characters.

So I’m always going to have a soft spot for fiction that heavily features crafting of any type–though I was thrown by the constant conflating of weaving and embroidery, as the latter was clearly what Kira was actually doing to the ceremonial robe. They’re not the same thing, and there’s even less excuse for mixing up the two than there is the constant confusion people come to me with about knitting and crochet!

But that’s about the only reason I have to like Kira, who is an incredibly passive protagonist. I get it, she’s young, she’s bereaved, she’s very nearly an outcast from society. But she does very little for most of the book except perform the actions expected of her and be vaguely anxious about things, and then the ending? “I could go with my father and friend somewhere else where I wouldn’t be an outcast, but instead I’m choosing to remain here and vaguely try to shape a better future for these people who have been nothing but horrible to me?” Um, no. I don’t agree with that personally, but more importantly as a criticism of the story, I don’t really believe that’s a choice Kira would make. Though she’s given little personality, she’s stubborn for sure (she does decide to try to rebuild her burned-down home, bravo,) but she’s also keenly aware of her own lack of power, so suddenly seizing what little she has available and deciding to try to do something with it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I genuinely thought she was going to go to the other village, and once I read the author’s interview at the end and discovered the third book is a direct sequel and the plot is Matt (now Matty, with his second syllable indicating he’s older) trying to get Kira to join him and her father–what, we need a whole book to accomplish something I don’t understand why she didn’t do in the first place?

I’m tempted to give up on the series here, but I do already own Messenger, thanks to finding it at a used book sale, and vague not-quite-spoilers have promised it holds some answers. I guess I’m frustrated but invested enough to at least read that, then decide if getting my hands on Son is worth it.

#41 – Man vs. Durian, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 39/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Set in autumn
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I think I might like this one best of the whole series, but it’s still got its issues.

Same basic complaints as with all the others: no subtlety in the presentation, both leads tell you precisely how they feel at all times, really hammering down on the foodie-ness, tired of hearing about durian (as opposed to pie in the first novel and ice cream in the second.)

My extra complaint about this plot specifically is that Peter is basically perfect, and while I certainly like my romantic heroes to be decent human beings, the central conflict of Valerie’s “he’s too good to be true and I am a crazy mess so this can’t work out”–well, that doesn’t work so well when the hero is actually flawless. Because what is Peter’s flaw? The only major one the story presents is his lack of career ambition, and that’s just not a big deal, because it’s not like he’s a total slacker who couch-surfs his friends’ places because he doesn’t have a job or a place to live. He has both of those things. So he doesn’t want to be a high-powered businessman and make a million dollars a year. So what?

And the story basically has that same attitude, that it’s okay not to make your job your life, and I approve. But as the other half to Valerie’s complicated issues surrounding workplace sexual harassment, family stuff, career stagnation, etc., Peter’s half of the story seems pretty weak, depth-wise. I thought maybe the plot was going to play up a commitment-phobic aspect to him, since it mentions how he’s had so many girlfriends over the years, which at first I thought meant he would be super picky and never satisfied with anyone, hence the high turnover rate. But it’s painted more as a need for him to always be in a relationship, simply because he likes being in them, he loves falling in love. Which is a pretty benign view and hard to argue with. Again, he’s basically perfect.

And that’s what kept this from being a perfect read for me. I’ve accepted that I’m not a huge fan of Lau’s general writing style, though I do like (for the most part) her characters and plots, I just wish the narratives weren’t so flat and obvious in presentation. So while I’m probably not going to make much effort to read her other works, I do think overall they’re good romances that readers are more likely to enjoy than not, and I’d definitely recommend them for foodie people (despite what I feel is phrase overuse related to food in each novel–the novella doesn’t suffer from this same problem, as its premise is not food-related.

#42 – The House by the River, by Lena Manta, translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft

  • Mount TBR: 40/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 82, after the end of the “The First Years” section.

I was bored out of my mind.

Eighty pages of older men falling in love with younger women (but it’s okay because it’s not really pedophilia if you wait a few years for them to turn eighteen,) and endless tired metaphors about rivers, and high-strung daughters getting married or running away. And it’s all just set-up for the individual sections about the daughters, apparently! I felt like I was speed-running the mother’s entire life, and WWII with its Nazi occupation was just a bump in the road.

I will admit there’s a possibility the book gets better when it decides to focus on one daughter at a time instead of trying to tackle them all at once, but the writing style is so bland that I don’t care enough to find out, and I don’t like any of the characters, because (as much as they have personalities at all) they’re all basically the same–shouting, moody, dramatic women of various ages, with the mother being the worst, lamenting constantly about how it’s so horrible that all her daughters want to leave home and have their own lives and woe is me, I’ll be all alone in my old age.

I simply don’t have the patience for it. Moving on.

#43 – Messenger, by Lois Lowry

  • Mount TBR: 41/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This series just gets worse with every book, doesn’t it?

Once again, Lowry uses dystopian structure combined with an almost fairy-tale-like directness of style to write a sanitized sociopolitical fable for young readers.

The message is…well, the proper thing to call it is pro-immigration, but in reality it comes off far more like anti-anti-immigration. It spends less time making sure the reader knows that new people coming into the community are good for the health of the community (and deserving of respect and compassion for their own sake,) and more time focusing the bad, horrible, selfish people who once were immigrants themselves and now want to keep everything to themselves.

Even though I agree that immigration is good, actually, this left a sour taste in my mouth.

Where it fails even harder in its messaging, though, is a lack of root cause for these changes. Okay, sure, people in the Village are making trades that are giving away parts of their souls for things they want, and that’s making them harsh and unfeeling. But is the new Trademaster who is enabling this the villian? Nope, he’s not actually that important a character and no direct blame is ever laid at his feet for the changes in the Village. Is it something about the Forest, which is also changing, darkening, becoming more threatening? Not really, because that’s also implied to be a sort of spiritual outgrowth of the mood of the Village–they increasingly don’t want newcomers, which tells the Forest to make the journey harder on anyone who tries. And to be fair, I like that as a fantasy concept in isolation, especially the bit about the Warnings, the Forest telling people never to come back. But both of these things are just symptoms of the Village’s malaise, and it’s never indicated why the Village has changed. I’m not the best at deciphering politics, I’ve never studied the subject, but even I know that when the mood of a community shifts drastically in a short time, it’s because something has happened. There’s some vague allusions to what might be called an economic downturn in a more realistic setting–the conversation Leader has with Matty about fishing–but even then the text makes clear that they’re not sure if they actually have fewer resources, or if it’s perception bias. (Or if it’s a result of the changes to Forest, which occurred to me, and I’m not sure if it occurred to the author–then it would be a symptom, too, of the plague of selfishness, and not one of the causes. This messaging is messy!)

The end result is that no explanation is ever given and I am left to wonder why any of this is happening in the first place.

On top of that that, as if that weren’t enough to dislike the book, I was thrown off by the pacing, and by the expectations set by the blurb, which makes it sound like the journey to get Kira is the point of the book. It’s not. It’s an afterthought squeezed into the final act to bring some sense of urgency to the wave of anti-immigration sentiment, and also messily throw in some danger from the Forest, which turns actively hostile. The resolution of that plot point is…vague? Metaphysical? Weird and disconnected from even the weird plot of the rest of the book? And the very ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.

So yeah, there’s another book, but no, I don’t care any more, I’m not going to read it, especially as the little digging into it I’ve done is that it’s both significantly longer, significantly weirder, and by many people’s estimation, even worse than any of its predecessors.

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