#113 – Buzz, by E. Davies
- Read: 7/30/20 – 7/31/20
- Mount TBR: 101/150
- Rating: 1/5 stars
This is a plot that never had the potential to be more than okay, made worse by poor construction.
The quick and easy complaints: Leading with a sex scene as prologue when the characters haven’t been introduced is not going to get me interested. A character spending most of a chapter doing absolutely mundane things that don’t advance or even relate to the plot is not going to get me interested. Randomly diverting to one of the lead’s brothers for a POV is going to irritate me, especially when the lead just had a chapter he spent doing absolutely mundane things that I don’t understand why I had to read about. So why didn’t the plot point in his brother’s chapter happen then instead? Why did we constantly have to see important things through a side character’s perspective when nothing much happens during the lead’s POVs?
A slightly more complex complaint: Did we spend so much time with the minutiae of Noah’s work as an art curator so that he didn’t feel less developed than Cameron and his almost-hockey career? Because Noah’s job at any given point was either boring or explained poorly–I never got a sense of what he did or why it was causing him so much stress. He would say he was stressed but then a single phone call would clear up the problem; or he would whine that he wasn’t going to have space for everything he wanted because the big, bad (I don’t really know how to describe his antagonists here–building owners? angry stupid rich people? who did he answer to, anyway?) didn’t give him enough space. But then later he’d turn around and need to commission something new from a different artist…why do you need more art if you’re already worried about space for what you have?
Finally, as a romance this story fails the “why aren’t they together now?” question at nearly every stage, because the couple is together for most of the book, and there’s nothing really to keep them apart. There’s no real tension in their relationship, because they’re so open and honest with each other about nearly everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see men talking about their feelings, whether it’s m/m romance or not–but the only “obstacle” they encounter late in the story is Cam hiding his almost-hockey-career. From Cam’s perspective, it’s not even framed as a lie, just as an “I haven’t told you this yet” because a) they’re not serious yet, and b) he’s enjoying the relative anonymity. Noah finds out accidentally from Cam’s brother, sits on that knowledge for a chapter or two, then immediately forgives Cam without any fuss when he confesses. So, again, no tension. Cam’s ex is a total piece of trash who obviously isn’t going to storm back into his life, no matter how the brother worries Cam would take him back–obvious, pointless red herring. And there’s never any reason to suspect Cam is going to return to hockey and leave Noah behind, so the ultimate question of relationship success is merely “are they compatible or not?”
Which the narrative made it clear very early that they are. Their happy ending was inevitable–this is a romance, after all–but it was never once truly threatened, so I never had a reason to get invested.
#114 – In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
- Read: 8/1/20 – 8/3/20
- Around the Year: A book about a non-traditional family
- The Reading Frenzy: Read a book about friendship
- Mount TBR: 102/150
- Rating: 2/5 stars
Oh, boy, this is going to be messy. Unpopular opinions ahead!
What did I like about this? Luke is a treasure. He is best boy. I cannot fully express with mere words how much I love this child and need him to be happy. He is the only reason I finished this book.
As for the rest of it, I can give passes to a few things it attempted to do but failed to achieve, and I dislike the rest.
I’m always harping about the missing b-word, so credit where credit is due, Elliot eventually grows comfortable enough with his sexuality to actually use the word “bisexual.” Several times, in fact. I don’t mind that it took him so long because it’s obviously part of his coming-of-age arc. I’m less impressed with the fact that he is, by far, the one with the most active sex life, because while it shows that it’s possible for someone to learn and grow from failed relationships, even that young, it also plays into the promiscuous, flighty stereotype. The text does attempt to address this in the later stages with Elliot bracing for someone to reject him for admitting he’s bisexual, but it’s little more than a lampshade acknowledging that he fits the stereotype. As a bisexual person myself, I’m honestly conflicted about this, because there’s some good and some bad about Elliot as bi rep.
I think that pales in comparison to his place in the story as the outsider with a clear savior complex. While it’s not “white savior” in the classic sense, because everyone in this book is white, it’s impossible not to view the various fantasy species as Other when so much of the plot revolves around inter-species tension, whether it’s on the societal or personal level. But here comes Elliot, the snarky bratty pacifist who’s so much smarter than everyone else, he’s going to prove to this entire fantasy world that war isn’t the answer and his way is soooooo much better. The fact that nearly everyone in our world would agree–war is awful and we’d be better off without it–doesn’t mean he isn’t tromping in to impose his thinking on inferior (to his view) cultures. I can agree with his moral viewpoint without endorsing his actions or attitudes.
Also, I don’t like Elliot as a person. I can’t simply label his meanness as bullying, because that implies he’s seeking some sort of power over the people he mistreats, and he mostly isn’t. He’s just a deeply unpleasant person who takes literal years to realize other people have feelings too, and his behavior for 70% of the story is disgusting and cruel. I can tell I’m supposed to like him, because oh look he’s a sad boy with a bad home life and he’s unwanted and unloved and that’s why he’s the way he is…but I stopped falling for that trick years ago. I’ve had enough people in my life who were constantly, offhandedly cruel but somehow expected me to understand that they didn’t really mean it, they were just joking, hey why are you so offended. But that’s not even the case with Elliot, because we’re inside his head, and he’s not joking. He really does think everyone else is stupid, and even by the end of the book when he can grudgingly admit that some people aren’t so bad, I still didn’t like him.
On a smaller but still dissatisfying note, Serene got tiring quickly. The whole “elves are sexist but in favor of women” was a joke that started out decent but didn’t last through the whole book, and it’s not empowering for me as a woman to have a female character being as much of a raging misandrist as some real-world men are misogynist. It’s not a subversion, it’s just a reversal, and it’s not interesting for long.
So there are my issues with the story. I also have issues with the writing itself. I appreciate the effort put into showing how characters are feeling–especially Luke, who gets most of his characterization through displaying how angry or not he is with whatever insulting thing Elliot’s just said. The slow burn of this romance is telegraphed through four years of schooling and over four hundred pages–that’s the other thing that made this read at all bearable for me.
But the rest of the plot is thinner than a steamrolled penny and has pacing issues out the wazoo. If I lost focus for even a second and accidentally skipped a paragraph, the characters who I thought were in the library might suddenly be in the middle of a battle. Fights started out of seemingly nothing. Conversations usually seemed to start somewhere in the middle with no context. Scene breaks might cover thirty seconds, or months. There was no real structure beyond “this part of the book is this year of school and Elliot is this age” and the knowledge that time does indeed proceed forward, not backward, not sideways, as there’s no time travel. Events that most other books would emphasize were breezed past so we could have more time with Elliot being cranky–instead of those events being opportunities for him to grow as a character through his actions, they’re wayposts, mere plot points the story has to have but doesn’t want to linger on, so we can get back to the “good” part, the constant teenage angst.
I might have loved this when I was a teenager myself, but as an adult, I have no patience with it. Even knowing that this humor is supposed to be genre-mocking, at least partially tongue-in-cheek, most of it didn’t land for me, because as hard as I tried, Elliot never grew more funny or likable.
#115 – Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
- Read: 8/3/20 – 8/6/20
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo (Keep It Simple version: set in Japan)
- The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set on an island
- Mount TBR: 103/150
- Rating: 2/5 stars
There were glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout this novel, moments of emotion I connected to. I have been depressed in my life; I have been alone; I have questioned my worth as a person because of my mental illness.
But if the character I was most interested in, who I most sympathized with, was Naoko, who quite obviously was never going to survive this story, then I don’t think this book was written for me.
This work is deeply misogynistic, but what I’m having trouble with is separating the misogyny that’s realistic/expected for the time and place, and thus appropriate for the story as a work of historical fiction, from the misogyny that’s a part of the author’s worldview. Yes, this book has a male protagonist, Toru, surrounded by complex female characters who are all important to him in some way and drive the plot forward. Generally that’s a good thing, but here, all of the women are portrayed as badly damaged. Naoko is beautiful and pure(ish) and lovable, but also struggling with an unnamed but obviously complex mental illness that isolates her from Toru. Midori is cute and fun and much more available (despite having an offscreen boyfriend for most of the book) but also emotionally manipulative and sometimes downright abusive. Reiko generally functions as the wise mentor character, as much as possible while still acknowledging that she has her own issues, but then at the very end she’s out of the care facility and sexually available to Toru, in a scene that I both saw coming from miles away and yet still can’t quite believe actually happened.
When you boil this story down to its bones, Toru himself might not view all women in terms of their sexual availability; he tires of meaningless sex with random women quickly, he decides to wait for Naoko and thus refuses Midori at first, and with Midori herself, they’re friends long before sex enters the picture. So Toru doesn’t fare too badly with me for his treatment of women, and the mistakes he makes along the way are understandable given his circumstances. He learns; he grows.
But I can’t help feeling that author sees women that way, because ultimately if there’s a named woman in this book, she’s got to perform a sexual act with the protagonist at some point. Maybe they serve another purpose in the story (Naoko being symbolic of Toru’s past, Reiko as the mentor, Midori as the future or at least its possibilities) but none of them escape the need to be sexually available to the protagonist to justify their place in the story. Reiko bothers me most in this context–I can understand why Naoko and Midori are viewed in terms of sex, they’re the two spokes of the past-future false love triangle. But why did Toru need to sleep with Reiko? It doesn’t further his arc, he would have “chosen” Midori in the end anyway. It doesn’t further hers, because if it does then that means sex made her a “real” person again after her long isolation and that’s just gross, thanks I hate it.
I almost put this book down long before any of this twisted sex-death dynamic came to light, because there’s a short list of famous works that are always red flags to me when I see them referenced, and The Great Gatsby is front and center here early on. If a creator draws on that (or a few other select titles) I’m almost guaranteed not to enjoy the work they made because there’s a fundamental disconnect between what they value and think is good, and what I value and think is good. I kept going in this case because it was clear that reading literature was part of Toru’s characterization as the young college student, and it didn’t necessarily predict that the entire work was going to be tainted by association. And since it’s been a long time since I was forced to pick apart Gatsby sentence by sentence for my high school English class, I don’t immediately see parallels between the stories that make any sense–this isn’t derivative of the classic or leaning on it thematically. Yet in the end, I’m wishing I had paid attention to that red flag, because ultimately I’m drained by this and honestly believe that I would be better off not having read it, despite those brief flashes of brilliance and connection I had.
This is a depressing work dealing with heavy topics in such a way that I didn’t gain any catharsis from it. It takes a rather grim view of mental health, despite individual characters doing their best to heal or stay strong in the face of illness; Naoko’s suicide was both predictable and inevitable. The lack of resolution in the ending leaves me unsettled in a way I don’t enjoy.