#55 – The Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard
- Read: 4/16/20 – 4/18/20
- Mount TBR: 55/150
- The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a black and white cover
- Rating: 2/5 stars
I seem to take issue with books that put their apparent protagonist in the title but then don’t bother to make the story about them. This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by the expectation that if a book is titled for a character, that the book should actually be about that character–I slammed The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender for precisely the same issue.
Johannes Cabal is not the protagonist, he’s the frame story surrounding a bunch of vignettes about the people who come to and suffer from his evil carnival.
The story is about those people, and it’s about the carnival. It is only tangentially about Cabal, and he’s not even the most interesting character in his own story line–that honor goes to his brother Horst, who despite being a vampire, is a better human being than Johannes ever has been. (A fact that Horst makes tediously clear during their final confrontation.)
But disappointment from the misleading title aside, could this structure have produced a good novel? Possibly. Only it didn’t, because the interest curve throughout the entire middle was almost entirely flat for me, with a notable dip for the one chapter devoted to little Timothy’s school assignment detailing his weekend, which was a phonetically written nightmare to the point of painful reading, and boring to boot. The rest of the stories weren’t quite that bad, but they were mostly humdrum, and they present a quandary about the larger plot that I’m not sure is solvable–the book seems to race by, not feeling like it takes the whole year Cabal has been allotted for his wager, yet including more vignettes to fill out the space would only lengthen the tedium for the reader.
The ending didn’t really save it for me, despite being about Johannes again, despite culminating the year of drudgery the carnival went through, because I wasn’t invested in Johannes, because I wasn’t impressed that he managed to trick Satan, and because the reveal of his apparent motivation for retrieving his soul failed to be the grand romantic gesture I think it was supposed to be. In making that motivation a surprise, in cloaking his real reasons behind a drier and more plausible excuse this whole time, I think it made him a weaker character and a less relatable one.
On a more positive note, there is one thing this book does well, and that’s tone. The atmosphere of this setting is unmistakable and pervasive, and though it owes something to its forebears–the acknowledgments cite Ray Bradbury for quite obvious reasons, and the viewing of evil and Hell throughout is strongly reminiscent of Good Omens with a slightly less tongue-in-cheek vibe–it does still manage to stand on its own as distinct from the pieces it pays homage to.
But in the end, I am not invested and will not be continuing the series.
#56 – The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
- Read: 4/18/20
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book featuring an LGBTQIA+ character or by an LGBTQIA+ author
- The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a banned book
during Banned Books Week
- The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in London
- Rating: 2/5 stars
What a disappointment compared to the other Oscar Wilde I’ve read.
I knew the vaguest outlines of the story going in–just the concept, really. I actually hadn’t had the ending spoiled for me, amazingly enough, so I hung on until the end even though I had stopped enjoying myself before the halfway point. (Not that I didn’t figure out the most likely end for Dorian ahead of time, and I was pretty close to right.)
But all the wit and humor I expected, even in this dark tale, were absent, or came in the form of racism and sexism. Product of its times, and all that, but the antisemitism, while relatively mild and confined to a short time frame, is impossible to miss; and the misogyny is deeply grained into everything about this story. At first, I thought the attitudes about women (as well as all the philosophies about life I didn’t agree with concerning the blessedness of youth and beauty) were confined to Lord Henry, who was very clearly not a good person and was not meant to be respected as one. But the misogyny also rears its ugly head in the extremely casual treatment of Sybil Vane and her ultimate fate. Women in this story are disposable intrinsically, beyond anything I can forgive as simply being in-character for the reprehensible Lord Henry as the corrupting influence.
I simply don’t remember this much misogyny being present in The Canterville Ghost, and I doubt I’d find it if I went back and looked.
While I can appreciate the queer subtext, and I can appreciate the deconstruction of the importance of youth and beauty, I can’t endorse the whole package it comes in. There’s too much wrong with it from a modern standpoint to call it “good,” no matter what sparks of genius lie within the mire.
(Also, did the entirety of Chapter Nine need to be a tedious and extensive catalog of everything Dorian became obsessed with during the years of his fall? Every jewel he ever bought, every tapestry he ever admired, every foreign musical instrument he purchased for outlandish sums, every crazy or sinful historical figure he ever wished to emulate? It put the plot of an already stretched-out story on hold for far too long.)
#57 – Craving for Love, by Violet Vaughan
- Read: 4/18/20 – 4/19/20
- Mount TBR: 56/150
- Rating: 1/5 stars
DNF midway through Chapter 12. I have read some really bad romance novels in my time, but this might just be a new level of ridiculousness.
I’m going to outline what I read to illustrate just how scattershot and full of holes this “story” gets.
Chapter 1 – Heroine nearly crashes her car twice, busts the headlight, gets home, gets tipsy, calls her ex to help fix the headlight, seduces him instead.
Chapter 2 – He stayed the night. She makes him breakfast before he has to go plow the snow, falls back asleep, and when she wakes up decides she isn’t leaving town today after all, she’s going to stay and go skiing with her ex. She considers having a quickie in his truck in the slopes parking lot.
Chapter 3 – They go skiing. They go back to her place. He fixes the headlight. She asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to have my babies?” [the reason they broke up, last summer apparently, not even recently, was because he doesn’t want kids] He says, “I love you” and leaves. She breaks down.
Chapter 4 – Jump to three days into her drive to Colorado from Vermont (though it doesn’t really say how long that is after Chapter 3–did she leave the next day?) Stops at a gas station, looks through a realty magazine to find a local realtor, makes an appointment. When she gets there, she says “I need a job and a place to live,” asks about cleaning jobs, offers references, continuing, “I can start tomorrow, and all that I ask is that you help me find a place to live.”
a) Realtors aren’t temp agencies or help-wanted ads. Their business is not to find people jobs.
b) What was her job before in Vermont? It was never mentioned before she left.
c) Yes, their job is to SELL you a place to live, not to recommend the boardinghouse his secretary (assistant? receptionist? not clear) happens to run. ISN’T THAT CONVENIENT.
Scene break, then she’s cleaning a bathroom in a rental unit because she magically has a job now, and we meet her new friend/coworker, and apparently some time has passed because she says it’s nice to be getting enough sleep at her new place because of the curfew. (Yeah, it’s a female-only boardinghouse, no drinking, no smoking, no guys, with a curfew. I didn’t realize this was the 1940’s.)
Chapter 5 – Dinner with her new friend and the friend’s husband. HERE WE MEET THE NEW LOVE INTEREST. Who is a surfer-dude-turned-ski-instructor, and he likes kids, and we know he likes kids because there’s a sickeningly cute scene with him and the two kids of their friends. Also, he’s their godfather. Surfer invites her to go skiing.
Chapter 6 – They go skiing. He’s impressed enough that he introduces her to his boss and now she’s magically got a job next winter as an instructor instead of a cleaner. That was easy, wasn’t it? They keep skiing, get hot chocolate, hang out, and exchange numbers so they can go skiing again.
Chapter 7 – Second ski day (date?) but Surfer brings friends, one of whom is an obvious Jealous Woman Who Wants Him So Don’t You Dare Make a Move on Him. All the other friends are super hyped that the Heroine and Surfer are hitting it off, though, because “he needs a girlfriend.” At the end of the day, they kiss.
Chapter 8 – Gloss over a few weeks of kissing but nothing more vigorous in the physical department, Heroine is getting antsy. She heads over to his place with wine and a sexy outfit with plans to seduce, but in a scene so badly written it’s embarrassing to try to describe so I won’t, suffice it to say, things go badly for her while he thinks everything is A-OK.
Chapter 9 – Heroine is semi-avoiding Surfer for a bit, but then her ex shows up in town (of course he does??) and they all run into each other on the slopes. She’s happy to see Ex, but then when Surfer tries to kiss her in front of him (and the class of kids he’s teaching) things get weird. Heroine takes Ex out for a meal afterward and finds out he’s already dating again too, though his girl’s still in Vermont, but it might be serious enough that she’d follow him to Colorado if he gets a job there. Heroine helps him with a place to live by giving him the realtor’s information.
Chapter 10 – Surfer gets super drunk because he’s so pissed about Heroine’s betrayal about the kiss and her ex, she goes over with fast food for him. He drops the L-bomb but says she doesn’t have to say it back yet. She sleeps over without them sleeping together.
Chapter 11 – Chaste birthday party/sleepover with Surfer at their friends’ house, because they’re watching the kids while the couple is away on an anniversary trip.
Chapter 12 – AN AVALANCHE KILLS THE HUSBAND ON THEIR TRIP. A few pages to deal with that, then a scene break where a month has passed since his death, and Heroine decides to take her friend/the widow out on a picnic.
Yeah, that’s where I stopped reading. The book is 36 chapters long, and one-third of the way through, there’s a gratuitous death of a minor character. This isn’t a romance, it’s a soap opera, with drama for the sake of drama, quick scene changes, no coherent theme, no character arcs, just PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT with no break to let anything develop. It’s ridiculous.
#58 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
- Read: 4/19/20 – 4/21/20
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a neurodiverse character
- Mount TBR: 57/150
- Rating: 1/5 stars
I can certainly see why so many readers have identified with this book and why it’s so beloved, but it left me really cold.
The best thing I can say about it is that Sam is amazing and we should all be so lucky to have a friend like that in high school. (If I were her, I would not have put up with Charlie’s nonsense for as long as she did.)
There are a lot of worst things I could say, because my two major problems are both fundamental, base-level issues. First, that the narrative style is flat and childish, beyond even what I would expect from young man who (obviously) has difficultly communicating his inner life to others. The letter-writing was aiming for “fifteen years old and unsophisticated emotionally” but actually came across as “seven years old and simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to express himself.” It made what could have been an engaging story pretty tedious.
Second, this story is trying to do far too much. I’m not saying no one’s life is this messy in reality, but in just over two hundred pages, we’re getting every ’90s after-school special crammed into a single book. We open with Charlie reeling from a classmate’s suicide; he sees his sister physically abused by her boyfriend; he witnesses a rape at a party; he watches one of his best friends betrayed by his secret gay lover, then later allows the friend to kiss him multiple times even though Charlie himself is not attracted to men; he smokes, he drinks, he has a really bad trip on LSD; he has a chance to have sex with his female best friend, at her initiation, but it goes terribly wrong. Oh, yeah, then the ending reveals Charlie himself is a victim of molestation by a family member, in case there wasn’t enough going on.
Most of those issues individually would be serious enough to be the primary thematic element of a novel, but here we’ve got them all shoehorned in the same one so that none of them has a chance to breathe or develop. The rape in particular pissed me off, because once Charlie tells a friend about what he saw, he finally figures it out, that what he witnessed was rape, and he says it out loud, and the friend agrees….and that’s that. There are no consequences, there’s no action taken even though Charlie saw a crime committed, it’s just a learning experience for him, a moment of realization on his road to deeper emotional maturity. That nameless girl’s pain and humiliation don’t matter except that they taught the male protagonist something.
Even if that one thing were forgivable to me (which it’s not, but even if it were) the rest of the book isn’t much better or more nuanced in how it handles these serious life issues. And what’s worse for me personally, reading this as an adult twenty years removed from high school but reading about the time period when I did go–I was a freshman only a few years after this book is set–dragged up a lot of emotions from that time in my life, mostly unpleasant ones, but in the end didn’t offer me any real catharsis to resolve those feelings.
#59 – The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan
- Read: 4/21/20 – 4/22/20
- Mount TBR: 58/150
- Rating: 4/5 stars
What? I rated something by Courtney Milan fewer than five stars?
I still loved it, don’t get me wrong, it just lacked something for me compared to the other books of hers I’ve read so far.
It’s difficult to put my finger on what, precisely, because it’s not any less well-plotted, or lighter on social justice issues (I was quite surprised this one was about unionizing! in a historical romance!) It was well-paced, and I even appreciate that the marriage of the leads doesn’t signal the end of the story, which is a common HEA ending. No, in this one it’s just a step in the journey, and it’s perfectly understandable that the characters have more issues to resolve even once they’ve tied the knot.
I think part of it is that the supporting cast felt weaker than usual. Lydia’s best-friend-ness and Oliver’s half-brother-ness were pretty standard and thin, and Minnie’s great-aunts didn’t have a lot of personality.
But really, I’m hunting for the reason I was less than 100% satisfied with what was still a solid romance I enjoyed reading. Off to put the rest of the series on my TBR.