This Week, I Read… (2020 #50)

#176 – A Kiss for Midwinter, by Courtney Milan

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I didn’t know I needed a short romance between a slightly grumpy and relentlessly honest doctor, and a determinedly cheerful but painfully in denial young society woman. Their banter made me laugh, occasionally broke my heart a little, and in general gave me life, watered my crops, cleared my skin, etc.

I also value this for being a Christmas-adjacent story without making “the magic of Christmas” its central tent pole. I found it refreshing to have this set in a time period where Christmas traditions were actually changing and the story could address, in small ways, what people thought of that. It wasn’t completely without Christmas spirit, but neither was it cloying or saccharine as contemporary Christmas romances so often are.

I’m glad I’ve come back to this series, because I so rarely find Regency/other historical romances engaging, when they’re usually focused on how external obstacles–the strictures of society in particular–might prevent the romance from happening, and after a while I don’t find that particularly interesting. Milan always manages to make the conflict about something else, and here, society at large isn’t at all standing in the way of Lydia and Jonas–their issues are entirely personal, and I think that’s a great fit for both my personal tastes and also the short length of the story.

#177 – Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 153/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I felt some of the same pacing issues were present here that I had with book two–for the first half of the wandering story I was anxious to forge ahead and find “the good stuff,” and then when I got there, it was over so quickly in a string of high-adventure shenanigans.

But somehow those shenanigans also made time for a brief examination of gender roles and nonbinary/trans identities–I’m hesitant to choose between those terms for Heali’i when neither are used in the story–and also the barest hints of a possible future romance. Whatever frustrations I have with this book, I was never on the verge of giving up the series, but if I had been, I’d still want to stick around to see if Suhail is the future second husband that Isabella occasionally refers to but never names. Their friendship grows organically from their situation and the hardships they endure together, but from Isabella’s perspective, at least, there’s chemistry between them as well, despite the numerous societal obstacles that would undoubtedly plague such a match. Not gonna lie, I ship them, Suhail was my favorite new character.

I’m less sure about Jake and his presence in the story. On the one hand, I like the slowly-growing rapport he and his mother are developing; on the other, I dislike that for large stretches of the narrative, Isabella seems to forget he even exists. I suppose it’s difficult to sympathetically portray a woman who was never particularly interested in having children as a mother, and benignly/occasionally neglectful is far, far better than actively resentful. But at times I genuinely had difficulty seeing Jake as anything more than a plot device, because the mere fact of his existence made his presence on this journey mandatory–Isabella goes into that at the beginning at sufficient length–but the story never really gives him anything worthwhile to do, and his governess even less. (The narrative also forgets about her for whole chapters at a time, and that lack made me miss Natalie as a female presence in Isabella’s life.)

Some of my complaints, both those detailed here and others too minor to mention, may be an artifact of middle-book syndrome, as this is the third of five in the series. The ending feels as abrupt and unsatisfying to me as the end of the second book did, if for different reasons. Yes, it’s the end of the voyage, which was the point of this memoir, but it’s as if she dusts her hands together and says “that’s that, then,” while barely devoting any time to the fallout, both political and personal, of her journey.

#178 – Back with the Stuntman, by Amanda Horton

  • Mount TBR: 154/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Yikes, DNF at 10% of the file, which apparently is stuffed with filler at the back end, because another reviewer says the actual book ends at 36%. So I thought I was reading 10% of the story but I actually read almost a third? Which just makes this seem even worse to me, because from where I left off, it didn’t feel like we’d covered much ground.

So I was immediately put off by the constant punctuation errors, poor grammar, and the tone of the characters’ conversation, which was flatly stating everything they’re thinking, to the point where they’re clearly expositing the story in a way that real people generally don’t speak to each other.

That was all before the end of the first chapter, but I didn’t give up yet. I wanted to at least meet the hero in the second chapter.

I found a serious red flag soon after the story switched to his POV. I knew he was a single dad from the blurb. What I was shocked by was that I was introduced to that fact in-story with this sentence:

“After the death of Shaun’s mom I wasn’t interested.” [in long-term dating]

So Shaun’s his son, I guess, but neither his name nor his existence had actually be mentioned prior. And I’m beyond horrified by introducing a dead woman who had some kind of relationship in the past to the hero, not by name, but by her motherhood. WHY DOESN’T SHE GET A NAME? And why, on top of that, is she only defined as the kid’s mom? Wasn’t she the hero’s wife, or at least his girlfriend at some point? Was she truly nothing more than the person who incubated and birthed his child?

But I kept going, and somehow it actually got worse. Not long after the two leads met up again in person after their many years apart, they have a reasonably good chat and feel reconnected–and we finally learn the name of the hero’s son’s dead mother, who was actually the hero’s wife, don’t understand why that wasn’t made clear immediately. At the end of the night, the hero gives the heroine a long “bear” hug (which apparently he’s “notorious” for) and gets turned on enough to just proposition her right then and there. I was disgusted, and fortunately so was the heroine, who got pissed and left. But he’s the hero! They’re supposed to get together, and he’s acting like this early on? I’m not rooting for this guy, he’s a jerk!

No, just no, to all of it.

#179 – A Duke by Default, by Alyssa Cole

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ll throw in an extra half star for solid adult ADHD rep, because I’m in a similar boat to Portia and only recently wondering if that condition is the root of my problems. And overall I feel like it was better than the first book, which I also gave three stars. But like the first book, this one also has a lot of problems.

I know very little about how peerage works in the UK in modern times, but even without a solid foundational knowledge, the sudden and nearly painless fight to get Tavish recognized tested my suspension of disbelief. Other reviews I have skimmed point out the flaws with this part of the plot in far more detail than I could myself, but I see it, I acknowledge it, once again the “royal” part of the “reluctant royal” theme is questionable at best.

I felt like Portia and Tavish had good chemistry, though the push-pull, will-they-won’t-they phase seemed to last a long, long time. I’m a sucker for a tough exterior with a marshmallow center, so I liked Tav well enough even when his excessive Luddite tendencies seemed unrealistic. Portia’s emotional journey sold me on her even when I couldn’t empathize with her rich-socialite attitude towards certain aspects of life. Their personalities weren’t the problem in this romance–the constant back-and-forth of the plot was, especially the accelerated pace of events at the end, which I thought was weak. Both Portia and Tavish flip-flop constantly about what they want (or at least what they admit to wanting) and their relationship devolves into a garbled series of miscommunications worsened by outside interference. The ending tried to tie up all those ends, but it felt abrupt and even slightly unsatisfying–at one point late in the story, things had gotten so bad between them that even though I liked them both, they were doing each other more harm than good and I almost stopped rooting for them, thinking maybe they really were better off apart, that the obstacles between them were too great to overcome. And if I’m not rooting for the couple to get/stay together, what’s the point of reading romance?

So it started with a strong premise and good chemistry, I got some bonus ADHD rep along the way that resonated with me, but it mostly fell apart by the end and I was left frustrated by a rushed conclusion.

Getting Serious About Series 2020 #4: How Did I Do?

I’m having thoughts about how to restructure these posts (again) to make them more manageable, but that’s a project for the new year and the next update; for now, I’ll stick to the format I’ve established. A few more “Oh, I forgot I was reading this series” books have been added, found when I was digging through my TBR for other reasons–I’ve accepted that I’m never going to have this concept fully organized, because some first-in-series books are probably always going to slip through the cracks of my memory, especially when I didn’t realize they were part of a series to begin with (or became so after I read them, in some cases.)

The final stats: I’m currently enmeshed in 21 series (15 active, 6 on hold while I wait for the next book.) I don’t have a firm count on series I own but haven’t started, because the list here is incomplete. As for series I’m now no longer reading, that’s also 21 total: 4 actually finished and the others started but abandoned. I’m willing to give authors a try, but I won’t commit to reading a whole series when I’m not interested!

Whatever goal I set myself for 2021, I’ve got to get this under better control. The problem is, for a lot of these series I need to buy books in order to continue reading, but 2020 was the big year of Not Buying Books so that I could work through my backlog. I acquired 32 new books this year, but first of all, most of them were free (thank you, Tor newsletter), and second, most of the ones that weren’t, I bought and read immediately for my indie book club. Next year I don’t think I’ll have to be so restrictive, so I can earmark some of my book budget for continuing series.

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

I Own The First One (or More) But Haven’t Started Yet

Off My List in 2020

  • Red Rising Saga (Pierce Brown) — DNF’d the first book, can’t/won’t go on
  • Micah Grey (Laura Lam) — read the first one, gave it 3/5 stars, but the story ended on a weird cliffhanger I didn’t like, don’t really want to go on
  • Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs) — read the first one, gave it 2/5 stars, have no interest in continuing
  • The Edge (Ilona Andrews) — FINISHED
  • Waverley Family (Sarah Addison Allen) — FINISHED
  • The Bone Witch (Rin Chupeco) — read the first one, rated it 2/5 stars, too frustrated with its flaws to want to go on, despite some curiosity about the way it ended
  • Regency Reimagined (Megan Mulry) — read the prequel novella and first novel, gave both 2/5 stars, not worth my time to continue
  • In Stilettos (Nana Malone) — finished the first one, DNF’d the second, both were poorly edited
  • Shades of Love (Tracey Livesay) — read the first two books, both were full of plot holes, looks like the third book is based on an amnesia plot so nope-nope-nope
  • Wallflowers (Lisa Kleypas) — read the prequel novella years ago, not realizing it was even in this series; read the first novel, it was okay, but I don’t like Regency romances enough to keep reading “okay” ones
  • Gentleman Bastard (Scott Lynch) — author behaving badly in public
  • Wildwood (Juliet Marillier) — read the first one, gave it 2/5 stars. As the second book is a sequel focusing on a different character (one of the sisters, meh) I’m not going on with this
  • The Matheson Brothers (Joanne Wadsworth) –One of the many unlisted romance series I had lying around. The first book was a glorified novella that made me laugh when I wasn’t supposed to be laughing. No need to read any further.
  • The Doms of Her Life (multiple authors) — Another romance series I won’t be bothering with after the first one.
  • Dive Bar (Kylie Scott) — The first book was better than many other romance novels in series on my abandoned list, but still not gripping enough to make me keep going.
  • Imperial Radch (Ann Leckie) — FINISHED
  • No Ordinary Star (M.C. Frank) — After reading the first two (3 stars/1 star reviews) I’m no longer invested enough to finish.
  • Dread Nation (Justina Ireland) — Read the first one, 3 stars. I ended it on the fence about whether I’d read its sequel, but reviews for it seem to have readers who loved the first book disappointed by the second. And I didn’t love the first book, so…
  • Realms of the Elderlings (Robin Hobb) — FINISHED after three years!
  • The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch) — Did not like it, won’t be going on
  • Yellowstone Romance (Peggy L. Henderson) — Wow, that first book was not great, and it’s my second not-great read by that author, so this is a no

This Week, I Read… (2020 #49)

#173 – The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 12/17/20 – 12/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 150/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I generally liked the “unreal” stories and generally disliked the “real” stories. I don’t think Le Guin is at her best when trying to stick too closely the real world–I’ve always enjoyed how she combines SF/F elements and her anthropological bent on writing to examine humanity through the “unreal.”

The notable exception in Part I of the anthology was “The Diary of the Rose,” which I loved. Other favorites: “The Fliers of Gy,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which might be my new favorite UKLG short story of them all, and unlike “Omelas,” one I’d never heard of prior to reading this collection.

So why didn’t I like most of the stories I didn’t like? The Orsinian tales at the beginning were dour and stereotypically bland to me–they read like Orsinia was a predictable extension of Western thoughts on Eastern European countries, but without anything new or interesting to differentiate their fictional culture from its real-world counterparts. That bleak tone also cropped up in several other stories, and I didn’t care for it. Another reason was that many of the shortest stories didn’t go anywhere, didn’t have much in the way of plot, and/or didn’t feel done when they were suddenly over. I was reminded too often of that “what the heck” feeling I got earlier this year reading Cloud Atlas when the first chunk of narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, because some of these stories felt similarly truncated and incomplete.

In a career so long and varied, I’m not going to like everything by even one of my all-time favorite authors, so I’m not particularly heartbroken, only mildly disappointed. And it’s possible, even likely, that coming back to some of these stories in a few years will change my perspective and make me appreciate them more, because I’ve found rereading her work to be valuable in the past. But overall, and right now, there seem to be as many misses as hits in this collection.

#174 – The Replacement Crush, by Lisa Brown Roberts

  • Read: 12/23/20 – 12/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 151/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I enjoyed the story overall, I also had a lot of issues with it. Call it a 2.5 I’m rounding up for Goodreads’ no-half-star system.

Vivian as a narrator could be irritating, but not so much that I ever wanted to put down the book because of it. Mostly I think she and her close female friends are a reasonable approximation of teenagerhood–they sound like teenagers to me, when half the time I read YA and teens sound either like ten-year-olds or adults, with no in-between.

That being said, I’m not convinced Dallas is a teenager, not because he doesn’t talk like one, but because anyone that accomplished in life by 17 or 18 (I don’t remember his exact age being specified, but he’s a senior, so that’s my ballpark figure) is not going to have social skills to match his feats of computer coding, cello playing, and the surprise “twist” skill that gets revealed at the end which I won’t spoil, but took me right out of the book for a minute. Vivian has a single teenage passion/hobby and a skill set based around it–she loves books, she works in a bookstore, she’s a book blogger. See how all those go together? While Dallas is handsome (in a nerdy way, which Viv never lets us forget,) reasonably charming, and he’s fantastic at everything he does, which when added together, is beyond my suspension of disbelief.

Compared with everyone else in the cast, major and minor characters alike, Dallas doesn’t feel like a real person. I get that romances can be escapism and wish fulfillment, but the rest of the book felt real (if occasionally over-dramatic) and Dallas simply didn’t fit, because he was too perfect. The only substantial flaw I could come up with when thinking about him was that he’s a bit argumentative, but a) so is Vivian, and b) he likes that in a romantic partner, so the story doesn’t view it as a flaw the same way I might if Dallas were a friend of mine in real life.

As for more minor complaints, I wondered for most of the book where the subplot involving the rock-star-in-hiding was going, and when it wrapped up, I wished it hadn’t been a part of the book, it was pretty weak.

This had its cute moments and I never wanted to throw it across the room, but by the end I was ready for it to be over, and I’m not going to seek out any of the author’s other work.

#175 – Paper Towns, by John Green

  • Read: 12/24/20 – 12/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 152/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The good thing is that I found the writing style incredibly easy to read, and since my familiarity with John Green prior to this is entirely through Crash Course, I’m used to listening to him talk; he writes in much the same way.

The bad thing was literally everything else. I hated the story. I didn’t like most of the characters, who had quirks in place of personalities, even beyond our Manic Pixie Dream Girl Margo. And yes, I’m still calling her that even though the story is clearly meant to subvert the trope. Margo only swoops in to radically alter Quentin’s life briefly, then disappears, which is usually the whole MPDG plot, but here it’s only half the book, and the second half is Quentin chasing her, even while realizing he had never really known her and placed her on a sort of pedestal. That should be better. I should like that more, I love trope subversions and deconstructions. But it led to an ending that didn’t feel satisfying, and somehow that’s the point, and I don’t think that’s a particularly enriching experience for me, who’s not a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who needs to realize that other people are actually people and not limited collections of ideas living in his own brain.

I could go off on a long tangent here about my relationship with people-as-idea-collections and the inherent inability to ever truly know another person fully, but my bent on it is almost always romantic, and that’s not relevant here, because the “romance” is only a function of the MPDG structure, and the ending demonstrates that to be a lie as well. I never expected this to be a romance so I’m not disappointed it’s not, but since romance is my preferred genre, it’s tough for me to get behind a story that’s basically it’s diametrical opposite, where the entire point is that no one falls in love at the end and Quentin’s “love” for Margo throughout the book wasn’t real.

Since the other major criticism I often hear leveled at Green is that his novels are all basically the same, now I know I don’t have to read any others. He isn’t telling stories that I personally find valuable.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #48)

#170 – Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Read: 12/10/20 – 12/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 147/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The rare two-star DNF review, for me, at least. I gave up around 100 pages in.

A few Kingsolver novels I love very much, and after reading those early, I started on her back catalog, which has mostly underwhelmed me since. I mostly finish them anyway–The Lacuna being the notable exception until now–but this story sat wrong with me on a personal level from the very beginning. I hate adultery in my novels, I don’t think cheating is inherently interesting as so much “literature” believes it is. The fact that our protagonist is prevented from following through with her proposed tryst by something doesn’t really negate for me that that’s her introduction, the entirety of the first chapter. I don’t really care how beautiful the language is or how much nature it’s got stuffed in it (two aspects of Kingsolver’s style I generally enjoy) if I can’t care about the characters, and me and Dellarobia got off on the wrongest of wrong feet.

Once the story moves past the almost-adultery, though, it didn’t get better. Her lot in life is being an unhappy mother, indifferent wife, and badgered daughter-in-law, and I never found any of that comfortable to read about. I have complicated thoughts on the status of American motherhood for many reasons, and I’m fully aware that plenty of woman out there who have children never really wanted them, but whatever about Dellarobia’s situation that was supposed to make her relatable or sympathetic was simply missing to me. I could not form a bond with her, everything about her story was just so unpleasant to read. (For me. I want to stress again that I know this is me not liking the work because of strong personal bias, not because there’s anything wrong with writing about unhappy women/mothers, there isn’t.)

And I’m just not going to wade through 300+ more pages of a story I find so unpalatable. But as always with Kingsolver, the language is beautiful and the details of everyday life and nature are vibrant and interesting, which is why the second star is there. It’s probably a good book for someone else, but it’s a terrible book for me, and I can’t be objective about it.

#171 – The Regulators, by Richard Bachman

  • Read: 12/14/20 – 12/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 148/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

All action and very little heart–if that’s even a fair criticism when leveled at “Bachman,” Stephen King’s supposedly conscience-less alter ego.

On that note, so long after the fact, everything at the beginning about Bachman’s “death” and “lost manuscript” struck me as silly marketing at best. I don’t remember exactly what I knew about King’s pseudonym in 1996–I have no clear memories of when I learned they were the same person, but it was long enough ago that I feel as if I’ve always known, though obviously that’s not possible.

But on to the actual content of the book, which was disappointing even without the marketing surrounding it. I loved Desperation when I read it earlier this year, and I actually didn’t know when I bought this book used on a whim that the two works were at all related, so I’m glad I accidentally read them in the right order.

The thing is, though, I don’t see how this novel stands on its own without Desperation propping it up. It’s not even a matter of Tak–who is far better characterized in this work, actually, than in the novel where he was introduced. But all of these other shivery doppelgangers of characters from Desperation simply never become real people. None of them have more personality than the author can shoehorn into a few brief snippets, a handful of details to transparently attempt to tug on our heartstrings before they’re brutally killed.

When it was just the paperboy at the very start, and “oh, look, he’s going to die a virgin” and never go to college and all that tripe, fine, it’s the first death, we know we’re not going to have time to actually get to know this kid. But characters drop faster than snowflakes in this novel, and the only one that even got to me the tiniest bit was the one who did a quick, so-called “impulse” suicide late in the story.

The huge cast makes it hard to keep track of who is physically where/doing what at any given point of the story, and since so much of it is action, that means much of the narrative is actually stage direction, explaining the placement of these twenty different people and/or their corpses. (Have I mentioned that almost all of them die? That it’s not at all an exaggeration to say you literally can’t predict who is going to bite it on the next page?)

As disposable as that made nearly everyone, I was most attached to Audrey, and to a lesser extent Seth. I have had very little exposure to autism in my life and I’m not clearly aware of how autistic people feel about their representation in media and what they’d like to see more of–but I don’t feel confident that “very special little boy possessed by cruel wannabe-hypersexual evil psychic vampire” is a good idea. Yes, this book is twenty-four years old, and yes, times and attitudes have changed, so I’m not calling for a boycott of Stephen King over it. But it didn’t sit right with me, either, despite the number of times Audrey vehemently spouts off about how much she loves Seth and how wonderful he is when he’s himself and not Tak.

The ending was…an ending. The book was over! And as unsatisfied as I felt about the necessity of having twenty million characters with no personalities just so they could die gruesome deaths for constant shock value, I felt unsatisfied in much the same way by the ending. I was mostly relieved it was done without really feeling it had any meaning. (And that shock mostly stopped having value when it was a constant state throughout the read. You just get numb after a while, especially when no one is worth investing in.)

#172 – Bittersweet, by Sarina Bowen

  • Read: 12/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 149/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Well, I sat down and read this in nearly one sitting on a snowy morning. Would you believe that the only break I took was to make myself a fancy-ish egg sandwich on an English muffin for lunch? Because this book was so “foodie” that it made me want to bake, cook, and generally stop doing myself a disservice by snacking on whatever instead of eating solid meals. (Which I have a tendency to do on low-energy days.)

I could seriously bake a pie right now. I have a pie crust in my freezer leftover from Thanksgiving. I just might do it.

But enough about how inspiring the book was to my inner food nerd. It was actually a really sweet love story too! I can be leery sometimes of the big city girl/rural guy dynamic, but that’s not quite accurate to this situation, because Audrey isn’t some high-powered corporate bitch who needs a little country in her to relax (that’s actually probably a fair assessment of her man-hating mother, actually, I just caught on to that, which I hope is a deliberate nod to the stereotype.)

I was completely sold on her chemistry, both physical and emotional, with Griffin, who was just the right amount of grumpy for my tastes. They laughed a ton together, they talked about things that mattered, they had real external conflicts, I just sailed right through this story like a hot knife slicing butter. (Okay, yeah, there are a lot of food metaphors, obviously, which took a little getting used to, but I didn’t mind.)

The family/minor characters were vivid enough for their place in the story without overshadowing the main couple, and bonus: it wasn’t immediately obvious who was being set up for the next installment in the series. I was actually surprised when I got to the end matter and it said Jude is up next! That genuinely makes me want to keep going with the series, on top of enjoying this book on its own merits so much.

If I seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise, I’m not, I guess I’m just not used to articulating what I like about good romances, with as much time as I spend criticizing bad ones, because I have high standards. But I see my first and only previous Bowen novel (from three years ago, yikes) got four stars from me, and I have several more on the TBR, so at this point, consider me an interested reader looking to read more and become a real fan!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #46)

#166 – The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 11/25/20 – 11/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 143/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I bought this several years ago as a boxed set with the similar short-story anthology, and since then, I’ve actually read most of these novellas as part of other sources: when I sat down to tackle this monster of a collection, it turned out only three of the thirteen novellas were new to me. Between Tales of Earthsea which I own, and my 2018 reading of the entire primary Hainish Cycle, which includes several anthologies, I had most of this book covered.

So it was the first three stories I read, and of those three, I only really liked the first one, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” “Buffalo Gals” was okay, but a departure in some ways from the usual Le Guin oeuvre, tackling Native American-style folklore. “Hernes” I absolutely did not like, because it felt disjointed and strange with all that time- and character-hopping, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get the point of it.

As for the rest, well, to get an overall rating I blended together my memories of Tales and how much I liked it, and my more recently read and reviewed works that provided stories for these, balanced against my lackluster reception of the three “new” novellas and the simple weirdness of including two previous anthologies nearly wholesale in this one. (I’m also mystified that “Buffalo Gals” and “The Matter of Seggri” are included in both this novella anthology and the short-story one, when they’re clearly intended to be a matched set. Possibly others as well, I only skimmed the table of contents out of curiosity and didn’t notice others, which doesn’t mean they’re not there.)

#167 – Secrets in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews

  • Read: 11/30/20 – 12/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 144/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I haven’t read any V.C. Andrews since I was a teenager more than twenty years ago, but this is much, much, much worse than I remember her work being. Granted, I’m older and presumably wiser, and I definitely have a much better sense of story than I used to.

What was the point of this book? There’s no resolution to the ending, no emotional catharsis. It’s just over, and then there’s a baby coming, and what meaning am I supposed to get from any of this?

I’m disappointed by the conclusion I’ve drawn, that Karen was an unhinged liar and murderer the whole time. Because she’s shown to have lied substantively to everyone in the rest of the cast at some point or other, her “best friend” included, absolutely nothing she ever said about her home life can be trusted, which means her sob story that could have proven her homicide was justifiable goes out the window. Her treatment of the narrator goes well beyond “unreliable” story status straight into manipulative–I’d like to think I wouldn’t be stupid enough to almost sleep with a boy I knew my best friend had slept with, just because she wanted us to “share everything.” But Zipporah goes right along with the plan until it’s almost too late.

My takeaway from the story is that seems like the author really wanted to write a book about someone hiding in an attic, judging by the frequency of the Anne Frank references, which I found to be in poor taste. Yes, she’s the most famous attic-dweller in our collective consciousness, but she was hiding from Nazi persecution, not from the consequences of killing her stepfather. Do those situations seem equivalent to you? Because they don’t to me.

Early on, the only good thing I could say about the story was that it did feel like it captured what I remember most about being a teenager–the confusion, the balancing of different identities between home and school and friends, the naivete of sometimes trusting the wrong people. But whatever points I can give it for realistic depiction of that stage of life are completely negated by the ultimate pointlessness of the entire plot. Nothing meaningful happens, nobody seems to learn from their mistakes, and the surprise baby doesn’t tie up narrative threads the way the author seems to think it does.

I’m glad the writing style was simplistic to the point of near mindlessness, because at least that meant this terrible story was a quick read and I can move on.

Next Month’s TBR: December 2020

Okay! Checking in on how many books I crossed off the end-of-the-year reading list! What do I have left to read before New Year’s?

Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story
Four Past Midnight
The Regulators
Rose Madder
Cloud Atlas
Screw Up
Flight Behavior
Yellowstone Heart Song
The Buckhorn Legacy *
Forever Buckhorn
Dreams of a Dark Warrior
All Riled Up *
Secrets in the Attic
Sell Out
The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin
Nemesis Games
His Bride for the Taking
An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew
Fool’s Assassin
Fool’s Quest
Assassin’s Fate

Note *: purged because after reading the first book on the list by the same author, I no longer felt the need to read the rest.

I got more read than I expected to, what with NaNo this month–but this is the lightest workload I’ve ever had at a “day” job during November, thanks to pandemic restrictions. Most of my days, if I wasn’t cooking a meal or taking a shower, I was either writing, reading, or journaling. I’ve been very focused.

So I have six books left to read before the end of the year! This month saw me finishing both the Around the Year and PopSugar reading challenges I’d set myself, as well as completing my “big” series of the year–the Realms of the Elderlings. Which means in December it’s just a few stragglers, though admittedly, some of those stragglers are weighty books. I should be able to finish, and for the rest of the year, to read whatever I want!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #45)

#164 – Rose Madder, by Stephen King

  • Read: 11/20/20 – 11/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 141/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve had this exact experience before with a King novel–I’m invested in the characters, the plot is unfolding at a reasonable pace, and I’m impressed with the sensitivity he’s (mostly) treating his female main character with. Then, BAM! SUPERNATURAL STUFF! THAT I REALLY DON’T LIKE!

Because I didn’t. I did not one bit care for any of the supernatural trappings of this novel. I’ve read into-a-painting (or sometimes, out-of-a-painting) novels before across several genres, and I don’t feel this did anything interesting with the concept, especially since it was wrapped up in a combination of Dark Tower references and warped Greek mythology. Why is the bull–the “beast,” the antagonist, the evil evil bad man–named Erinyes? Which is the collective name of the Furies, female creatures who take vengeance on wrongdoing men? Because if we’re trying to de-gender the idea of the Furies so it can apply to Norman, who is presumably twisted by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (whose face he has not forgotten, by the way), and that’s why Rose has to be so careful in the denouement not to let Norman’s abuse of her create another monster–um, breaking the cycle of abuse is one thing, but he is clearly the object of vengeance in this story, not the purveyor of it. If that’s what King was trying to do, I don’t think it’s successful, and by the end I really just wanted this to be an un-supernatural book that dealt with the purely human horrors of abuse, because that story would stand fine on its own two legs without the painting.

Because I did like the rest of it! Normal was horrible, but he was interesting. Rose was a better female protagonist than I expect from many male authors (especially considering this came out in the mid-’90s) and the “all cops are bastards” tone of Rose’s early fears was incredibly topical, if narrowly focused on her own problems rather than society’s ills, considering what’s happening in the year of our Lord 2020. Yes, there is a “good” cop character who promises to catch the “bad” cop, but a) he doesn’t because of other plot shenanigans, and b) his role in the story is incredibly minor.

Also, circling back to me liking characters, Bill was awkwardly and adorably charming, and I love him, and I was rooting for him and Rose the whole time. I never expect and don’t usually get a romantic subplot from any given King novel, so I was pleased by this one.

But I’m so frustrated by how little I enjoyed the supernatural elements that overall this is just a middlingly good book for me.

#165 – Screw Up, by Alexis Wilder

  • Read: 11/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 142/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 28%. I had a long, detailed, angry review written and briefly posted on Goodreads, but I deleted it almost immediately. Last time I posted a review that vitriolic, it got me into a little hot water, which is not stress I need in my life right now, so I’m going to learn from my mistake and not do it again.

So we’re going to keep this one simple. The bisexual character who was introduced just before I dropped the book was three harmful stereotypes in a trench coat, and that made me mad, and I wasn’t really enjoying it anyway for other reasons (poor editing and a lewd narrative voice that didn’t appeal to me, being the main two.) So I’m not finishing the book.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #44)

#162 – Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/10/20 – 11/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 140/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This gets five stars despite some issues I have with the pacing. After the first book’s intense cliffhanger, I really didn’t want this one to take 200 pages to get to the point where Fitz found out about the tragedy at his home. It felt like killing time, it felt needless, it felt heart-wrenching in a way that came more from a place of frustration than sympathy.

Then things move along more briskly, though there’s still obviously tons of ground to cover. There’s a lot of travel and hopping back and forth and dashing about, interspersed with periods of slowness and inactivity, that I think reflects the strange duality of tension existing alongside of grief. Because Fitz is grieving even before he believes Bee completely lost to him, he’s grieving his failures as a person and a parent.

I cried a bit while reading this, not gonna lie.

But to some degree, the strange pacing issues return at the end, with a trip to Kelsingra that felt somehow momentous but also oddly pedestrian squeezed in at the very end, taking up so little space in the narrative that I was scratching my head when they got there and thinking, “Where the heck are we going with this? What does this mean for the larger story?” And the cliffhanger here, while still intense and obviously dangerous, feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story, both because the lead-up to it is so short, and because it takes place in an “exotic” location to Fitz, despite the time we as readers have spent there earlier in the series.

I see how the pieces of the climax fit together, and I see how they were laid out earlier in the book (and throughout the series) so I understand this is a culmination of an awful lot of groundwork; for the most part I think it’s successful. But it’s just so abrupt! There’s very little space for such a big event–the on-page union of what were previously two ENTIRELY SEPARATE narratives in the larger story, both structurally and stylistically–to breathe and unfold properly. Like, I remember that Rapskal was dangerous so I know it’s bad news when he’s the commander of the militia, that can’t be good, but he hardly has any time to remind us why he’s a jerk before he’s trying to seize the Fool…ugh. It’s strange to me that I want this book to be longer, but I guess I really don’t. I just want some of the page space in the beginning, which felt too long, to be reallocated to the end, which felt too short.

Emotionally, still, five stars. I’m beyond invested, I’m more than a little heartbroken. This is by far the longest-running series I’ve ever read and I am so attached to these characters, it’s a little nuts.

#163 – Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/15/20 – 11/19/20
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s been a long time since a book made me cry this much.

When I read Fool’s Fate, when Fitz seemed to get his well-deserved happy ending, I enjoyed it, but I knew something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but because I didn’t read it when it was first published, I was fully aware that there were more books in the series, and some of them were about Fitz.

This is his real ending, and as bittersweet as it is, it’s much more fitting. From an emotional standpoint, I’m pretty well destroyed.

From a technical standpoint, once again my only real complaint is pacing. The buildup in the first half of the book, the arc of them getting to Clerres, felt like it took too long, and yet, once we got there and the action got moving, I felt like we didn’t spend long enough there to justify the journey, and it seemed odd to me to spend so much of the book belaboring details about the island, the Four, the libraries. All that richness seemed to get in the way of what I wanted to know, which was what was going to happen. I know it’s my impatience talking, and that it’s foolish to expect Hobb to suddenly start writing fast-paced books so that I can get my answers faster, but even so, there was enough repetition here that I sometimes felt frustrated. (How many times was the quote about considering your actions used? Twelve times? Fifteen? Twenty? I get that it was important but I got so tired of hearing it.)

Despite those complaints, throughout this final trilogy I have fallen in love with the new characters who stand by Fitz’s and Bee’s side, so I was pleased to see them play their roles with such enthusiasm and be rewarded in the end accordingly. It was also nice to see a few old familiar faces, and meet as adults the children who had not yet been born when we last left their part of the world behind–both Boy-O and Kennitsson, for their minor parts, struck me as exactly as they should be, given their parentage and probable upbringings. And I continue to be impressed with Hobb’s ability to juggle so many plot threads, so many characters, and tie them off relatively neatly in the end to make a satisfying conclusion.

I’m happy it’s over, that I made it this far. I couldn’t have read 16 books set in the same world, following largely the same characters, if I weren’t invested, but that very investment is what is now tearing my heart out, because this ending is fitting, and comprehensive, and sad. And hopeful. But very sad. Ah, dammit, now I’m crying again.

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge: Complete!

This was a new challenge to me this year, which I decided to do on impulse at the very end of 2019. Originally I intended to stick strictly to the one-book-a-week schedule, but once I realized that I had to read The Picture of Dorian Gray during one calendar week for ATY, but much later in the year (for Banned Books Week) for PopSugar, it stopped mattering and I read some books early. At the start of each month, I put any books for those weeks I hadn’t gotten to yet on my monthly TBR, but no longer worried about reading them during the correct week.

So, what did I read?

  1. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
  2. Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
  3. Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb
  4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  5. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
  6. From a Buick 8, by Stephen King
  7. Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan
  8. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
  9. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
  10. Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint
  11. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  12. Bayou Moon, by Ilona Andrews
  13. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson
  14. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  15. The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
  16. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller
  17. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
  18. Wasted Words, by Staci Hart
  19. The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb
  20. Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs
  21. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  22. Room, by Emma Donoghue
  23. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  24. Love on My Mind, by Tracey Livesay
  25. The Art of Peeling an Orange, by Victoria Avilan
  26. The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang
  27. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  28. Fake Out, by Eden Finley
  29. Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier
  30. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
  31. Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, by Maziar Bahari
  32. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  33. In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
  34. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
  35. The Great Passage, by Shion Miura
  36. Dirty, by Kylie Scott
  37. Insomnia, by Stephen King
  38. Sleeping Beauty and the Demon, by Marina Myles
  39. Autiobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  40. Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King
  41. Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer
  42. The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
  43. Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
  44. The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch
  45. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey
  46. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
  47. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  48. This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples
  49. The thing About December, by Donal Ryan
  50. His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare
  51. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
  52. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Would I do this challenge again? Probably. A large part of the reason I liked it when I found it was that I keep wanting to go back to the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, which I did back in 2016, but the prompts every year have become increasingly narrow and specific, to the point where it seems like only one or two books would even qualify. Which is not a good match for me reading down the huge piles of books I had sitting around at the start of this year!

Will I do it again next year? Probably not. I still have a month and a half to change my mind, but so far, my plan is to do Mount TBR only, while prioritizing my 2018 backlog (assuming I’ve finished my 2017 by then, but I’m making good progress.) Also continuing to polish off series I still have hanging. But even with those constraints, I intend to put a lot less pressure on myself in terms of reading next year, because I’ve been going hard for five straight years now.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #43)

#159 – Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/4/20 – 11/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 137/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it nearly unreservedly. I was so invested, so quickly, and I guess I’ve finally wrapped my head around the way foreshadowing and clues to the mysteries in these stories work, because I figured out many of the things that were available to be figured out, while still being surprised by several turns of events.

Fitz is still, in many ways, the half-feral and bumbling idiot we’ve watched grow up and mature from his mistakes, but now he’s got a shiny new arena to flail about in–fatherhood. I’m sure he made a credible stepfather to Molly’s children, but they were already out of babyhood by the time he came along, and by the time this story is set, they’re adults and all out of the house. This is the first time Fitz has to play a real, direct role as a parent in a child’s life, and you really see the conflict between his genuine love for Bee and acceptance of who she is (eventually) with the expectations of the society around him, and how that goes against the way he was raised himself, which he both recognizes was often unconventional and harmful, yet in some ways still thinks is good enough. He would never want Bee to be hurt in the ways he was hurt as a child, but he sees little problem for most of the book allowing her a large amount of freedom to dress and act and spend her time as she likes. It’s a really interesting dynamic, that when Fitz feels he had to impose rules on her, for her safety or to meet the expectations of others, that’s when the two of them show the least understanding of each other. Despite being mostly under Molly’s care for the first years of her life, Bee still turned out to be a half-feral kid, talking to cats and hiding in spy-ways and not getting along with her school mates because they (mostly) don’t understand her.

I could talk about plenty of other things, because WOW did a lot of this book punch me straight in the chest repeatedly, but it would just be more gushing thinly disguised as book analysis, because if the point of this deeply detailed domestic tale was to reinvest me in Fitz and his life so that the cliffhanger ending hurt as much as it possibly could, this book was a runaway success for me, and I am still reeling the next day as I write this. (So glad I don’t have to wait for years for the next one!)

#160 – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

  • Read: 11/8/20 – 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to time
  • Mount TBR: 138/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Nope. DNF @ page 145. I slogged through the introduction of the first three narratives in this “sextet”–and boy does Mitchell love that word, once it starts showing up, everything is a freaking sextet–but I’m not invested. This book is clearly not for me; I value character over style, and I found the experimental structure tedious. Why have just one cliffhanger when you can have several? The first narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, and I actually turned the page back over to see if my used copy of this book had pages stuck together, but no, that’s intentional.

So my first cliffhanger was “is this random dude whose narrative purpose I don’t understand going to die from a real brain parasite or is this quack doctor telling him he’s got a parasite to make him buy drugs?” Except he was treating the guy for free, I think, so…

The second was…I’m honestly not sure. “Does this adulterous little shit get caught by the husband first, or the guys after him for the money he owes?” Maybe. There was more direction to that bit of the story, but not by much.

The third was at least solid, with our intrepid reporter getting run off the road and at great risk of drowning in her car. Legitimate cliffhanger there. But that’s when I realized I didn’t actually care. These story bits are so short and heavily stylized, and I’m too busy scratching my head trying to figure out the meaning of the obvious-but-unexplained linkages between them, that I never managed to care about the characters themselves (even the reporter, who was clearly trying to Do Good) so I really don’t have the energy to wade through three more story styles, then do it all again in reverse order, to find out if the reporter doesn’t drown or what becomes of the musician or if the dude from the first story actually has a brain parasite.

I started the fourth section but immediately disliked the character voice after only a few pages, so I knew it was time to give up. I always knew I was either going to love or DNF this book, because it seems to be so divisive among readers and their reviews; and I came down on the DNF side.

#161 – His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare

  • Read: 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a silhouette on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 139/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Cute, quick, charming. My only complaint is my usual one for novellas I enjoyed–I liked it enough that I would have preferred it to be a full length novel! There’s enough going on here in terms of plot and backstory that got shorthanded to fit the bite-size format, and I think a lot of it would have benefited from more space to breathe.

That being said, it was still well-characterized and interesting, and as my first exposure to Tessa Dare, it more than justifies all the praise I’ve heard of her. Historical romance still isn’t my favorite subgenre, but I’d read her again.