#100 – Third Daughter, by Susan Kaye Quinn
Pros: non-European-based fantasy setting. Steampunk aesthetic. Fast-paced action.
Cons: adjective-heavy prose style. Heroine who could be pictured in the dictionary under both “reckless” and “impulsive.” Hero who is too perfect. Absolutely transparent love triangle. And the Indian-inspired setting is really light on actual Indian terms, items, and history/culture.
Most of that is straightforward, but I want to dig into that last bit. As much as I want to see fantasies take inspiration places and times other than medieval Europe, this was so light on elements of Indian culture that, had I not known from the cover/marketing/book reviews that this was alternate India, I might have missed it entirely and assumed the setting was purely fictional.
Also, for a novel so concerned with spy action centered on world politics, there’s pretty much no history given to account for the current state of them. Thin worldbuilding at best.
I enjoyed this almost entirely based on the steampunkiness and the action. That being said, the cliffhanger leading to the second book wasn’t at all a surprise to me, and doesn’t particularly make me want to go on with the series.
#101 – The Kalahari Typing School for Men, by Alexander McCall Smith
A short book that could (should?) have been even shorter if it weren’t filled with endless name repetition and small talk.
I’m sure I didn’t do myself any favors by jumping into this series a few books in, but this is the one I found for pennies at a used book shop, and it sounded interesting.
A few chapters in, I took a break to look up the titles Mma. and Rra., and once I found something that wasn’t about mixed martial arts, got treated to a message board topic filled with commenters writing mini treatises on how incredibly polite Botswanan society is, which was genuinely interesting, as I know almost nothing about it.
That studious politeness is evident in this book, but not necessarily to its enrichment. I can understand the insistence on always using a character’s title and name together, even if it did lead to some stilted sentences. But that made it all the more obvious that the “apprentices” were basically never referred to by name, even when they were speaking, which irked me personally, as I’ve never been fond of the naturalistic school of writing where epithets are preferable to names. (I still hate The Red Badge of Courage for this specific reason.)
What really bothered me, though, was the small talk. No character dialogue could be omitted, assumed, or even summed up with an “After the necessary pleasantries…” Not allowed, every single word spoken was included, no matter how mundane or unnecessary to the plot. And there’s a lot of it.
Add to that the repetitive nature of the inner monologues (eg, “That was a good idea. She should tell So-and-So about it. So-and-So would agree it was a good idea.”) and it became a recipe for boredom. I would hopefully be more attached to these characters if I’d been reading from the beginning, but nothing here was strong enough for me to invest in.
#102 – Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
I was afraid when I saw that this was structured around the school year and Melinda’s classes, that this would be another trite “hell is high school” stories.
But for Melinda, it really is true, and it’s not trite at all.
She’s got parents who aren’t fully present in her life, and when they are, they don’t understand her (to them) self-imposed isolation. She’s surrounded at school by enemies and former friends alike, and the only “friend” she acquires as a freshman is a new girl who’s so self-absorbed she doesn’t even notice how disengaged Melinda is.
She has lots of teachers who don’t care about her withdrawal and falling grades, a counselor who does care but can’t seem to reach her, and one teacher who cares a ton–her art teacher.
Art as therapy is so close to being a cliche, but here, it made me want to chose a random subject (as Melinda does) and spend the next few months drawing/painting/sculpting nothing but, say, owls or something. It’s not something any of my art teachers ever did, but one in particular did pretty much let us work on whatever we wanted to with minimal input from him while he worked in one corner of the room on a huge portrait of his kids. So when she was talking about art class, I felt that.
In fact, my strongest point of connection to Melinda is how closely her internal observations of high school reminded me of my own. My situation going into freshman year was far different (and less traumatic) but Melinda has that early cynical edge that, when paired with her exile from the social structure, manages to criticize it while still wanting to be a part of it, which is how I felt a lot of the time.
And her English teacher? Could have been mine, with the sentence-by-sentence over-analysis of an assigned text, trying to mine every word for symbolism. And symbolism here suffers the same fate as high school society itself–the narrative has students openly criticize symbolism, and yet, symbols run rampant through the novel: mirrors, trees, silence. Which is how Anderson manages to raise what could have been another trite “hell is high school” story above the rest.