This Week, I Read… (2021 #16)

#44 – Decidedly Off Limits, by Stina Lindenblatt

  • Mount TBR: 42/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Not terrible, but definitely underwhelming. My list of complaints:

1. It’s overkill to have the main characters be double-off-limits to each other by both being best friends with the other’s sibling. It takes so much explanation at every point where the conflict is on their minds to say “Not only would love interest’s sibling murder me for this, so would my own sibling.” I don’t think it adds anything to the story to have the forbidden aspect, such as it is, coming from both sides.

2. Subtly LGBTQ+ unfriendly. Sure, an incredibly minor character is gay and has a boyfriend who shows up briefly in a clear display of tokenism, but sprinkled throughout the narrative are really small digs at the idea of a straight character possibly being queer. None of those jokes landed and all of them annoyed me. Worse than that, Kelsey turns down a potential date by blurting out that she’s a lesbian, and later that bites her in the ass because the guy she turned down tries to set her up with his cousin. I could not have rolled my eyes harder.

3. Little major character development. The core conflict–the forbidden aspect of their relationship–doesn’t require them to grow as people to overcome, basically they just have to stop letting it matter. (Ideally it shouldn’t matter, they’re adults, so on and so forth, but I’ve definitely known people to whom this kind of thing does matter, so I’m not knocking the subgenre as a whole.) The individual character arcs are the same–both leads find a fulfilling hobby. Which isn’t exactly deep, and I think has drastically different results in their two cases: Kelsey magically becomes good at photography almost overnight and lands a swanky freelancing gig based on no portfolio to speak of, just the few shots in a steamy calendar shoot that was a major (and majorly silly) plot point in the middle of the story. I think this is bad, because the growth felt artificial and her victory was just handed to her. Whereas Trent decides to take a cooking class to spend time with Kelsey (her first foray into finding a hobby) and is surprised both by how comfortable he feels with it (even before he’s “good” at it) and how much he enjoys it. He spends the rest of the book quietly cooking for himself and occasionally others, and that growth arc caps off with the much more realistic “win” of hosting a huge family Thanksgiving. I really, really like this arc, minor as it is, because it’s such a domestic thing for this workaholic man to find himself enjoying, and only once is there an incredibly small joke about how it might threaten his masculinity. He’s just allowed to enjoy it, and it doesn’t have to give him new career opportunities or fix his self-worth or anything. (But it is so good relative to his counterpart that it makes her personal arc look even worse by comparison.)

4. Too many silly plot points. Did we really need so many romance standards crammed into a single book? The cooking lesson. Kelsey’s female friends giving her a sexy confidence makeover. The sexy photo shoot. The switcheroo shenanigans at the vacation house. The charity date auction. This book was definitely longer than it needed to be overall, but I would have rather had some time devoted to better character development than shoehorn in one more dramatic plot event.

5. Unnecessary jealousy subplots. Trent possibly ending up with Holly instead of Kelsey in the beginning felt integral to the plot, even if I think it went on too long–and did the two leads really need to hide their fling from yet another person, when they were already hiding it from both their potentially murderous siblings? But it made far more sense than the late-game “will Kelsey go back to Owen” fakeout that felt out of place, slowed down the pace of an already beleaguered climax, and came off as entirely ridiculous when Kelsey had to put her old engagement ring back on for yet another “we’re not really dating but we have to pretend” twist on this plot.

I’ve made enough complaints that I’m wondering why my gut says two stars and not just the one, but while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it–it just didn’t impress me. And it’s not substantially worse that other recent books I’ve rated two stars, so I’ll roll with it. Either way, I don’t recommend this.

#45 – Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Mount TBR: 43/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Chapter title page has art (illustrated by the author, no less)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t had an experience quite like that since I first read Les Miserables in eighth grade. It took me just over a month of steady, dogged reading, and I carried that book with me everywhere–to every class in school, every time I was sitting in the backseat of the car while running errands with my parents, every time I read before bed.

Vanity Fair reminds me a lot of Les Mis, not in tone or subject matter, but in my sheer determination to get through it, even when it’s slow going. Because I started this book in February. The wit and charm and lively characters carried me through the first two hundred pages fairly easily, but then I began to lose steam. I took what I thought was a short break to read something else before going on, and when I went back, suddenly it was hard to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I told myself to keep going. After all, I was still enjoying it–it wasn’t the same feeling of epic struggle to stay interested that I had with War and Peace last year. I liked this book, yet somehow, I couldn’t motivate myself to read it.

Pretty soon it became clear the problem wasn’t Vanity Fair itself, or at least, not mostly. I was just in the worst reading slump of my adult life, because nothing I read could hold my attention long. I took almost an entire month off reading, but when the mood struck to try again, I’d either try a new book and set it down after five pages, or nibble at the edges of Vanity Fair. When I declared (to myself) that my reading slump was over, I was just past 400 pages in.

Like magic, once I’d warmed up with a few light reads, the pages began to fly by again. I could finish several chapters in a sitting, and genuinely want to read more.

But this is a book review, right? Not the story of my reading slump. So what was it that was giving me difficulty, specifically, about this work?

The names. Formal name etiquette in British high society is just the pits. Our main character, Rebecca, probably showed up in the text under about a dozen different names or epithets throughout the course of the story, because she’s got her first name, her full name, her nickname, her married name both formally as Mrs. Husband’s Name and Becky/Rebecca Husband’s Name, and of course any given description posing as a person that Thackeray wanted to attach to her. Eventually at the very end she’s mostly Mrs. Becky, which I didn’t recall being used much before. On top of that, there were other instances when a change of status caused me some confusion, because first we have Pitt Crawley, no title attached, son of Sir Pitt Crawley, but when the elder Crawley dies, of course Pitt becomes Sir Pitt because the title passes on, even though that’s also the name of the now-dead character. Any male character in the military might be referred to by his rank rather than his name, and when multiple military figures are in the same paragraph (as they often are) they are all referred to by an inconsistent mix of their names and ranks.

And all of this is happening constantly through the entire nearly-700-pages of the novel. It’s exhausting.

When this was published, I have no doubt this was common enough that readers had little issue with it. Now? I often had to stop to parse who was who because of the constant flux of designations.

If I could strip that stylistic inconsistency out, that would fix a lot of my problems with reading this right away. However, there were still others. While the core cast of characters is relatively small compared to some epic classics of this length, Thackeray does like to veer off on tangents frequently and spend a chapter or three detailing the life and situation of a minor character. That’s something I remember loving in Les Mis, which, again, is the thing I have read that is most like this book; but here, somehow I was never as fascinated by these little portraits as I was when Hugo did it. Here I was invested in Becky and Amelia and William Dobbin (in fact, the resolution of his story is the primary reason I finished this book at all–I was hanging on for that happy ending.) But I did not find myself particularly interested in Lord Steyne or Mrs. Major O’Dowd or the Gaunt family. The minor characters were not completely without charm to me, as I particularly liked the single-page tale of Becky’s little French maid abandoning her. What the girl took, what became of her, how she fared after Becky’s tyranny, that was all grand. But it was also short, and seeing as it came immediately after we read of Becky’s downfall, it felt timely and appropriate. Many of the other, larger tangents from the main story line left me scratching my head about why I was suddenly learning new names or jumping to a different country. I admit to skimming some of the side bits that seemed less relevant or interesting, in order to get back to the “good” parts.

How do I feel three months later now that I’m finally done? It was a long walk to that happy ending I was 95% sure was coming. I’m pleased to be finished but not particularly eager to try any other Thackeray works, because while I liked many things about his style–the wit and humor, the insertion of himself as narrator into the story (occasionally) as a character, the biting satire–there’s also simply too much dead weight to carry in order to get to all of that. I’m glad I read it, but I never need to reread it. It’s rare for me to find myself finishing a classic novel without either loving it to pieces (My Antonia, Les Mis, Jane Eyre) or hating it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (too many to name.) But I found this book simply good–not great, not terrible.

#46 – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Mount TBR: 44/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 72, just past 10%, as per my usual cutoff.

I read Kostova’s The Swan Thieves several years ago, long enough that I had to remind myself from my review what I thought about it, but I actually picked up The Historian only a year or so after I read it, I’m still so backlogged. I gave Thieves three stars and said of it (briefly paraphrasing) “The mystery was dull but I liked the way she talked about art and artists, and that carried me through.”

I found no similar luck with this novel. Even viewing it as a sort of fantasy work rather than historical fiction, I found it plodding and frustrating. (So did the unknown person who began annotating my secondhand copy–the first sixty pages are full of questions and notes and exclamations, but then they begin to thin out, and I leafed through to see how long they last. They’re completely absent after page 150 or so, and I can’t find any indication the previous reader finished the book, either.)

There’s one central failure that’s most responsible for hampering my interest. I thought I was prepared for Kostova’s wordy style, having read another of her novels, if a later one where she might have refined her prose somewhat. But this is verbose to the point of preciousness, especially in Rossi’s letters, one of our three parallel narratives. The other two–Paul and his daughter Siena–are also pedantic narrators, but the letters are full of dire melodrama and ostentatious phrasing. (I guess to make them sound like they’re old, but I found it more irritating than archaic.) Setting that aside, I also wish Paul and Siena hadn’t basically sounded like the same person, not because I had any trouble differentiating their chapters from each other–the content usually made that clear very quickly–but because I think a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter (or her older self in some cases) shouldn’t speak or write exactly alike. I feel like that’s a basic ask from an author, to make separate narrators sound like different people.

If the mystery had been more compelling or the pace of the plot quicker, I might have been able to grit my teeth and deal with these issues, but in putting all those problems together, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll enjoy the next six hundred pages any more than I did the first seventy-two.

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.

A Bona Fide Reading Slump

Some of you may have noticed that I posted two book reviews last Friday. Does this mean I’m back?

Honestly, I’m not sure.

April was mostly a huge black hole of stress, and that included the only actual reading slump I’ve ever had. I didn’t finish a single book for twenty-nine days, and that is by far a record. Even before I started tracking my habits on Goodreads, even before I went on a used book sale spree for three years and ended up with hundreds of unread books lying around–I was still reading. Sure, it was the same three dozen fantasy and sci-fi novels in heavy rotation, with some library books thrown in from time to time for variety, but as soon as I’d finished one book, I’d pick up another. I doubt I’ve gone even as much as a week without devoting time to reading for my entire life, not even just as an adult.

I’m one of the kids who got in trouble for not paying attention in class, not because I was talking or daydreaming, but because I was trying to hide a book under the desk and read instead of listening to the teacher.

I don’t know how to be a person who doesn’t read. I’m a reader. Even before I’m a writer, I’m a reader.

So when I suddenly didn’t want to read anymore, I almost didn’t know what to do with myself, and I certainly didn’t know what to do with a blog about reading and writing and my author platform, when I wasn’t actively doing any of those things.

(I’m writing a little every day to keep my streak on 4thewords going, but it’s mostly journaling–I’ve set aside my physical journals for the time being in favor of typing it all out and getting credit for my word count. But fiction? Stories? Novels? Nope, nothing’s happening there.)

Intellectually I understand that burnout is real, and very few people can maintain the sort of intense relationship with any hobby that I have with reading for an extended period of time, and it’s always okay to take a break, etc. etc. But actually feeling like I might never want to read again, having reading become a source of guilt and stress rather than comfort and enjoyment…

I freaked out. I thought, “What’s going to be my hobby now? Should I learn something new?” I’ve been looking at miniature model kits, thanks to a friend who’s recently discovered them. I researched paint-by-numbers kits for adults, because way back when in high school, I did a fairly big one, and I remember enjoying it. I’ve been crafting a lot lately with materials I have at home already–sewing and spinning mostly, and the needlepoint that I’ve shown off before in my monthly wrap-up posts. Since crafting has been supplying so much of my dopamine lately, I even toyed with the idea (again) of doing a craft blog (again, I’ve had two in the past.) I decided against it for now, as it seemed like too much work.

But there’s been an itch in the back of my mind, telling me, “This isn’t forever. You’ll want to read again soon.”

For a lot of people, and even for me with many of my other hobbies, taking a month-long break is nothing. I’ve sometimes gone years without knitting or crocheting, and my sewing definitely goes in phases. So has my bookbinding. But reading isn’t a craft. I don’t even really consider it a hobby, because it’s just something I’ve always done, and I never questioned that I always would.

So, yeah, April shook me up a little.

I kept reading new books a few pages at a time, only to set them down after five minutes and give up trying for days at a time. The one that stuck (somehow, inexplicably) was A Walk in the Woods, despite the fact that I ended up hating it. It was pretty easy to read, and by the time I knew I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to drop it unfinished, I wanted to finish it so that I’d finally have a book to review again, even if it was going to be a poor one.

I finished it, I wrote the review, and I felt lighter. And I also thought, “Okay, what am I going to read next?” And typed up a nice, lengthy journal entry about my feelings and potential next books to read. (I chose romance for its general aura of digestibility, and it worked, since I finished another book the next day.)

But where do I go from here? Even when I don’t feel like I’m holding up my end of the social media bargain as an author–I’ve done basically nothing to promote my newest book, and I’m stalled on writing its sequel or anything else of significance–I still read books and post reviews. If I’m not doing that, why even bother with a blog? Would I simply disappear from the Internet?

Well, no, probably not yet. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. Hopefully I’ll read another book and have at least one more review to post next Friday. I’m still coming up dry on other ideas for posts, so there won’t be any writing-related content any time soon. So, I’m back? Tentatively. As a book review blog. Which was fully a third of my content anyway, so it feels like the best place to ease back into blogging.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #14)

#38 – A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson

  • Mount TBR: 36/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Everything I have to say about this book is negative, but somehow I feel that’s appropriate, as nearly everything Bryson has to say in the book is negative.

He doesn’t really seem to like or even get along with his primary hiking companion. He meets a few stand-up people along the way–other hikers or the proprietors of charming guesthouses and such–but seems to encounter horrible people far more often, and to spend far more time describing those meetings, because they’re presumably funnier or more interesting. He rants about rangers, about the park service, about the engineering corps. At times he comes off like an angry environmentalist who wants to be a Mountain Man, but shows himself at every opportunity diving right back into the arms of consumerism quite gleefully.

Other reviewers who like this book better claim that’s the joke, that he’s an amateur with lofty ambitions who is including himself in all of this idealistic mockery. But I never got the joke. I never laughed at all reading this, not once. Bryson’s presumed self-deprecation never seemed as deliberate or biting as the attacks he made on his companion, or the laughably over- or under-prepared hikers he met, or whichever public service organization had piqued his ire at the moment. Honestly, those aspects of the book just read to me like he was a bully. Tone matters, and I appreciate snark, but this wasn’t snark to me, it was just plain mean.

In addition, reading this book more than twenty years after its publication makes his attitude towards technology, given near the end, seem silly and quaint. I have no idea how cellular service is on the AT these days, but that story at the very end of the book, when he and Katz get separated overnight? Probably could have been cleared up pretty quickly with cell phones. Instead he spends a few pages talking about all the ridiculous calls for “help” people had made with their shiny newfangled gizmos, but never once mentions any anecdotes about how having ready communication may have saved someone’s life–and I refuse to believe that even then, when cell phones weren’t an everyday item as they are now, that literally no one had ever called for help when they actually needed it. But mentioning those stories would undercut his “technology is bad, nature is good” narrative…

I think it’s time I stop reading Bryson’s books, because with each one, I like them less and less.

#39 – Ice Cream Lover, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 37/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It was fine, but I wished I liked it better than I did.

My stylistic complaints with Lau’s works from earlier in the series haven’t changed here: everything is laid out plainly with no real subtlety, and the lead characters will both tell the reader precisely how they’re feeling during internal monologue. I’m never going to be excited about that much telling.

But here, it felt worse somehow, maybe because both leads were dealing with a lot of deep issues and the treatment of them felt too slick, too easy, because of the plain style. Drew’s insecurities get cleared up with a single, almost unbelievably fulfilling talk with his ex, and Chloe’s dynamic with her father is solved pretty much the same way, and then poof! they’re both ready for a happily ever after. Their problems both seemed more serious than Josh’s and Sarah’s from the previous novel, but everything is solved just as easily.

I liked the emphasis on family. I liked the foodie talk, to a point, but I’m definitely tired of the phrase “ice cream sandwich.” I’m exceptionally glad for the actual inclusion of the word “bisexual” to describe Chloe, because I often have to lament the ways authors will contort themselves in order to have a multi-gender-attracted character without having to label them as anything. I do think her bisexuality was incidental to the story and not a significant part of her as a character, so I would have liked it to be more important, but bisexual people are not a monolith and we’re not all out there with flag pins at Pride rallies, there’s room in our representation for characters whose queerness does not define everything about them. (This is more of a personal gripe than an indictment of the book, just because I find good bi rep so rarely, so I would have liked it to be more prominent. But it’s not wrong or bad or problematic as it stands.)

I’m definitely less impressed with this than The Ultimate Pi Day Party, but with only one book to go in the series, I might as well finish it–after all, this wasn’t bad, just not as good.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: March 2021!

Yes, this is late. I had hoped to be back from hiatus before now, but I’ve been lacking the motivation. So I’m not really back yet, but sort of taking a stab at the idea of blogging again a little bit.

In March, I read exactly six books, a nearly historic low since I’ve began tracking in 2015. The only month lower? November 2015, when I only read three books while participating in my first NaNoWriMo in over a decade.

I did not write 50,000 words this past month, so that’s not an applicable excuse. (sigh)

On the plus side, they were the six books I had planned to read, so I did finish my March TBR. A few of those books did count for the bingo challenge, but I’m still only hovering on the edge of a second bingo–I’m two books away across several lines on the board. Progress on this is definitely going to slow down now that I have so many fewer spaces, since I’m still not choosing books to match the prompts.

As for writing, well, I journaled some, and I wrote a few book reviews, and that’s basically it. I haven’t had any real motivation for fiction writing since I called the end of the #rockstarnovel2 draft. It’s pretty clear to me now that I’m suffering burnout. My possible, “I’m thinking about this but haven’t actually done it yet” plan to deal with that is to write, in complete and total privacy, the most ridiculously indulgent fantasy/romance/whatever thing I can think of, promising myself that I will never share any of it with literally anyone, not even a single line out of context, so that I have absolute permission to write anything I want.

It’s appealing, but I haven’t started yet. Today I made myself tackle two book reviews and now, this belated post.

One thing I have been keeping up with is my needlepoint project, which I have been working on diligently every day (at least a little bit) since I started just before New Year’s. This picture was taken on April 7th, and since I last showed it off, you can now see the text I added to the top of the piece! That’s a thing I do with kits to personalize them. So I’m pleased about that, because a) it’s going to look amazing when I finish it and frame it and hang it on my gallery wall (which I have to reorganize anyway); b) I’m still genuinely enjoying the craft itself, which I wasn’t sure I would, because I learned needlepoint as a kid but have rarely done it since, and never with a project so big; and c) because I have stuck to doing at least one happy fun thing daily, if it’s not reading or writing, at least it’s crafting. Crafting is giving me all the dopamine right now.

I’m not going to set firm goals for April, and I’m not going to promise myself (or you, for that matter) that I’ll get back to posting again regularly. I want to try, but I also want to be free to not do it if I don’t have anything worth saying, which has been a big, big mood lately. There are other things I want to do, and that’s okay.

I really do want to read more again, and enjoy reading more, so I will at least try to keep up with the weekly reviews. I only missed one week, which isn’t so bad…

Take care of yourselves, everybody. That’s what I’m trying to do for myself.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #13)

#36 – Virtual Light, by William Gibson

  • Mount TBR: 34/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Three strikes and you’re out, I don’t really know why I keep trying with Gibson. I read Neuromancer in college, and while understanding it was a pioneer, thought other more recent cyberpunk novels were better in pretty much every way. A few years later, for some unknown reason I tried Idoru, and I hated it, and it solidified my belief that Gibson was far too fond of sentence fragments and apparently terrified of including verbs.

I found this novel for pennies at a used bookshop, and I can only plead temporary insanity for buying it in order to try again to like Gibson. DNF @ page 70, though at least there were verbs–I have no major complaints about the writing style itself, which has so far been a sticking point with me.

I’m genuinely not sure what’s more to blame, though, in standing between me and possibly enjoying this story. By 20% in, where I gave up, there’s barely any plot to speak of; I only know that the two main characters are going to meet up and have adventures together with the stolen tech one of them lifted from a rich dude based on the back-cover blurb. They hadn’t met and the secondary main character (a woman) has gotten remarkably little screen time compared to the main-main character (a man.) So there’s that.

But then, there’s just something inherently silly to me about reading a novel in 2021 that was published in 1993 but is about the dystopian future in 2005. Obviously history didn’t happen this way, but even the “future” is badly dated, and who sets their near-future vision only twelve years out? I couldn’t take it seriously, but that’s not really the book’s fault, is it? That’s just the passing of time.

On the other hand, I was bored by all that detail about how the world and society was falling apart, when I could have been having story happen instead. So if the world-building is getting in the way of the plot, isn’t that a problem whether the details themselves are interesting or not?

It’s all me being philosophical with myself anyway, because I didn’t enjoy what I did read and I won’t finish it. I’m over my cyberpunk years, and if I ever do want to get back into it, I’ll read authors I already trust instead of repeatedly trying to make myself like this one, just because he did it first.

#37 – A Hero to Keep, by Susan Gable

  • Mount TBR: 35/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

From a structural perspective, I see how this all fits together: there are character arcs for each lead, a romance arc for them together, a “getting past trauma” arc for the kid that leads into a “now we’re a family” ending.

So it’s not lacking anything in terms of plot, but somehow through the whole thing, I was never moved. Maybe Shannon’s cold/distant attitude at the beginning never really lifted and cast a pall over everything else for me; maybe I never fully invested in the “fight” they were fighting to work things out.

Despite clocking in at over 200 pages, though, I actually feel like parts of this were rushed–Greg and Shannon leap into physical intimacy much earlier than I expected, even if that first encounter doesn’t get horizontal. I never really felt their chemistry, so seeing them get all passionate out of basically nowhere was a sour note, and as the story progressed, it kept getting sourer, because they were supposed to not form a romantic or sexual relationship for reasons, but the story would have me believe that they were just too hot for each other to let that stop them. No, I don’t believe you, story, they’ve got no zing to speak of.

This was a freebie I picked up ages ago by a new-to-me author, and I finally got to it, and it’s just so-so. Not going to continue the series, can’t particularly recommend this for any standout feature, it’s just functional and kind of dry.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #12)

#34 – The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Mount TBR: 33/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Has a map
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As a longtime Kay fan who is finally working through some more of his back catalog, I could say about this novel nearly everything I said about A Song for Arbonne when I read it late last year. Sweepingly epic. Potentially as good as Tigana, my first Kay novel and a very high water mark to meet. Will probably reward rereading multiple times.

I do think this might edge out Arbonne for grandiose levels of tragedy, though. While the epilogue does show us happy endings for a small subset of the large cast of characters here, it’s definitely bittersweet at best. What is it about the fall of nations that inspires and fascinates this author so much?

But I was captivated by these characters as individuals, I think more readily than any other Kay work I’ve read since Tigana. I constantly felt the push and pull of the shifting loyalties and the duties each person bore to their faith, their country, and the people in their immediate circle. It was so complicated at times that I truly wasn’t sure how things would play out, not in the way that I felt like I was purposefully being kept in the dark–the subtle clues are undoubtedly there for me to catch next time, that I missed this time. But I appreciated the sense of surprise and uncertainty.

Also, I was crying buckets of tears pretty frequently throughout the final hundred pages, so yeah, I fell in love with these characters.

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the three major religions of the setting, being obviously analogous to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are a primary source of conflict throughout the story, without adding much flavor to the world itself. They’re little more than fancy labels to attach to a character to explain why they’re treated a certain way, or why they treat someone else as they do; the strictures and taxes imposed on the Jewish analogue are mentioned repeatedly, but nothing of their faith as a culture, and even less is said about the other two in that sense. I’m aware enough of the history this is based on to fill in some gaps myself, but I would have appreciated more richness to the text about it.

#35 – Unquiet Land, by Sharon Shinn

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Lost royalty
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A lackluster end to a subpar series. I’ve been a fan of Shinn for just over two decades now, and for me Elemental Blessings can’t stand up to either Samaria (my overall favorite) or The Twelve Houses (which contains my single favorite novel of hers but isn’t quite as good throughout.)

But I’m not reviewing the whole series here, just this last installment. And it’s not even as good as the earlier novels, which I didn’t think were particularly great. I basically finished this out of loyalty.

So, first: I cannot recommend the audiobook, I strongly disliked the narrator. There’s always a risk with fantasy or sci-fi that the speaker isn’t going to pronounce the made-up names the way you/I think they should be pronounced, and this time around it was a constant irritation to me. (“Zoe,” however, actually is a real name, and hearing it pronounced it “Zoh,” one syllable, was like being flicked in the forehead every time, mildly painful and immensely annoying. There were others, but this was the worst.) Also, I found the insertion of accents that don’t exist in the text, in order to differentiate characters from each other, to be actively harmful to the story, with a subtle air of racism to it. The “noble” or otherwise rich foreigners got highbrow, vaguely British accents; the Welchin guards and traders, ie, working-class folks, got vaguely Irish accents; the love interest, also a foreigner, got what I can only reasonably describe as an incredibly plodding, nearly monotone pan-African accent that I couldn’t possibly assign to any one of the hundreds of languages it might have been supposed to emulate. I wouldn’t have liked this book anyway–I’ll get to the story issues in a moment–but the narration definitely made the book worse for me.

Okay, second, the story. Also plodding, for most of its runtime, as there were very little stakes to anything for the first two acts, and a great deal of that time was spent on the minutiae of running a high-end imports shop. I think some of it was necessary, of course, but there was just too much of it, and rather than making me appreciate the hard work of being a shopkeeper (as this shop was backed by the royal coffers and didn’t need to make a profit,) I simply feel like the author was indulging in a love of describing very pretty things for their own sake. I like pretty things myself, but this felt overly repetitious.

(You know, I’m noticing that the worse I think a book is, the more adverbs I end up using in the review. I have to make sure everyone understands that the story wasn’t just repetitive but “overly repetitious,” etc. I’m not going to edit any of them out, but I bet if I go back and read a sampling of my other one- and two-star reviews, I’ll find the same thing.)

Even setting the pace aside, there are issues. The new culture/country/people that are introduced as the villains here aren’t just different, aren’t just bad in mundane ways, they are actively horrible and Evil with a Capital E, and in case you weren’t sure that their “extreme” view on morality was the wrong one, oh wait, they’re also vampires. Not in the magical creature sense, but it’s a Rich Person Thing for them to drink human blood. There’s simply no subtlety to it, and also I had put the clues together far earlier than the story finally revealed it, which made the slow grind toward the characters figuring it out boring.

Our heroine Leah has her arc from “I abandoned my child because I wasn’t ready to be a mother” to “everything’s fine and I’m a mom now” basically handed to her on a silver platter, because Mally is an improbably perfect child who accepts her without the slightest hesitation, never displays any real trauma or lasting effects from her unusual upbringing, never throws a tantrum or misbehaves in any way, and is a preternaturally wise and powerful child. Leah herself doesn’t really have to do much to make their new relationship work, because Mally is so perfect. Even her future non-romantic relationship to the child’s father pretty much sorts itself out without a lot of input from her. Shouldn’t Leah have to do something? Anything at all?

And the romance. Um, what romance? I’ve never felt less chemistry between the leads in any Sharon Shinn novel I’ve ever read. Yeah, some of their story is back in Jeweled Fire, which I did only read once, and several years ago, so I don’t remember it perfectly. But here, in this book, the romance is “Hey, I really missed you.” “Hey, I really missed you too, but I have this exceptionally dark past and I don’t deserve love.” “Hey, maybe let’s talk about that?” “Okay, we talked, things are still weird but now let’s bang.” And then suddenly at the end of the story there are high stakes that come out of nearly nowhere and baffled me with how quickly they have to be set up, and then how painlessly it’s all resolved.

So disappointing.

Should I stop reading new Sharon Shinn books and just revisit her earlier, stronger series when I need a comfort read? And now that I’ve spent all these hundreds of words exploring all my frustrations with this book, do I think it’s bad enough that it’s actually only worth one star? Hmm. No, I generally have to hate a book or not be able to finish it at all to give it one star, so I guess this can keep its two. But I’m giving Shinn’s newest series the side-eye and thinking that maybe I should just not read it.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #11)

#32 – Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

  • Mount TBR: 31/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Nonbinary protagonist
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I am a cis white woman more than twice as old as the trans protagonist in this story. I have never doubted my gender identity in any meaningful way–when I see the memes about how girls who had a “tomboy” phase are all now either trans men, lesbians, or nonbinary, I shrug and say, “I’m bi, does that count?”

I’ve always thought my tomboy phase was not a rejection of my essential girlhood (whatever that means) but the terrible ’80s fashion imposed upon me by the society who created it, and my parents, who had no option but to clothe me in it. I still remember, with horror, some of the dresses I had to wear to church every Sunday.

Even my rejection now of some of the typical standards of feminine beauty are more about the cost (be it money or time) to maintain those standards. I’ve never had my nails done or my eyebrows waxed, I currently own no makeup because when I’ve flirted with it in the past I’ve never liked the hassle (or my lack of skill with it because I can’t be bothered to watch eighteen tutorials just to put on eyeliner.)

I say all this as a lead-in to this book review in order to establish that I am in no way, shape, or form the target audience, or someone who has experienced more than the merest sliver of this struggle. And yet, somehow, I still found it relatable in many ways, which I consider to be a triumph of the storytelling.

Some of the gender and sexuality issues brush up against similar things I’ve experienced on the road to figuring out my own bisexuality. Some of the growing pains the characters undergo feel a lot like the thoughts I was having as a teenager myself, no matter how different the various pieces of my identity are. And most of all, this captured the roller-coaster ride of personal drama and love-related woes that was my experience from when I started dating. I, too, have tried to go out with someone I only kind of liked, or convinced myself I could like, when I thought I couldn’t have someone else I was more interested in. I’ve never been in a full-blown love triangle centered on myself, but when one of my friends drew a schematic of the tangle of relationships our friend group in college underwent, we had to nickname it the “love dodecahedron” because it got so complicated.

So I got it, even if this wasn’t for or about someone like me.

All that being said, there were still issues I had. Because I’m the wrong generation, I’m not easy with all the underage drinking and all the pot smoking. I grew up during the War on Drugs, and while I’ve revised my views on marijuana in the legal sense (waaaaay too many people are in prison for it that shouldn’t be) I’m never going to be able to endorse kids lighting up constantly or getting drunk all the time. While I understand that writing about characters doing something isn’t the same as the author condoning it, there’s really no consequences in this to the teenagers drinking and smoking so much–it’s just presented as a fact of their life and basically okay behavior, and I’m not on board with that. (The constant swearing, which I’ve seen other reviews mention as excessive and off-putting, actually doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve always known people who swear as much or more, even as a teenager.)

My other issue is that no one had much characterization beyond their gender/sexuality struggles, and for a few of them, the constant labeling of their actions as “asshole” behavior, whether it was or not in reality. Okay, sure, Felix’s struggles are the central fact of the story, fine. But everyone else? Declan and Ezra both have similar rich-boy problematic backgrounds that do a little to inform their characters, but not that much, and everyone who populates their extended circle of friends is basically a name paired with a gender and sexuality assignment instead of a real person, and they talk accordingly. (Some of those “deep” conversations or arguments read like they came straight from Tumblr, and I say that with some affection because I’ve been on Tumblr for years, but still, that made them feel more like Very Special Messages than organic parts of the story or real things people might say to each other.)

Overall, it was good. I enjoyed it. It even made me cry a little once. But I found that being outside the age group, and only sharing the larger queer umbrella with these characters but not any more granular aspects of their identities, made the message a little more obvious and the flaws a little more perceptible.

#33 – Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

  • Mount TBR: 32/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book I forgot I had
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I have read a few books on the English language and its history. I’ve read even more about its foibles, its grammar and punctuation and general frustrations. I’ve even read a few books specifically about dictionary construction before, but this one takes the cake. (I wonder which subsense of “take” that idiom falls under? I’m sure Stamper could tell me, as that was one of her words, whose defining process was covered by an entire chapter.)

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud more when reading nonfiction, even through one of my many rereads of Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which I think is fair to say was my previous high-water mark for the intersection of humor and informativeness in nonfiction about language. Bits of clever wordplay, fantastically hilarious turns of phrase, and the occasional well-placed reference to The Simpsons, and I’m sold.

As for the information it contains, I knew some of it (as I said, I’m not new to nonfiction about dictionaries) but this was a far more modern and internal viewpoint than others I’ve read, by someone working in the field now and not merely presenting research done about the process or its history. There’s a bit of history here too–of all the chapters, the one about the history of dictionaries is the one I was probably least interested in, and my eyes might have glazed over once or twice–but the nitty-gritty, daily-life details of a lexicographer’s existence, presented with humor and energy, more than make up for one chapter of the book being a little dry.

This is a somewhat niche interest that I can’t recommend widely–it would bounce right off some readers with its jargon and specificity and attention to detail–but it’s a real treat for absolute word nerds like me.

Getting Serious About Series 2021: Update #1

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

Series Off My List in 2021

I feel good about my first-quarter progress on this, honestly. I’ve truly finished three series while only adding two new ones; I’ve kicked five potential series off the list by giving them a try and not enjoying them all that much. I’ve made progress on three more.

I had hoped to have another one crossed off the list by now, but I’ve read even less in March than I expected to, and I haven’t started the final book in the Elemental Blessings quartet yet. It’s high on my priorities list, though.

I keep looking at Preacher, sitting at one of nine, and thinking, should I tackle that this year? I’ve read enough graphic novels know I’m not a huge fan of the format, and they require a bit more mental work from me than reading plain text. And I’m aware the subject matter is, how should I say this?…intense. But it felt good to get through all of Saga, and all of the Sandman works, so it’s also on my radar.

Less controversial for me: I’m probably going to buy myself the fifth Memoirs of Lady Trent novel for my upcoming birthday, I’ve really been looking forward to that one.

I’ll check back in near the end of June with more progress!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #10)

#31 – Cards of Grief, by Jane Yolen

  • Mount TBR: 30/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

After skimming some other reviews to help me collect and organize my thoughts about this intriguing but mildly unsatisfying book, I see I’m far from the only one who got strong Ursula K. Le Guin vibes from the anthropological approach to science fiction displayed here.

I do think I’m maybe the only one (or at least one of a very few) to also feel like this is, in one aspect, reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay as well; most of my favorite works of his place a thematic emphasis on the intertwining of music/poetry and nostalgia/memory, so this fictional culture of memorializing the departed through art, turning mourning into a high calling, feels like an extension of his ideas taken to a sci-fi extreme.

I couldn’t help but like this, when it reminded me so strongly of two favorite authors, but that did mean I have less grasp on Yolen’s authorial voice itself. This is the first and only novel of hers I’ve ever heard of, and it came to me by random recommendation online; I’m somewhat surprised to see other reviewers alternately decrying this “first adult novel” of hers as poor compared to her works for younger readers, because I think this is really good!

But not entirely without flaw. I think the way she writes about sex in this culture is strong in some ways but weak in one in particular: the structure of both their fertility cycle and their political power leads inevitably to a very different attitude towards intercourse, which I think is great, but also there’s very little evidence of consent between the parties involved. The Queen summons men to her who are basically compelled to go, and it’s implied they’re not always willing; and then in one specific instance of another issue, a man tells of a time when he takes a younger man to bed as a “punishment,” and while it’s not couched with the sort of brutality the word “rape” often brings to mind, both the age difference and the power imbalance (prince and farm boy, basically) imply that the younger man simply could not have said no, but he didn’t really say yes, either.

From an anthro/sci-fi standpoint, I understand that fictional cultures can have other attitudes towards sex and consent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable to read at times when their attitudes conflict with my moral compass, and I think the text could have done more to acknowledge the issue, rather than skating by it quickly whenever it comes up, and having the human visitors fail to notice or comment on it (even among themselves, because they wouldn’t bring it up to the aliens because of a non-interference directive.)

My other issue is actually the ending, the very final chapter, and without spoiling things, I just didn’t grok it, to borrow a term from another bit of classic sci-fi. In some ways it’s a departure from the message of the rest of the book, and ultimately for me it didn’t feel like it was enough to wrap up the story. I wouldn’t want this book to be padded out with filler, but even so, it could have been longer, and gone a little deeper into the culture, explained a bit more, and taken more time at the end to finish the story. I’m finding it difficult to explain what I mean, to describe exactly how I feel unsatisfied by it, because sometimes I’m able to detail quite well what I found lacking in a piece of media. (My husband and I spent half an hour last night pulling apart the weaknesses we found in the series finale of a certain show we’ve been watching lately, and neither of us had any trouble identifying the problem spots.) But here, I’m left with a vague sense of unfinished-ness, and that’s detracting from my appreciation of the rest of the book, which I found so interesting.