This Week, I Read… (2018 #38)

132 - The Secret Place

#132 – The Secret Place, by Tana French

If you had asked me halfway through what I expected my rating for this to be, I would have told you five stars, no question. This is reading out of my comfort zone, but I was hooked, I was totally on board.

But all the stylistic chirps and flutters of Detective Moran’s POV, which impressed me early on, got old; and all the hyperbolic emotion of the girls’ chapters became exhausting.

This is a crime novel with a lot of moving parts, and I read it slowly (for me) so I could keep track of each cog and gear and piston, but in the end, this story simply went on too long and I got muddled. The motives and cross-motives and endless parade of secrets wore me out.

Fatigue aside, I still liked a great deal about this, especially in the early stages. I’m surprised and pleased to find a thriller that’s mostly populated with female characters, and I’m even more surprised to find a thriller whose core theme is friendship. Each major character in this story has a different view on what friendship is, what it means, and how it does or doesn’t affect their life, and that’s more depth that I’ve found in other works in the genre.

However, the flip side of that examination of women’s/girls’ friendships is that the boys basically get thrown under the bus. A hypothetical alien reading this book in translation, with no other knowledge of human relationships, would likely walk away from it thinking teenage boys are sex-crazed manipulators, evil, untrustworthy, and cruel; that’s a harmful stereotype perpetuated in far too much media, so I was unhappy to see it here. For all that the various girls claim Chris, the murder victim, was “complicated,” most of what we see of his actions fits the stock character of a boy willing to do just about anything to get into some girl’s pants–and in his case, just about any girl. The few moments of kindness he shows do little to balance the massive weight of evidence that he’s a liar, a user, and a cheater.

I also don’t think the supernatural aspects of the book were well-developed enough to warrant being there. At first, when the girls discovered their “power” it was a cool trick, and it was early enough that I thought it would get expanded, or at least be important somehow to the story. It wasn’t. All the stuff about Chris’ ghost appearing is easy enough to be dismissed as stress-induced hysteria, especially when you’re talking about a school full of teen girls; but dismissing the “power” isn’t so easy, when it’s presented from the girls’ POV as fact. If it’s real, why didn’t it matter? If it’s not, why was it there at all?

This was my first Tana French read, and looking through others’ reviews it seems like it’s not the most indicative of her overall ability. If I get a chance to pick up something earlier in the series, I’ll take it, but this was so-so at best.

133 - Wilder's Mate

#133 – Wilder’s Mate, by Moira Rogers

Nothing but sex, violence, and world-building so thin you could floss your teeth with it. The tech is steampunk-ish, but barely developed. The “romance” embraces the trope of Rutting Equals True Love–someone’s read Anne Bishop–but never feels real because the leads have no real personalities, they’re stock characters at best, the Brooding Dark Hero and the Spunky Girl Inventor.

Oh, and it takes until the action climax at the end to actually say that “bloodhounds” = werewolves. The word is thrown around liberally, and repeating the phrases “new moon” and “full moon” at every opportunity is of critical importance, but since Our Werewolves Are Different, they need a different name, and if you walk in not knowing that already, it’s actually not immediately obvious, because again, dental-floss-level world-building.

134 - A Tapestry of Dreams

#134 – A Tapestry of Dreams, by Roberta Gellis

DNF @ 10%, page 52. The cover looks like a romance. The blurb reads like it’s a romance. And yet, in the first fifty pages, I’m more intimately introduced to a castle, an army, the King, and the state of the English-Scottish war of the time than I am the lady of the romance, who has about a two-page appearance in the first chapter, which is from her half-brother’s POV. She hasn’t even met her love interest yet, who did get two chapters of his own but has yet to have any personality other than “loyal to his master.”

Okay, I know this was published in 1986, so I wasn’t expecting it to line up with modern romance structure or use modern conventions. But seriously? 10% in and half the romantic pair has next to no page time? If I want to read about war, I have plenty of other books I can go to for that. I read romance for stories about women finding happiness, not men going to battle.

135 - Flatland

#135 – Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott

This was a weird little book about a weird little place–if you can call an infinite plane “little,” which may be intellectually dishonest. But Flatland is certainly confining.

I was fascinated by the first part, the setup of Flatland’s existence and rules and norms. Even if I hadn’t known it was satire of classist Victorian England, the (ahem) pointed nature of the commentary would have quickly given it away. I especially like how degrading Flatland is to its women, in recognition of how preposterously limited a woman’s role in society could be.

What I was less satisfied with was the second part, A. Square’s revelation of the Third Dimension and postulation of the Fourth and beyond. I recognize that it’s fabulous for its time, but it’s dull as bread and butter to me, and it comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending.

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Expand Your Horizons: October TBR

Expand Your Horizons

Nine months done, three to go! If you’ve just joined me recently, I’ve committed to reading one book each, every month in 2018, from Nonfiction, Banned Books, Classics, and #ownvoices.

Here’s my October TBR:

Horizons TBR October

  • Nonfiction: The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad
  • Banned Books: Grendel, by John Gardner
  • Classics: Dracula, by Bram Stoker
  • #ownvoices: A Day Late and a Dollar Short, by Terry McMillan

If you’re curious about the challenge, you can find all the details here, and be sure to use the #horizonsreadingchallenge tag on your social media so everyone can see what you’re reading!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books By My Favorite Authors That I Still Haven’t Read

Stephen King

Gear up, friends, because I’ve got a lot to share, thanks to my used-book-sale habit. First up is an author that, when I first read Pet Sematary back in junior high, I would never have guessed would become one of my favorites. Here I am more than twenty years later, buying anything I see with “Stephen King” on the spine. Or “Richard Bachman,” in the case of The Regulators, because we all know by now about that pseudonym.

King is only one book away (17) from tying for my most-read author (Sharon Shinn and David Eddings, both at 18.)

  • The Talisman and Black House, both with Peter Straub
  • Needful Things
  • Desperation
  • Rose Madder
  • Lisey’s Story
  • Four Past Midnight
  • The Regulators
  • The Dark Half

Shinn Marillier

Speaking of Sharon Shinn, I’ve only got one of hers sitting unread on my shelves at the moment. Along with it, I have two Juliet Marillier books–though their works are quite different in style and tone, I often talk about/recommend these two authors in the same breath because they both blend fantasy with romance beautifully.

  • Jeweled Fire
  • Cybele’s Secret
  • Wildwood Dancing

Ilona Andrews

Ilona Andrews is a much more recent favorite–I read the first Kate Daniels novel, Magic Bites, exactly a year ago–but the series has gotten so good I’m absolutely in love with it. I don’t own the rest of it yet, but I hope too soon. Also, I got lucky and found the first book in a (shorter and less well-known) series randomly at a book sale, so maybe I have another set of characters to fall for!

  • Magic Breaks
  • On the Edge

Robin Hobb

Can I even say that an author I’ve only read one book by is a favorite? Yet I loved Assassin’s Apprentice so much that I immediately set out on a quest to acquire the rest of the Realms of the Elderings works through library sales, thrift shops, and Thriftbooks orders. I’m not done yet, but I have the next nine:

  • Royal Assassin
  • Assassin’s Quest
  • Ship of Magic
  • Mad Ship
  • Ship of Destiny
  • Fool’s Errand
  • Golden Fool
  • Fool’s Fate
  • Dragon Keeper

Atwood Kay

Finally, a few stragglers. Guy Gavriel Kay has charmed me since I first found a battered copy of Tigana in a used bookshop back in college, and Margaret Atwood often perplexes me, but her novels are always interesting, even when I don’t know why I like them.

  • Children of Earth and Sky
  • The Year of the Flood
  • MaddAddam
  • Life Before Man

I’m still using the rest of this year to work through my unread 2016 books–everything listed here is from 2017 or this year, otherwise I would have read them already! But when my Mount TBR Challenge is done, I’ll treat myself with one of these to celebrate…but which one? So many choices!

 

 

This Week, I Read… (2018 #37)

127 - The Left Hand of Darkness

#127 – The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The best of all the Hainish Cycle books I’ve read so far.

I first read this many years ago, and what I remembered most coming back to this was the beautifully desolate trek Genly Ai and Estraven take across the Ice, as well as the pangs of an almost-romance that had to remain a friendship, because of the alienness of each to the other.

The first time I read it, I was neither politically saavy enough, nor aware/educated enough in nonbinary gender issues, to truly grasp the magnitude of what Le Guin set out to accomplish with this novel. Years later, it turns out the politics of Ai’s status as Envoy were actually pretty simple to follow, but the vast ocean of gender politics remains deep and intriguing. This novel is one of the few in the sci-fi canon that, to me, truly embody an alien viewpoint, that has created what is undoubtedly Other.

And yet, Estraven, as a proxy for his people, is so relatable, so human, that the extrapolation of a society without true gender, and thus without gender roles, becomes possible. The Gethenians are a hard people, shaped by an unforgiving planet, and yet they are also generous in hospitality. Their societal structure is odd, even when their forms of government seems recognizable: the two countries Ai visits are a monarchy and a bureaucracy, but the peoples they oversee live quite different lives than we do, as the idea of a nuclear family is absent from both nations.

In addition, their unspoken codes of honor and etiquette, shifgrethor, never fail to fascinate me; the way Estraven and Ai can both have the best of intentions, even work toward the same purpose, and yet be at odds with each other because one can’t understand the core principles of the other. This is not a shallow culture clash, but a foreshadowing in miniature of the difficulties the Gethenians, as a planet, will likely experience in joining the Ekumen, Le Guin’s epic League of Worlds that spans all the works of the Hainish Cycle.

Every detail, every theme, stands up to close inspection as vital and thought-provoking. You could examine this story from any angle and come up with something worth further contemplation.

128 - The Professor and the Madman

#128 – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester

The good part: the process of dictionary-making, especially something as ambitious and complex as the OED, is simply fascinating to me. Winchester provides a solid overview of the history behind it, as well as the problems inherent in Murray’s system, and a detailed explanation of how elegantly revolutionary Dr. Minor’s contributions were.

Fortunately, this was the biggest chunk of the book.

The bad part: basically everything else, but the worst to me, by far, is the end, with its rampant, unsupported speculation about Dr. Minor, the causes and triggers of his mental illness, and the tenor of his relationships to several people in his life; including hypothesizing that Minor was driven (further) mad by harboring desires for the widow of the man he murdered.

What? When did this go from “Nonfiction – History” to “Speculative Fiction?”

I could deal with the high-falutin’ wordiness of Winchester’s style, especially when the book is literally about lexicography. But I can’t deal with deliberate sensationalism, so it’s disappointing that this book is so badly marred by it at the end.

129 - A Passionate Man

#129 – A Passionate Man, by Joanna Trollope

DNF @ page 40. I wanted to stop sooner, but I try to read at least 10% of a book before I ditch it.

I didn’t like the writing style. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. And two things revealed in the story early on bothered the *#$@ out of me.

First: the “happy couple” origin story is a major red flag. Archie meets Liza at her own engagement party, and over the next ten days he woos her away from her fiance. Then they go on a two-week vacation together, presumably to bang like bunnies, then they get married. I’m guessing this whirlwind romance is supposed to impress upon me how “passionate” Archie is? But really, stealing someone’s betrothed is terrible, and Liza’s pretty terrible for going along with it, and I’m thoroughly impressed alright–WITH HOW WRONG THIS IS.

If there were some sort of mitigating circumstances around her original fiance, like he’s abusive and she’s trapped in that relationship, or it’s a sham marriage for money or ANYTHING like that, that would be one thing, but for all we the readers know at that point, he and Liza were perfectly happy together before Archie showed up.

Second: if that near-miss adultery wasn’t enough, one of Liza’s (much younger but still adult) coworkers is depicted as fawning over her constantly. She acknowledges in POV narrative that he’s got a crush on her, and tries to tell herself it’s harmless flirting, and she even flirts back–but whatever we’re supposed to believe she thinks, the whole scene just screams incipient adultery to me.

ADULTERY IS NOT INHERENTLY INTERESTING. I WILL KEEP SHOUTING THIS IN REVIEWS WHENEVER I SEE IT UNTIL THE WORLD PAYS ATTENTION. I DO NOT WANT TO READ ABOUT IT.

So I’m not.

Maybe I’m wrong and Liza doesn’t cheat, but even so, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a good book if I stop now, because I already didn’t like it.

130 - To All the Boys I've Loved Before

#130 – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han

  • Read: 9/19/18
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read this in one sitting. That’s how much I loved it.

I am not Lara, and she is not me, but I get her. I can see echoes of myself in the way her fears manifest, the way she flirts without even realizing she is (a common mistake of mine at that age,) and in her desperate need to do everything right.

When I can empathize with a character’s flaws as deeply as their strengths, I know I’ve got a good protagonist on my hands.

And yeah, Peter’s pretty cool, too.

I’m not usually a fan of love triangles, but this is barely one, because Josh was obviously never a real option; but the tension that arises out of him thinking he could be kept the story moving at a good clip.

In fact, the pacing might be my only (minor) complaint. Sometimes I would turn a page and see the chapter was over and think, what? Some scenes were short to the point of abruptness, and they didn’t always end in a way that felt natural. Compared to how much I loved everything else, though, this is just a nitpick.

131 - Queen of Broken Hearts

#131 – Queen of Broken Hearts, by Cassandra King

In media res is a valid strategy for opening a book, but not if you constantly allude to the backstory, circling around and around it, without ever explaining it.

DNF @ 10%, page 51, without a single sign of a real plot in sight.

Sure, there are tons of characters. But not one of them in ever introduced. I started to wonder if this was second in a series, because that’s how obtuse everything was–I was simply supposed to know who all these people in this small town were, just like I was the main character.

But I don’t? And it isn’t.

The most I was able to put together was that Clare, our MC, had two really good male “friends” (most of the fifty pages I read were spent in laboriously drawn-out conversation with one or the other) who were going to be the spokes of her love triangle. That was clear. But the story opens with her desperately trying to avoid this guy, this awful, terrible guy, but who he is to her is not made at all clear. Eventually she mentions that she went to college with him and Dory (his wife) and Mack (??? except that he’s dead.) But then who is Dory? Why is Clare so concerned that she got back together with her husband? Why is he so awful?

I know the answers to none of these things, but I know a lot about drinking wine at four in the afternoon in a garden. The atmosphere is so folksy I couldn’t stand it.

Editing Notes: The Problem with “It”

Let me state, right up front, that I’m not suggesting banning “it” from all writing. There’s a reason it (the word) has its (the possessive) place in the English language. There is need for a non-personal pronoun to take the place of a longer word or phrase.

We clear? Okay.

Too often, however, “it” becomes a crutch, a convenience. How many sentences in your collective first drafts begin with “It is” or “It was” or “It seemed?”

It was sunny.

Okay, what was sunny? What thing or concept is “it” replacing here? The weather.

The weather was sunny.

Better, but still a boring sentence. If you judge this point in your narrative a good time for telling rather than showing, because you’re keeping the pace tight, you can stop here. If not, let’s take a crack at this again.

The sunlight shocked my eyes as I stepped out of the dim, dusty antique shop.

…or, you know, whatever your character was doing or experiencing that made the sun worth mentioning in the first place.

So there’s your first case of “it” problem: telling. There are times when a simple declarative statement like the original is the best choice, stylistically or in terms of pacing. But when you’re rewriting, look for instances of “it” that offer you a chance to enrich your setting or characters with description.

Problem #2: transposition.

It was hard to believe in herself.

Starting a sentence like this with “it” both renders it passive and puts the meaning of the pronoun after the pronoun itself. While this is a common and understandable construction–most readers wouldn’t quibble over it–leading with the meaning is usually stronger.

Believing in herself was hard.

Bringing the meat of the sentence forward, ahead of the verb, is the simplest solution, but again, this is a straightforward line edit; there’s further you could go.

Whenever Poppy told herself she had the strength to go on, she had to fight the constriction of her chest denying her a full breath of air.

This is another case of telling vs. showing, of course, and so another opportunity to turn an “it” into story-enriching action or detail.

Problem #3: straight-up filler.

She looked up, hoping it was a waitress finally getting around to taking her drink order.

“It” in this case refers to a shadow falling over “she”–I stole this line from my current WIP, #rockstarnovel.

So “it” is clearly referring back to something, which means it’s doing its job. But it’s also not necessary with an easy change.

She looked up, hoping a waitress had finally gotten around to taking her drink order.

Let the waitress be a person instead of a prop–give her a verb!

You could also say “a waitress was finally getting around” instead; while the tense of the overall story is past, the action the waitress takes is present tense within the narrative. That’s just a question of style–I think past perfect emphasizes the MC’s annoyance at waiting to be served.


There are more ways the insidious “it” can work itself into our writing in lazy, unnecessary ways–I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive list, and the problems any given writer encounters will depend on their style.

But in the rewriting phase, ask yourself this question whenever you see “it”: would this sentence be served better by using action or description in its place?

And when you’re down to nuts and bolts in line editing, ask yourself: can I remove or replace “it” in order to improve the sentence’s flow or make the meaning more clear?

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Fall 2018 TBR

Unread 2016 Physical Books

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Early this summer, I reorganized the bookcase in my reading nook. The top of the case became devoted to my remaining unread acquired-in-2016 collection.

Without saying anything to anyone about it, I made myself an alphabet challenge out of them–if you wanted to look back through the last few months’ worth of reviews, you might notice that the Mount-TBR-only books appear in (roughly) alphabetical order, with some letters missing. I’m on “P” now–not pictured (because it’s in a different pile, a more immediate TBR spot) is A Passionate Man, by Joanna Trollope, which I’ll get too soon, when I’m done with the TBR I’ve already set myself for September for various challenges.

The horizontal pile on the left is the rest of the alphabet:

  • 1 – Queen of Broken Hearts, by Cassandra King
  • 2 – The Secret Place, by Tana French
  • 3 – A Tapestry of Dreams, by Roberta Gellis
  • 4 – The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • 5 – The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett
  • 6 – Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

So there’s my first six, no problem.

Ideally, I’d like to get through all of these by the end of the year. Giving them their own highly-visible shelf, and setting the alphabet challenge up within Mount TBR, went a long way toward motivating myself to read these, when many of them have been languishing for almost to more than two years, depending on when in 2016 I got them. Either they didn’t fit into challenge categories (like for PopSugar) or they just weren’t as immediately appealing as their contemporaries, or even books I got in 2017 or this year.

For the first time since 2016, actually, my physical unread collection is smaller than my digital one. Only by a few books, and only since last week, but it’s progress!

From the others, there are quite a few possibilities to fill out the Top Ten, so I had to do some serious consideration.

  • 7 – Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. I loved Gone Girl, but maybe I’ve been nervous to pick up this one in case I’m disappointed by it. I should just give it a try anyway.
  • 8 – The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. I’d actually bought three Dunant books, used, before I read a single one of them–this is the third. Now that I’ve read and quite enjoyed the other two, I should make time for this.
  • 9 – Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. I picked this up out of curiosity based solely on its fantastic and unusual cover art; but until very recently, it held the distinction of the worst-rated unread book of my collection on Goodreads, with a measly 3.15 average star rating. (I bought a book, this year, that turned up with a slightly-worse 3.12.) Honestly, I’m just curious about why it’s so bad? Or if it really is, because heck, maybe I’ll like it.
  • 10 – Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Going by actual time on my shelves, this is the second-oldest, which means I should get to it before it gets any older. (Oldest is The Unconsoled, already on the list, and only older by a few weeks anyway.) It does sound interesting, yet, never quite interesting enough to be my next read spontaneously.

 

This Week, I Read… (2018 #36)

124 - The Trial

#124 – The Trial, by Franz Kafka

After the first fifty pages, I could see clearly that this story is a brilliant metaphor for the absolute ineptitude of governmental bureaucracy. I said as much to my husband, then added, “But I’m already bored. Does it really need to be three hundred pages long?”

He answered, quite firmly, “Yes.”

I see his point. The longer the absurdity that stands in for real plot goes on, the stronger the metaphor gets.

Of course, that comes at the cost of reader enjoyment, because my word, the stiff prose and silliness that engaged me at the beginning with that absurdity drove me half out of my mind by the time I was done.

Finishing this was an exercise in masochism, and I don’t recommend it.

125 - Saving Fish from Drowning

#125 – Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan

A book of massive contradictions.

On a page-by-page basis, I often found this quite enjoyable. By setting up the narrator as omniscient via being dead, Tan was free to dive deep into the characters’ heads in search of knowledge and emotion that the reader couldn’t have known otherwise. Some of the page-long asides about minor characters were interesting mini stories.

But that led to a disturbing lack of personality on the outside of the characters, who made few decisions and took few actions. Everything happened to them, rather than because of them. Unless you count absolute stupidity/gullibility across the board as the primary motivator.

Seriously, these idiots will go along with anything. Twelve people in an ensemble cast are all that stupid about traveling safely? Really?

Yet there’s a contradiction inherent in that too, because one of the things I did enjoy about the book, even though it’s not to my home country’s credit, is the accuracy of the portrayal of Americans abroad. The struggle between desiring luxury and craving authenticity. The arrogance and ignorance. The expectation that the world should cater to them, contrasted with the genuine humanitarian desire to help those they see as suffering–even when that “suffering” is simply not living by the same first-world standards, and not any real misery or squalor. (Though, obviously, the suffering is sometimes incredibly real.)

By the time I reached the end of the book, I was disappointed by my lack of connection to any of these selfish/stupid people (with the possible exception of young Esme and her puppy), and the movie-style montage “where are they now” wrap-ups for the major characters left me cold. Near the beginning, the tone was that of a comedy of errors, broadly winking at the audience, yet I never found any of the mishaps funny; at the end, finally discovering the cause of the narrator’s death didn’t satisfy me. I don’t know if this book would have been better if it had taken itself more seriously, but I wish it had tried.

126 - The Lace Reader

#126 – The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

  • Read: 9/11/18 – 9/13/18
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Pick It For Me Challenge
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A lovely, disturbing, and surprising read.

Some people undoubtedly read this and predicted the twist–I did not. The clues were there, I saw quite a few warning flags for troubled waters ahead, so I knew something was up. But the shape it ended up taking was not any of the half-formed then discarded ideas I’d left by the wayside as I read.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart, dealing as it does with domestic abuse and sexual trauma. But to keep those dark aspects in balance, it’s also got a lot to say about family, sisterhood both in the direct sense and the communal one, and making peace with yourself.

It did start slowly, enough that I was questioning the pace, and the heavy reliance on place-setting the narrative in a semi-fictional Salem, Massachusetts. Once I got past the first hints of mystery, though, I was hooked–I read from page 100 to the end in one afternoon.

Many of the questions I had throughout are firmly settled at the end, which I appreciate–but quite a few things are still tugging at the edges of my brain, asking me to put the pieces together myself. Which is great–I look forward to rereading it from a more writerly perspective to study the foreshadowing, story structure, and the skill with which Barry crafted a truly unreliable narrator.