#37 – Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint
- Read: 3/4/20 – 3/7/20
- Mount TBR: 37/150
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that is between 400-600 pages
- The Reading Frenzy: Close your eyes and pick a book from your shelf
- Rating: 2/5 stars
A long time ago, at least fifteen years but possibly longer, I’m pretty sure I got a few de Lint novels out from the library and read them. I don’t remember which ones precisely, aside from The Onion Girl because I do recall that cover, and I thought, I remember thinking these were interesting, so why not give him a try again but start at the beginning?
So I didn’t know, when I picked this up from ThriftBooks, that it was a short story collection, and that’s my fault, because I was expecting a novel. But even taking my incorrect expectations into account, I was unimpressed by this.
Together the stories do paint a vivid picture of a place, a city, that could exist nearly anywhere in North America, at least anywhere many cultures have come together with their many traditions of folklore, mythical creatures, and magic. The world-building is the strongest thing about this; if I felt like combing through the book again for each specific detail, I could probably draw you a half-decent map of Newford. (But this is the age of the Internet, and I bet someone else, a more invested fan than me, already has.)
But though this city could exist anywhere it could definitely not exist anywhen. The combined vagueness and immediacy of place is not matched by an equal timelessness, because these stories are so incredibly, painfully dated in their language and details. How many times was a large cassette player called a “ghetto blaster?” How many musical references are there to existing artists like 10,000 Maniacs and The Pogues? How many characters have Mohawks? (Not that that isn’t still a thing, it is, but the hairstyle has an incredibly strong link with the punk culture of the ’80s.) All of the individual stories appeared in magazines throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it shows in the level of technology in the setting, but also in the language. Compact discs aren’t even abbreviated as “CDs” yet! So there’s where the specificity of an urban fantasy setting rubs the wrong way against the threads of magical realism–I wanted these stories to be more timeless than they could possibly be.
My second major complaint is the weakness of characterization. Everyone gets a physical introduction of a paragraph or two that covers most of the same details–it’s very, very important that we know everyone’s height and hairstyle–but the stories do little to flesh out personalities, being so focused on the magical aspects of the story. Even the characters that come up the most often are still fairly thin, built from tropes that don’t gain complexity through their actions–Jilly is a starving-artist type, Geordie a starving-musician type, and so on. I especially don’t like how all of the women are basically the same woman with slightly different looks and slightly different backstories. Jilly didn’t bother me in that regard so much because she’s the first one we meet, but the Hispanic waitress and the Romani musican lady honestly didn’t feel all that different from her, except the waitress used the most awkward forced Spanish in her narrative even while she whined that she had hung out with “Anglos” so long that she was losing her Spanish and could barely speak to her abuela anymore. Listen, I’m not bilingual, but I’ve read a lot of advice on how to write bilingual characters, based on how actual bilingual people switch between their languages, and this ain’t it. This is definitely a White Male Author writing both poor examples of women and worse examples of women of color.
And yeah, I know, this was more than thirty years ago in some cases and attitudes have progressed. Maybe his more recent works are better in this regard, but my interest was in starting the series from the beginning to get the full picture of his world. The world still seems interesting, but it’s populated by characters I can’t connect with. I won’t be coming back again.
#38 – The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
- Read: 3/7/20 – 3/9/20
- Mount TBR: 38/150
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book originally published in a year that is a prime number
- The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A bildungsroman
- Rating: 3/5 stars
I wish I had liked this better. It tackles grief in a way I’ve rarely seen in YA, with a great deal of depth of emotion, but ultimately, the writing style isn’t a good match for the subject matter.
Everything is too slick. Short sentences. Plain language. Talking-heads-style dialogue that goes on for pages without reminding you who’s talking, without showing anything that they’re doing, without interjecting any internal monologue or stray thoughts or reactions.
There’s nothing to hold on to for more than a few seconds, it all just slides right by. The text is so effortless to read that it’s easy to let it go right through you without leaving a firm impression.
That being said, this work does have a lot to say about the difficulties of being a teenage boy, especially in an unusual family situation, with the pressures of conformity, of grief, of unexplained anger. Salvador was a likable and sweet and sympathetic in his confusion about how to move forward. As a girl, I never felt the same brand of societal pressure to grow up and become a “woman” in the same way we push boys into manhood–society was looking over my shoulder in an entirely different way that isn’t a one-to-one correlation–but this story made me feel that pressure, that confusion, that uncertainty.
So this isn’t a bad story, or even a bad book. I just wish it weren’t so easily digestible, that it asked me to do a little more of the work to reach its conclusions, that it trusted me a bit more to engage with its themes.
#39 – The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang
- Read: 3/10/11
- Mount TBR: 39/150
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards
- Rating: 5/5 stars
I read this in one sitting, thank you, unexpected day off work. (I almost managed that with its predecessor, not from lack of trying.)
So, having read both now, it’s clear to me that Hoang’s romantic thesis, the core of both books, is the idea that anyone is capable of loving and being loved, if they can figure out how to communicate with their partner. A lesson she’s showing through romances between autistic and neurotypical partners, but honestly, a lot of NT people need to learn this lesson whether their partners are atypical or not. (A lot of romances, too, the fastest thing that will make me toss a romance across the room is a plot based on constant misunderstandings or an unrealistic lack of communication. Sure, it’s difficult to fully open up to a partner under a lot of circumstances, but when you can’t talk to them about anything? Not a strong foundation for a relationship.)
I’m leading with this because I love this thesis, this central theme, far more than I dislike any smaller items in the book. Is the setup strange and more than a little uncomfortable at times? Yes. Are some of Khai’s family going to great lengths to manipulate him “for his own good?” Yes. Do the leads spend very little time actually getting to know each other, despite having the whole summer together? Yes. So (again like its predecessor) I see the flaws others fairly level at it, but none of them detracted from my can’t-put-it-down enjoyment of the book.
#40 – The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan
- Read: 3/11/20 – 3/13/20
- Mount TBR: 40/150
- Around the Year in 52 Books: A prompt that failed to make this year’s final list (a book by an Irish author)
- The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Ireland
- Rating: 1/5 stars
I only finished this because of its short length and my own stubbornness. This is not a book for me.
First, in the “others think it’s great but I’m not the right reader” department, this is so heavily stuffed with Irish idiom and slang that there were stretches of the narrative that were absolutely incomprehensible to me. Like, I can look up words and phrases online to fill in a lot of gaps, but when Johnsey’s internal monologue or someone speaking to him goes off on a tear and starts using endless idiom and it’s all a long string of words that don’t make sense in that order to me and it just keeps going and oh maybe I see something that makes sense for a second but then here’s more slang and here’s more idiom and at the bottom of the page the paragraph finishes but I’m not sure what just happened because it’s all a rush and I don’t know how it fits together. For a finish.
It’s repetitive and exhausting. But I can see how it would flow for a reader who is far more familiar with the language. I can see the charm of the style, but only as an outsider who will never really “get” it.
On a much more widely damning note, Johnsey is one of the most boring and passive protagonists I’ve ever read. He doesn’t do anything. Everything happens to him. His father died. Then his mother dies. Then he’s beaten to a pulp by the local gang of bullies. Then he lies around in the hospital silently falling in love with his nurse, who for some reason gives him a hand job, thus securing his adoration forever. Then when he gets out, his hospital roommate starts swinging by, then the nurse. And all the while various townspeople are trying to get him to sell his land for development, and the newspaper is writing articles about him blockading progress by refusing to sell, but he’s not refusing, he’s just not doing anything. Then the weird, over-written and unsatisfying ending happens.
Everything happens to him. The only real active choice he makes for the bulk of the story is quitting his job when he’s in the hospital and his boss comes to see him, but that’s both out of left field and out of character. Johnsey just goes with the flow of everything because all his life he’s been coddled/bullied/told he’s too stupid to do things on his own. I understand that his history has built him to be that passive nobody, but that doesn’t make him an interesting character to follow, and honestly I don’t care for the constant conflation of mental disability, mental health issues, and violence. I don’t think there was any ending, happy or sad, that would have made me like this story better, but I can say Johnsey with a gun followed by a cute one-liner restating the title definitely wasn’t it, if such an ending could exist.
This ended up being just a slog of misery that I didn’t enjoy at all.