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.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #9)

#28 – One Bed for Christmas, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 27/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: From my 2020 backlist TBR (first bingo achieved!)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It sets out to be cute and succeeds admirably, but it takes a lot of shortcuts to culminate a friends-to-lovers scenario that has a backstory over a decade long, which we only see the very beginning of. But the story leans hard on that first meeting and doesn’t do much to sketch in what happened in the twelve years between, relying on telling us that Wes has been in love all that time without going into their dynamics.

There’s a lot of telling anyway, because this is structured in a dual first-person POV format, so we’re treated to both Wes’ and Caitlin’s internal monologue. There isn’t all that much time to really differentiate their voices, but in a novella, I wouldn’t expect in-depth character studies. I think the overall tone of the narrative is relatively simplistic because of it, they really do just say how they’re feeling (to us as readers, if not always to each other) and it’s not terrible, but I guess I wanted a little less transparency and a little more showing through body language, tone of voice, etc.

I got this as part of the complete series bundle, and I like it well enough to keep going, to see if expanding the stories to full-novel-length fixes some of the issues I had with the writing.

#29 – The Ultimate Pi Day Party, by Jackie Lau

  • Mount TBR: 28/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Coming to this straight from the novella that’s first in the series, I had hopes for better character development with more space to let them grow, and I got it.

I also had hopes that the writing style might not be as straightforward–if there’s more length to allow for it, there might be room for more subtlety–but the narrative relies heavily on both leads doing internal monologue like they’re dictating a diary. If that’s just a hallmark of Lau’s style, I’ll deal with it, but I prefer characters who don’t simply state their relevant feelings every two pages.

That being said, the story here is strong. It sidesteps issues of power dynamics (as their relationship starts out as business) by putting consent up front in every romantic or sexual encounter; while focused on the romance, it also touches on the difficulties of making friends or maintaining friendships as adults; it presents an abortion-related backstory for one character in an even-handed, non-judgmental way.

I was impressed with the overall plot and I liked both Josh and Sarah. I’m happy with the inclusion of queer side characters, especially as I know one of them later gets her own novel (since I bought the bundle I have the whole series, yay!) If my biggest complaint is a simplistic style, plus the minor complaint of “yes, I’m a foodie, but even I don’t need to hear about pie quite this much”…well, that’s still a pretty good book. Looking forward to the next one.

#30 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

  • Mount TBR: 29/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A novel that stretches the conventional idea of what a “novel” is in interesting ways, which I give it credit for. It combines philosophy, politics, and story in a structure not at all based on linear time, and the author/narrator takes frequent breaks from the plot to expound his thoughts on life, sex, women, the Bible and religion in general.

Honestly, I should have hated it, especially because the central character is a sex-obsessed womanizer and the larger part of the plot (what little “plot” there is) focuses on infidelity. There’s a multi-layered irony to Tomas, who wrote what turned out to be a politically inflammatory letter to the editor, based on the story of Oedipus, that boils down to “There is no excuse possible for wrongdoing, even in innocence.” Yet he constantly commits wrongs and the whole story seems to be him making excuses for himself, exploring how he structures his worldview in order to continue living as he wants to live.

Meanwhile, at times Kundera as author/narrator takes time to explore the obvious artificiality of his own characters, being critical of them and pointing out that they are all, in some way, extensions of himself that have crossed the boundary between “I” and something else, something different.

Even though I find many of the quasi-moral/philosophical motifs put forth by this work to be disagreeable–even a charitable interpretation of this still leaves women as little more than sex objects, if not in Tomas’ mind specifically, then in the structure of the work itself–I did find it interesting how the narrative presented its ideas. In the end, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say I liked it either, but it’s not a book I ever wanted to throw out the window before running to the internet screaming, “How do people even like this? What is redeemable about it?” as I sometimes am tempted to by various classics or extremely popular/hyped modern works.

Though ultimately, if I met someone new and we got to talking about books, if I asked “What’s your favorite book of all time?” and they answered with this title, I’d give them the side-eye and wonder if that’s because they like experimental novel structure married to bizarre philosophy, or because they think sex-obsessed Tomas is some kind of wounded or misunderstood or even aspirational hero.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #8)

#25 – Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood

  • Mount TBR: 24/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Standalone
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I finished this out of half out of stubbornness, and half out of a desire to see if Atwood would manage some kind of ending that elevated this beyond the standard infidelity plot I’m so used to seeing from male authors. She’s altered it slightly by focusing on an open marriage, though the sense is that it’s open somewhat involuntarily. Elizabeth’s attitude is “we’re both going to end up cheating and we both know it, so why not be adults about it?” I had hope that would lead to something more complex and interesting that “old man cheats with younger woman” or any other basic construction that passes for literature if enough other old men like it.

Atwood’s prose hasn’t yet developed the beauty I’m used to from her later works, but I can see the groundwork being laid, and an early exploration of some of the themes about nature and climate change that inform those works. But it’s all set dressing for a plot that doesn’t deserve it.

I think my reaction to this book was summed up in the scene, late in the story, when Nate is once again making excuses for his wife, Elizabeth, to his lover, Lesje. She had a bad childhood, he says. Didn’t everyone? Lesje snaps back. Lesje understands that it’s no excuse for being a terrible person, and I agree; but this story is just a series of terrible people being terrible to each other in ways that aren’t particularly interesting, and what’s more, it doesn’t really have any stakes. I don’t require that the characters I read be composed of sunshine and lollipops, possessed of unerring moral compasses and spotless reputations. Reading about flawed people is more interesting, when the story gives me a reason to care. But this book never did. So what if Elizabeth continues to torment Nate or delay the divorce proceedings? So what if Nate never fully cuts his wife out of his life in favor of moving on with his lover? So what if Lesje always feels inadequate compared to the women who came before her in Nate’s life? The only characters I ever felt the barest sliver of sympathy for were the children, but most of the time the story treats them like props because most of the time, so do their parents. As a result, they weren’t strongly developed themselves, because their existence was enough to keep Elizabeth and Nate together for so long, because Divorce is Bad for Children.

Now, a female author I respect has also failed to get me invested in a story about infidelity, so I think it’s safe for me to say that I despise that topic in fiction, the same way I had to try eggplant in a number of different dishes before I could be absolutely sure I hated the food itself and not the way it was prepared. But I hate eggplant, and I hate infidelity lit no matter who writes it.

#26 – Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

  • Mount TBR: 25/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Five stars, or six, or seventeen, or a hundred, for the importance of the true story contained within these pages.

Negative five, or ten, or fifty, for the presentation. This is a well-researched but poorly written book.

1. The writing style is a bad match for the subject matter. The overly sentimental tone is better suited to cheap human-interest pieces in pandering women’s magazines than a nonfiction title, and I was bewildered by the inclusion of scenes written with such detailed stage direction that the people who enacted them–real people who actually existed–felt like characters in a novel, which is not what I want from my nonfiction reads.

2. There’s no organizing principle. From page to page or even paragraph to paragraph, the narrative might jump wildly around in time and between people, and rarely could I see any reason why that was a logical step to take. Often a new person would be introduced mid-chapter and their story told for anywhere from half a page to several pages before it was explained why they were important to the main “character” of that chapter; not everything has to be a big reveal! Just tell me why this teacher or that supervisor or whatever authority figure is relevant to the story, don’t make that suspenseful! What purpose does it serve to hide that information for so long?

3. When it’s not overly sentimental, it’s incredibly dry. Big chunky paragraphs stuffed with abbreviations that I’m not always sure where previously introduced in full, lots of time spent on describing buildings that I don’t really feel like warranted description, lots of dropping names that never appeared again and whose relevance wasn’t obvious.

4. While I understand that the three women featured by this story are both real people, and different people, their narratives are so similar, and written to be overlapping in the confusing and muddled structure of the book, that it essentially felt like I was reading about one woman three times over, and that sort of meta-repetition is not doing this story any favors.

I don’t want to in any way diminish the importance of the real events, or even how crucial it is that this story gets told; I can applaud the determination of the author to see it done, while also thinking the end product is lackluster and could have been so much better.

#27 – The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 26/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 60, just past 10%. It was a struggle to get that far, as this book dives right into some of King’s stylistic quirks I like the least. In particular, the main character has a sarcastic voice in her head that both won’t shut up in terms of frequency, and also tends to say the same thing over and over again.

Other poor reviews have quoted King on how this was his last/worst book before he sobered up, and yes, I think his altered state of mind probably had a lot to do with the quality, though I have to wonder if he was already too big in 1987 for anyone to bother editing him with the strictness this book might have benefited from.

But about the actual story, at least as far as I got? I’m tired of reading King writing about writer protagonists. I don’t like the way he spoke about Bobbi handling her unexpected/unexplained menstrual issues, I can’t quite put my finger on why but it seemed off to me, and that complaint comes up often enough in 60 pages that it’s an issue. I don’t particularly care if the buried object she found in the forest is a UFO or not–if it is, well, I’m way past my X-Files phase, and if it’s not (which I judge more likely) then I don’t have any idea what it is and I’m already tired of Bobbi believing it’s a UFO.

The whole thing was just so tiresome and repetitive. I have other, hopefully better, King novels still unread on my shelf, so I’m not going to bother any longer with this one.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #7)

#21 – By Your Side, by Kasie West

  • Mount TBR: 20/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: WTF plot twist
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Bland and easily digestible, but lacking substance. I read it in a single morning and the pages flew by, but by the end, I was definitely left wondering where the meat of the story was.

I was sold on the book originally by the premise–romance that starts from being locked in a library over the weekend–but once the lock-in actually happened, I was really left wondering how plausible it was. Public buildings have emergency exits that always open from the inside, yes? Am I just imagining that? Because most of the obstacles Autumn encountered trying to get out are at least somewhat reasonable–the library phones are in locked offices, the computers need an employee log-in to access them and Autumn’s no hacker–but public buildings have emergency exits, otherwise they wouldn’t pass fire safety inspections. So they would have been able to get out. Spending so much time making sure we believed they couldn’t rings hollow and was honestly kind of frustrating when I knew what an omission the book was making in order to let the story function as the author desired.

And that “library” hook doesn’t even pay off in a pandering way, because neither main character is a bookworm and books or book appreciation does not in any way play a part in the story. A copy of Hamlet is a prop for a while, but that’s about it.

Once I accepted that I just had to accept this premise as-is, I was disappointed that no one had much of a personality. Autumn was anxious and that solely defined her character. Dax was the loner she had to bring around. Jeff was the prankster. Autumn’s and Jeff’s friend group was populated by boring, forgettable people, with the exception of Dallin, who I think was supposed to be Jeff’s protective best friend (which would put his actions in a good light) but really just came off like a total jerk and by far the worst person in the entire story. Not everyone is a good person in high school, certainly, but I don’t think a side character should be the best-developed of everyone simply by virtue of constantly acting in the way that would most piss Autumn off. I don’t think this story is meant to have a true villain, but if it can be said there is one, it’s Dallin, and I hate him.

Not even the library itself has any personality, because despite the author’s note at the end saying it was inspired by a real place, I never got much of a sense of what it looked like, because every environment in the book was as painfully generic as the characters. Autumn lives in a house, and goes to a school, and sometimes runs away and hides from her friends in a greenhouse. The library is big and has a bell tower, but that’s all I can tell you about those places, because they have no memorable features and never created an impression on me.

While I give points to the story for Autumn having an incredibly supportive family, especially her mother who encourages her to take time off school for her mental health, I did not jive with the anxiety representation in this at all. Autumn’s panic attacks seem to end almost instantly, no matter how often she said to herself or others that “her brain and her body don’t listen to each other.” She longed to be able to control herself better, but from where I’m standing, she couldn’t prevent her flare-ups but she definitely could send them packing with frankly amazing speed, and the fact that she had them never seemed to alter her behavior in any way. Once it was over, she was fine, there were no lingering effects, which is not my experience at all, and comes off as “I have anxiety and it’s my entire personality but it doesn’t actually disrupt my life very much.” (The exception being “the big one” at the library, but that was in response to a shock, and clearly necessary for the plot to happen correctly. The rest of the time her panic attacks were nearly a non-issue.)

Everyone’s experience with mental health disorders is different in some ways and I’m never going to find a character in a book that perfectly matches mine. I know that. But this representation felt minimizing and shallow.

#22 – The Leopard King, by Ann Aguirre

  • Mount TBR: 21/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Black and white
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I liked some things, but not everything, about the romance plot, and was basically bewildered about everything else.

There’s a great deal of effort here in the world-building to get us to believe there’s a whole series of factions, of types of shifters, of inter-species conflicts. But there’s very little to ground them in reality, to give them a setting that feels approachable and believable. I wanted to know less about the politics and more about the people, because there were minor characters that were pointless to include, except to try to convince me the pride had enough members to truly exist. What was the point of the reclusive artist guy whose existence added nothing to the story? Why did Pru have such a large family if half of them were only names on a page? I’m not sure why I should care about this pride and its war, if the only members who seem to actually exist are the three involved in the romance’s weird love triangle?

Which was the weakest aspect of the romance, because there’s no doubt in my mind that Dom is a better man/lover/mate/husband/whatever than Slay (also, dumb name, btw,) and I was annoyed with Pru for being hung up on him. More compelling is the other shadowy “love” triangle of Pru competing with Dom’s deceased wife for his affection–which is properly angsty and not gross because it’s really only happening in her mind, not his. Dom is never a jerk about it. In fact, I like Dom best out of everything in this book, because I’m a total goner for heroes who are allowed to be in touch with their emotions, who show vulnerability, who admit their mistakes. It shouldn’t be such a low bar to clear in the genre, but Dom hurdles over it with plenty of air space, and compared with the lack of depth to nearly everything else about this story, he’s easily the best character present.

But whatever squishy feelings he and the romance might inspire in me, I developed no investment in this world and don’t really care which side characters get their own books later in the series. I have no intention of reading more.

#23 – Be My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai

  • Mount TBR: 22/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Free space
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

How on earth did so much backstory and character development fit into a 105-page novella? I’ve read several of Rai’s full-length novels and this seems just as strong as any of those (maybe stronger than a few) in that department.

The smut is properly smutty, but the sex scenes pull double duty as chances to peek into the character’s heads and get to know them better (as I firmly believe all romance works should do, because sex without characterization is just wasted page space, from a story perspective.)

Because I’m reading this long after its publication, I didn’t have to wait at the cliffhanger to go on with the story, but if I had been stuck there waiting for the second novella, I would have been making grabby hands for it the second it dropped. Luca is a charmer, and Elizabeth is wonderfully complex, given how little time we have to get to know her.

#24 – Stay My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai

  • Mount TBR: 23/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Good book, bad cover [there is a matching cover to the first novella on my Kindle edition, but Goodreads doesn’t list it, and that’s where I source my cover images for my digital reads; but neither cover is great, honestly.]
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A satisfying payoff to the first novella, though I was surprised how much longer and meatier this one was. If you view the two of them together as a single work, it’s about 300 pages, of which the first hundred is the first novella and the rest the second. So Be My Fantasy was effectively Act I of the story, giving us a good point to stick the “will they or won’t they work out” cliffhanger.

One aspect I think was stronger here was the fact that this is a second-chance romance, which I feel was skated over in the first novella. It’s maybe not as strong a use of the trope as I’ve seen elsewhere–these aren’t childhood or high-school sweethearts reuniting, merely two people who dated briefly (and chastely) as adults trying again under different circumstances. But that’s addressed as a corollary to the conflict of Luca and Elizabeth dating the first time as, essentially, a business merger, and how she is no longer willing to settle for that. Luca’s aim now has to be to convince her he no longer wants that, and I think that’s a powerful and appropriate motivation for his actions.

He continues to be a charmer, and I may have fallen a little in love with him myself. The dinner scene with his parents blindsided me with their charm as well, so I see why it was an effective tactic on Elizabeth.

I think I still prefer Rai’s more recent works, as Girl Gone Viral was one of my best books of 2020, but her back catalog is proving to be worth the time to investigate, and there’s still more I have to get to while I’m waiting for the next Modern Love book.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #6)

#18 – Not His Dragon, by Annie Nicholas

  • Mount TBR: 17/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Dragons or lizards
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

To keep myself from writing a 2,000-word essay about how bad this book is, I’m going to do bullet points instead.

The Good Things:

  • Cute concepts despite their disappointingly unfulfilled potential
  • Whatever other issues I have with the heroine, she is not a pushover to be bullied by the many, many “alphas” in this book

The Bad Things:

  • World-building so thin and scattershot that for a while I assumed I’d mistakenly picked a book in the middle of the series, not the first one, and earlier books would have explained the concepts better
  • A startling lack of realism, not in the world-building (which is obviously fantastical) but in simple, mundane character moments, where no one acts like a real person with even the slightest hint of common sense
  • Rampant examples of poor grammar, typos, and Random Things Being Capitalized Sometimes For No Obvious Reason (eg, “First Aid kit.” Really? Why is that capitalized?)
  • Shallow, underdeveloped characters with explicitly stated motivations (repeatedly, ugh) but no depth
  • Choppy narrative that details some things I didn’t feel were necessary to explain while hopping straight past stuff I might have been interested in. Notably, tell me more about Eoin’s artistic process if his art career is his central personal conflict, rather than hand-waving “he got angry and set a bunch of metal on fire and OOPS now it’s a sculpture.”
  • Insta-love based on mating attraction, which okay, fine, is common to this subgenre and for some readers might even be part of the specific appeal, but I didn’t feel they had any real chemistry, so even this trope fell flat
  • Characters who appear for ten seconds and are never important again (related sub-complaint: why is the only witch in the story named Sabrina? A little on the nose, don’t you think?)
  • Poorly integrated subplots that don’t really further the romance
  • Underwhelming sex scenes

Basically, the only reason I finished it was that it was on the short side for a full novel, and a fast read because the writing style was amateur. Part of me did want to know how the curse was broken, and that took the whole book, so I had to keep going. But I wasn’t all that invested, and about halfway through I did consider dropping it because I was not impressed by anything about it. I still like the idea of it, but it was badly executed.

#19 – In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 18/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book about bones or has “bones” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My favorite since the first entry in the series, definitely, though it’s hard to decide if I like it better or not; being introduced to this world was such a revelation for me that I don’t know if any later part of the story could truly topple it from its pedestal. If this hasn’t, it certainly came closest.

Several aspects of this work felt improved to me over the middle books, in that we spent far more time with actual dragons than with politics; there was more adventure (or the adventure felt more dramatic and palpable, because objectively I can’t deny #2 and #3 both had plenty of escapades); and happily for me, a certain setup I was quite hopeful about at the end of #3 was paid off beautifully.

It was refreshingly light on Isabella’s internal grumblings and ruminations on social matters–sure, there’s some acknowledgment of the misogyny of her treatment as a scholar, still, but there’s not much else for her to complain about for most of the book, and I found the late-story issues of cultural compatibility more interesting than tiring. I suppose I was more worn out than I realized by the emphasis placed in #3 on how to balance being a mother and a scholar-adventurer, and I was actually pleased by the absence of Jake, who was relegated to a boarding school for most of the narrative and was only present in Akhia when events where in summary at the end. His absence does raise one sort of uncomfortable question, about whether he should have been consulted before a certain (very spoilery) major event late in the book, but that lack does speak to how ancillary being a mother is to Isabella as a character, so I don’t think it’s a flaw in the work, but a result of her own flaws at being what her society expects of a woman.

The whole thing is really just tighter, faster, and more concentrated on what I find most interesting in this series–the characters and the dragons–rather than the politics, which are still present, but mostly in the background. Isabella even comments several times that other people are mostly dealing with the politicians, better capable than her, and I think that’s the best choice all around!

#20 – The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

  • Mount TBR: 19/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This might be the most interesting book that I have no interest in finishing.

I gave up at the end of chapter 2, page 49, barely making my personal cutoff of 10% to count a book as “read.” In those first two chapters, I was treated to a fairly deep character study of a dissolute man suffering a horrible fate, a man who showed no desire to hide the dark aspects of his life and made no apologies for his flaws. I learned more about burns and burn treatment than I knew (assuming it’s accurate, which for the moment, I am) and also, somewhat randomly, about the establishment of a German monastery.

I also endured several pages of that same character envisioning his future suicide in excruciating detail.

Am I supposed to be taking this book seriously? I honestly can’t tell.

While I was reading, I was reminded of a high school friend. He was an interesting mix of dark and cheerful, a sort of proto-goth who was one of the kindest people I ever met. But he also managed to write an essay on a state standardized test that got him referred to the authorities; I never knew what he wrote (if he told anyone, I was not among them) and don’t know the details of who he had to speak to (police, psychologists?) because he, understandably, didn’t want to talk about it. This was the mid-90s, and Columbine hadn’t happened yet, so this was worrying but not the same kind of alarming it would have been ten years later.

That’s what this book reminds me of. A smart, well-educated person with a dark bent who nonetheless doesn’t seem nearly as threatening as they perhaps want to be perceived, so you’re honestly not sure if you should take that threat seriously. (My friend did not go on to commit any crimes that I know of, eventually shedding that teenage affectation of darkness and last I heard, was both gainfully employed and happily married, living what’s generally considered a “normal” life.)

In skimming other middling or poor reviews of this book, I see that I didn’t even reach the parts that others find more objectionable, and many more positive reviews speak of a strong start followed by a gradual weakening. So I’ve read that “strong” start and find myself bewildered–at this point, if you told me this was parody, I would believe you. (I’d also ask, a parody of what, exactly? Gothic fiction? Too early to say.)

I’m stopping now because a) apparently this gets worse, and b) apparently it’s genuine and I should be taking it seriously. But I can’t.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #4)

#12 – Babylon’s Ashes, by James S.A. Corey

  • Mount TBR: 11/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Multiple points of view
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I think it’s a brave, interesting, and ultimately wise choice for this series to take an entire book to step back, broaden the scope of the narrative, and say, “This is where we are. This is how bad things have gotten. And this is how we got that way.” After several years, several seasons of slightly different story in the television adaptation, and five big chunky books, I was grateful for the returning characters and their contextually important reminders of what went before. I never felt like the story was deliberately summarizing past events to fill word count; there was always a reason, always a goal. But sweet baby Jesus, how long has it been since Anderson Dawes was important to the story? Thank you, authors, for gently reminding me how what he had done before still matters, and for doing the same with other characters we haven’t seen in some time.

After the literal explosion of Nemesis Games, this much more contemplative tone has obviously rubbed some people the wrong way, given what I’m seeing in other reviews. And this definitely did take me longer to read than previous installments in the series, the pacing was a bit plodding. But it takes a lot of ground–or space, if you’d rather–to cover the demise of one societal system to make way for something almost entirely new. To wrap up a war that I actually thought was going to consume the rest of the series (I haven’t read the teaser for the next book and probably won’t, as I don’t own a copy yet and don’t want to hype myself up too soon.)

But a fast-paced action-fest couldn’t spread itself over the 19 different POV characters (across 50 chapters, the prologue, and the epilogue) to give as grand a picture of every moving piece of the puzzle. That is by far the most of any book I’ve ever read, and conventional writing wisdom says it’s a huge no-no, yet here I love it, and it’s not actually as complex as it seems. Three “main” characters still carry most of the story (Holden, Michio Pa, and Filip, basically representing the three important ships or sets of ships.) The rest of the Roci’s crew gets a chapter or two where it will do the story the most good, otherwise they simply do their thing in Holden’s chapters. A few key figures from the past appear to give the perspectives of those outside the Roci–Namono/Anna for the consequences for Earth, Avasarala/Dawes/Fred for political maneuvering, the four entirely new characters who each get exactly one chapter but cover the goings-on on Medina station for us. Prax turns up a little bit to do his science, and that was nice to see, I quite liked him back in the day. Even Marco has his say, which I wasn’t expecting but am definitely glad was included.

While the umbrella of hard sci-fi still encompasses this entire series, it’s interesting to look at how each individual book tackles a different flavor of secondary genre, and in this case, it strikes me as going for the truly epic: this was trying, and quite nearly succeeding, at being as broad and far-reaching and complex as your Victor Hugo or your Tolstoy. Concerned with the big picture, always, but also always digging into the small things, the hearts and minds that make these decisions and mistakes that drive history.

#13 – The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 12/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Brings out the geek in you (yay botany! yay science!)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is a case of “I see some flaws in this book but I love it to pieces anyway.”

I usually don’t like miscommunication as a plot point, but here, it’s executed at such a high level, baked into both the characters and the premise, so I can’t begrudge it. Violet and Sebastien have based a scientific career on a simple lie that grows progressively less simple as time goes on. Violet and her sister have a near-and-dear type of relationship that is entirely based upon lies. And Violet’s relationship with her mother as an adult is founded on a misunderstanding so vast it fundamentally alters them both when they realize they’ve been talking past each other all that time.

This isn’t your garden variety “I overheard my boyfriend say something mean and now our relationship is over because I won’t confront him about how what I heard was obviously actually about something else or missing crucial context.” Which I’ve seen so often in romances that I’ve gotten to the point where I usually DNF books if they pull that nonsense.

This is something much grander, much more complex, and much more dire.

The flaws? All that lying, all that miscommunication, does mean the actual characters are a bit hard to get to know in the beginning, coupled with the feeling I always had that I was missing something. I was–I was supposed to be–but I’ve never liked that feeling much, because I hate people/books that deliberately want to make me feel dumb. (That’s usually the province of “I’m smarter than you and I’ll prove it” Old White Man Literature, and not something I believe Milan was actively trying to evoke, based on the numerous other works of hers I’ve read. Assuming authorial intent is a tricky beast on a slippery slope, but I feel safe in believing she wasn’t setting out to put her own readers down.)

I also found Violet inconsistent as a character in ways that her character premise didn’t cover. Did I expect her to be one person went out in polite society and another while she was at work as a scientist, doing what she loved? Absolutely, and she is. But she waffles even beyond that, in her hot-and-cold dynamic with Sebastien as friends-colleagues-maybe-someday-lovers.

Also parallel plot threads where both of them sort of inherit a child from elsewhere in their families doesn’t really feel like it was paid off in the ending. I see why it was there, I see how it was supposed to work, but it didn’t come to anything substantial or satisfying.

But I do like how well-established their years-long friendship is through small details, through anecdotes the characters share with others. And I love Sebastien himself, as a nuanced take on the rake with a heart of gold. When he has the conversation with Violet about how he’s been showing his love for her this whole time… *chef’s kiss.*

This series, man. I’ve cried more than I expected to!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #3)

#8 – Steadfast, by Sarina Bowen

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Person on the cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It started out well, but had issues as it dragged on, and didn’t live up to the promise of quality set by the first novel in the series.

I listened to the audiobook and found both narrators’ performances middling. I also think switching from text to audio between books (because this is what my library had available, I actually prefer text) made instances of word repetition much more obvious than if I had read it. It’s entirely possible the first book also had these but they weren’t as noticeable; however, it happened often enough to be irritating. (Once I think the word “away” was used four times in what I believe was only two sentences. Yikes. My ear definitely caught on that.)

But performance aside, the story had issues that don’t result from presentation. I love Jude. I love him to pieces. He always felt incredibly authentic, and I’m a total goner for grumps with golden hearts, and I found his pessimism realistic and not too despairing. However, I did not particularly like Sophie. She was vapid far too often, she didn’t think through the course of her actions, and it took her forever to figure out from hard evidence what I had figured out (plot mystery-wise) the very first time it was brought up.

From there, my next complaint is the sheer number of subplots. I remember seeing The Return of the King in theaters, and I knew going in it was going to be a long movie, but remember how there were six or seven “endings” in a row, each one tackling some aspect of the story that needed to be tied up? That’s what this book felt like. Jude and Sophie are firmly together, romantically, with their personal obstacles solved, when there was still over an hour and a half of the audio left to go. So then we have to get Jude a job, get Sophie a job, deal with Denny’s minor arc (which had basically zero foreshadowing,) have the huge blowup with Sophie’s father, shoehorn Griffin Shipley into the rescue (though I don’t begrudge the entire Shipley family their continued place in the story, that moment felt weird to me.) And then, when I thought the book was over, no wait, we have to awkwardly set up the next book, which echoed an earlier conversation during one of those Shipley clan dinners that I can’t believe I had to sit through in its entirety, because hey look Zara from the first book showed up unexpectedly and spends ten minutes talking about her life, completely distracting from the plot.

I prefer my setups for future books to be fair more naturally integrated, okay? Like Jude himself was. He was an important minor character in the first book, but he didn’t sit down to derail the plot for half a chapter pining for his ex so that I knew his book was next. Without looking ahead, I actually didn’t know his book was next.

And finally, the “mystery” was incredibly weak, Sophie was irritatingly clueless in pursuing it and I almost can’t believe her father didn’t find out about her snooping much earlier, and the escalation of the danger she was in at the end felt forced to me, even knowing her father was abusive. (I suppose it didn’t help that Sophie, in her childish and naive fashion, wasn’t really taking that danger seriously until it was nearly too late.)

This isn’t bad enough to make me drop the series now, and I have liked other Bowen books just fine, so I’ll chalk this one up as making a few missteps in what is, ultimately, a really challenging story to write–a drug addict ex-con hero finding the strength to keep going and reconnecting with his lost love. Jude is by far the best thing about this book, and I just wish the rest of the story deserved him.

#9 – The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman

  • Mount TBR: 8/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: First line is less than ten words
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

How can a book be simultaneously repetitive and obvious, and convoluted and confusing?

When I say “repetitive,” I’m not talking about word overuse, for once. (Though that’s present as well, lake, frozen, ice, lake frozen ice, lake-frozen-ice.) Early in the book, in the “present” timeline, a character explained to another character (and me, the reader) how lakes freeze and what overturn is. I actually didn’t know that, because I skipped the earth science course in high school and went for biology instead. But then, when the “past” timeline starts in part two, another character explains overturn and how lakes freeze to yet another character. Even if it made sense for those two to have that conversation between themselves, why did I have to hear it twice? Did the author expect me to have forgotten already?

The story is littered with doubled plot elements or tidbits of information this way, and if a past event is ever important, there’s a reminder when you need it (or even if you don’t) so that its significance on the plot doesn’t go unnoticed.

When I say “obvious,” I mean that my track record for figuring out plot twists ahead of time is generally pretty bad. I often get a feeling about something but don’t quite figure it out in time, only to have the satisfied “oh yeah” moment when the author wants me to. When a twist feels entirely un-foreshadowed I get annoyed or feel dumb, but when it’s done right, I don’t mind not putting all the clues together in advance. Here? I had 75% of them right, sometimes far earlier than I think I was supposed to figure them out–as many as a hundred pages in advance of the reveal, for some of them. There was a real lack of subtlety.

Yet, despite those two things, I also feel that in some ways this book was convoluted and confusing. The plot structure itself is a nightmare of intertwining timelines that didn’t flow organically from each other, and that repetition I didn’t like is baked into the premise, but since information about the deepest mysteries the plot holds is doled out in small doses throughout, the “what I think is going on” framework shifts a lot before it settles into “this person is behind it all.” And when put that plainly, it doesn’t sound like a problem, right? This is, at heart, a strange sort of whodunit, and usually those cycle through a few villain possibilities before settling on the real one. Only, there are so many small crimes in both the past and present, and so many people who are those villains. For one of them, it even turns out that the narrator herself was a perpetrator, and only the fact that we didn’t know about what she did until after it was discovered hides her involvement. Ugh, my brain hurts just trying to describe my objections to this structure.

Finally, I never felt like the characters were solidified beyond their basic premise. The school girls are mostly awful catty school girls. The teachers are mostly stuffy private school teachers. The narrator is supposedly struggling and coming to grips with her dark past and how it affects her present, but she’s mostly passive and reactionary, letting events buffet her from place to place and plot point to plot point.

For something I’ve often seen billed as like The Secret History, which I loved, this was a terrible disappointment.

#10 – The Heiress Effect, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 9/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Book centered around politics
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I think it’s fair to say that Milan is my favorite historical romance author (though I also love her contemporary works and was actually introduced to her through those.)

I’ve come to expect HR’s from her that are refreshingly free of the same tired tropes of the subgenre, where most conflicts are external/society-based and have very little to do with the actual personalities of the characters. Milan, on the other hand, manages to find ways to create interesting romantic conflicts within the bounds of society but not fully dependent on them.

Here we have a hero wanting to transcend the outsider status that shaped him, a hero that simultaneously longs for power to do good but has learned to play within the rules until such time as he can attain that power.

Here we also have a heroine whose outsider status is something she has turned into her own armor, along with her outlandish garb, so that she can deliberately make herself as off-putting as possible in innocent ways in order to avoid marriage.

Of course these two idiots fall in love. Of course.

Despite the promising start and the charming bonus subplot in which the heroine’s younger sister gets her own unexpected romance, I found myself slightly less enamored of this novel than previous entries in the series. I think it comes down to not liking Oliver (as much)–as his central internal conflict is that he absorbed the lesson of “shut up” at a youngish age, while the heroine lives very much out loud, he seems defeatist in comparison, less like a clever man biding his time playing the political game (which I think is the impression I’m supposed to have) and more like a coward afraid to go after what he really wants. And that assessment of him, formed during the mid-story separation between the two leads, was borne out by what he said in his big “I do really want you, take me back” speech.

It’s not terrible, but it did make him harder to like than other Milan heroes I’ve loved in the past. If it seems like I’m being harsh on a book I still gave four stars, it’s only because I’m so used to giving five to Milan’s works.

#11 – Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 10/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Character has a dream scene
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I went into this blind, not knowing anything about the story, and also not knowing (or not recalling, at least) that there was a movie adaptation. When I briefly skimmed other people’s reviews and discovered that there was, and it starred Kathy Bates just as Misery had, I began to wonder if Stephen King wasn’t setting out deliberately to further her career in the ’90s. Because of course she’s perfect for Dolores. Of course she is.

I don’t know if I’ll make an effort to watch the film now that I love the book, or just let the book stand on its own. Because it’s kind of a marvel. If you had asked me beforehand if I would sit through three hundred pages of any sort of fiction with no chapter breaks, told in one long ramble by a narrator, I would have said, “It could be good but I don’t think I’d like it.” And that would have been the truth. But now? I read the first 75 pages in one sitting without realizing, and I was still skeptical of the structure but I was definitely invested in the story. When I went to bed last night with the book over half done, I knew I would finish it today, and I did.

If I have any criticism at all–Kathy Bates aside, because I didn’t know of the connection then–it is that Dolores sounds an awful lot like Annie from Misery. They’re women cut from nearly the same cloth in presentation, even though one is clearly unhinged while the other had demonstrably practical reasons for committing the crimes she did. Dolores is a hard layer of ornery over soft, sympathetic underpinnings. She’s hardworking to a fault, she loves her children, and she once made the mistake of shackling herself to the wrong man as husband, and here she presents the story of how she fixed that, and why it didn’t also mean she’d killed her employer. That’s the premise laid out in the first pages, and 300 pages later I was still reading at top speed to find out what happened and why.

I was captivated.

I keep saying, to myself and my book-friends, that it’s a crapshoot or a coin toss or unpredictable dumb luck whenever I open a Stephen King novel, because I might love it, I might hate it. I really don’t have any way to tell beforehand, because some of what others consider his best works were low-rated or DNF reads for me, and vice versa. This one was definitely a winner, and proof that I need to keep reading his back catalog to find the good ones, even if I have to toss several others out along the way.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #2)

#4 – Meant to Be, by Melody Grace

  • Mount TBR: 4/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Character lets out a breath they didn’t realize they were holding
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Highly readable, very basic. It’s not even just that the tropes are worn out for me–romance writer suffers in the big city, goes to a small town to hide out/recover, falls in love–but that nothing was surprising or interesting. The slightly snarky banter between the leads had me smiling sometimes, but their physical chemistry felt forced, and the sex scenes were even more basic than the plot and read like a list of the most-used phrases for sex strung together in a row.

Occasionally it did feel like the story had something interesting to say about love or the writing process or closure–the scene I liked best was actually between Poppy and her ex, when he swings by for a “maybe we can talk through this and un-cancel our relationship” chat–but when the story did have a big point to make, it got on its soapbox and made sure the reader knew exactly what the point was with no subtlety, like the characters were megaphones for the author.

It seemed promising at first, when I zipped through the first 40% in about an hour and seemed hooked, but once the leads got together, things went downhill fast.

#5 – Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

  • Mount TBR: 5/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book where the woods/forest are important
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

If I had known ahead of time that this book was an expansion on a 9,000 word article on the same subject, I would have tried to hunt down the article instead, or simply passed on the material. My criticism of the only other Krakauer work I’ve read, Under the Banner of Heaven was basically that it was too long, too unfocused, and at the end dissolved into a debate about whether the subjects of the book were mentally ill or not.

While this book is much shorter in overall length, it’s still basically too long for its premise, it’s unfocused (with skittering time jumps in the narrative and many sections about people other than McCandless, including an entire autobiographical chapter on the author himself,) and narrowly avoids my final criticism, because Krakauer decides in this case, there is no debate: he flatly states McCandless was not mentally ill.

But in the absence of any medical evidence, isn’t saying definitively that he wasn’t as much a judgment call as saying he was?

I can see why this book is so polarizing, because many people come out of it hailing McCandless as a visionary who refused to let the world bind him, while others think he’s an arrogant idiot utterly lacking in wisdom, or cruel for cutting off his family, or any number of other uncomplimentary things. The text supports all of those interpretations, and what the reader believes seems to be largely dependent on their own circumstances and worldview. But my opinion of McCandless as a person has very little to do with my opinion of the book, because I do believe that Krakauer is mostly objective in communicating the facts of the story.

Mostly.

I found the autobiographical section about his mountaineering far less interesting, and when he went into detail about his relationship with his father and how it drove him to make the choices he made, I was deeply uncomfortable. The inclusion of that material changed the entire tone of the book for me, from a journalist writing about an interesting story to an insecure man projecting himself onto that story. It would have been enough for me if Krakauer had said “I was similarly reckless in some ways in my youth and that common ground is what made me so invested in this tale,” but he goes into frankly embarrassing detail about his father’s eventual decline and it was so out of place with the rest of the book, so off-putting, that I was relieved to turn to the next chapter and get back to McCandless’ story, no matter how grim it was. A young man’s slow death from starvation was actually less gruesome to me than reading Krakauer talking about his relationship with his father–I can’t properly express how disgusted I was by the tone of it.

I don’t read that much nonfiction to begin with, but I definitely won’t be reading anything more by this author. Whatever a reader thinks about the subject, the book would have been far stronger without the author inserting himself into it.

#6 – Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See

  • Mount TBR: 6/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: The second half of a duology
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

When I read and reviewed Shanghai Girls back in 2016, I stated that I didn’t intend to go on to the sequel. Of course, by the time this book fell into my hands at a secondhand shop, I’d forgotten my decision and merely thought, “Oh yeah, I read the first one, it was okay, I should read this too.”

I should have stuck to my original plan. Dreams of Joy is not a particularly good book in many respects, and while it does finish the story of this family, I found it to be even more full of misery than its predecessor. (Considering the amount of rape in that book, that’s really saying something. But this time, it’s famine, which is a different and longer-lasting kind of horrible.)

I’m almost ashamed to admit that the beginning of the third act, when things are at their most dire and the suffering is most pronounced, was the most compelling part of the book for me. The tension of wondering what Joy would do to survive and protect her child, and the resulting solidification of her character and her moral compass, was a pleasure to read after watching her waffle between her capitalist upbringing and desire to embrace the Party and its propaganda. (Despite the horrid conditions surrounding this character fulfillment, which were so detailed in some cases that I wondered if I was falling into misery porn and I genuinely feel conflicted about “liking” that part of the book best.) I did not care for Joy at the beginning nor through the middle, because her stupidity and inconsistency made her difficult to root for. And I know intelligent people often fall for propaganda, no one is immune, but I don’t think that covers her decision–I think running away from a family conflict and throwing yourself at an ideal larger than yourself is very different from actually believing in that ideal, and I don’t feel that internal struggle was ever properly realized.

Pearl’s POV chapters were far easier to wade through, almost to the point of blandness. There’s still a lot of the “I wore these clothes and walked down this street” filler that I criticized in the first book; obviously this is well-researched, but how much of that detail actually needs to be included? I suppose there’s the thematic argument to be made that Pearl is more unabashedly capitalist and thus more concerned with material goods, but that didn’t make it less tedious. Still, her unswerving devotion to her daughter carried her chapters well enough.

My biggest problem is the ending, though. Not that they all live–I’m fine with that–but how it happened. Basically everything on from Pearl’s new husband “sacrificing” himself in the art show altercation in order to get Z.G. out–why would he do that? Especially when it threw a serious wrench into their plans that required laborious explanations of how they got around their lack of the official papers he was carrying? (Because the story needed to reunite May and Z.G. at the very end, not because Dun himself gave a crap about the man. Transparent plot-before-character moment, there.) The last events were a grueling series of “we got on this bus then took this ferry,” and the section about Pearl’s long-lost father being the one to drive them over the border hidden in his merchandise truck is basically the same, beat for beat, as the car escape from Green Dragon village, right down to the little boy having to hide in the trunk/a barrel. Why did we have two nearly identical escape scenes?

I’d say it was disappointing, but I wasn’t really expecting it to be great. However, I don’t think it matched even the middling quality I felt the first book attained.

#7 – Most Eligible Billionaire, by Annika Martin

  • Mount TBR: 7/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Set in a major city
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I picked this up as a freebie a while back, and going into it I’d mostly forgotten the premise and did not refresh myself with the blurb. The first 10% was wild, WTF-is-going-on, “how on earth is this premise going to work,” and by far the weakest part of the book. Since 10% is my minimum cutoff to DNF a book but still consider it read, I was, in fact, considering it. I’m not a dog person, and this seemed too out-there for me, concept-wise.

But the female lead is a crafter (or a “maker” as this work prefers to call them) and that speaks to me. I told myself to ditch at 25% if I was still having a hard time, but what do you know, the story found itself and started getting good.

Really good, actually. Because the male lead is also a “maker” at heart, and the romance starts as they shift from enemies to colleagues-who-craft and bond over their similar creative spirit. Also, as billionaire romances go, this was atypical in focusing more on what that sort of money and privilege can deny a person, rather than what it can do for the average-Jane love interest. I didn’t feel like Henry being a billionaire was the point of his character, and plot-wise, the whole point of Vicky’s character was that she specifically wasn’t a gold-digger or scam artist and had to stand her ground about it.

Despite the book’s flaws, that’s a far more interesting dynamic that I’m used to seeing from this subgenre.

What are those flaws? I already covered the beginning being weak almost to the point of putting me off finishing at all. In addition, there are some pretty glaring darlings that needed killing (if I never see the word “blowout” again it will be too soon.) The most systemic flaw I can find for the rest of the book is that Vicky’s tragic backstory is hinted at too constantly for how late the payoff is, and her birth name, “Vonda,” becomes one of those overused darling words. Before I know who “Vonda” was or why she’s really all that different from Vicky, her name is used as a cue that Vicky is being more herself and less her current persona, only I didn’t yet know why, so I didn’t have any solid idea what that meant and why it was so significant. Which leads to my other complaint, that for all the banter between Vicky and Henry, this isn’t nearly as much a rom-com as I was under the impression it would be. The premise is goofy and their interactions can be fun, but most of the book was actually about really heavy, serious issues that were treated as such, which was not nearly as lighthearted as I was expecting.

That being said, the story’s not bad. It’s just not quite as advertised. I did enjoy it a great deal and I put the rest of the series on my TBR, so I can honestly recommend it. Just be prepared for a little emotional whiplash between the beginning and the end.