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.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #1)

First, I have one last review from 2020, because I was still reading a book when the review post went live that morning, I didn’t finish until just before dinner.

#180 – The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery

  • Mount TBR: 155/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Charming and absolutely lovely.

It’s been a long time since I first met Montgomery’s work as a young girl reading about our beloved Anne, but it was only in the last few years I’d heard about this book, the tale of a repressed adult woman striking out on her own for the first time and finding love. I knew I had to read it, and soon enough I found myself a copy, but I didn’t get to it right away.

I would normally say I regret waiting so long to read a book I ended up loving so much, but this was a truly wonderful way to wrap up the year, with its soft nature scenes and beautifully domestic happiness and message of living without fear. (Some fear of course is useful and rational, but Valancy was suffering a vastly different kind of life than I ever have lived, and she definitely needed to set aside the fears she had and break free.) I read this and felt content and happy and very slightly envious for that beautiful setting, even though I like my home just fine and I’ve done a lot this year to make it prettier, more cozy and comfortable, and generally more pleasant to be in. After I finished this, it was time to make dinner and settle in for the New Year’s Eve celebration, which for me included fancy beer and my newest needlepoint project, because dammit, it’s winter and I’m nesting and this book romanticizes the hell out of nesting behaviors.

I love it and I’m sure it’s going to be a favorite reread for certain types of moods in the future.

Now, we can get started on this year’s reads.

#1 – Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.

  • Mount TBR: 1/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: a genre I rarely/never read (sports fiction)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I chose this as my first read of the new year because it seemed like it might be inspiring in a way that wasn’t “Inspirational ^TM,” but really, as a “runner” myself, this book looks down on me.

My dad used to race. All through my childhood I was wearing old race t-shirts as “messy” clothes at home and gym clothes at school. He did a half-marathon the day before I was born, if I remember my family history correctly.

I didn’t actually take up running until my late twenties, and now, at forty, I’m older than my dad was when he had knee surgery to correct some issues from the insane distances he’d already run in his life. Despite me being merely a “jogger” by this book’s ultra-mega-elite standards, a tourist in the sport, I thought I would get something out of it.

And sometimes, briefly, I did. Sometimes the narrative would describe a certain state of mind, or the necessity of habit and how those habits can simply take over, or that feeling when you didn’t warm up properly and even though you’ve only run for ten strides your legs already feel heavy and unresponsive. I could relate, even at my dilettante, never-entered-a-race level.

But aside from those few moments of clarity, most of this story was a wandering mess with little holding it together. With every new chapter there was a strong chance the POV would switch to a side character who was either a) of little apparent importance, b) entirely new to the story, c) not obviously related to the main character’s story in any way. Sure, Cassidy’s girlfriend gets a short chapter, fine, I see her relevance. But an entire chapter devoted to talking about the dormitory building he lives in and its history? A chapter from the paramour of the football coach who was the one to push for Cassidy’s banishment from the sports program? Why on earth were those a good idea?

Also, throughout the story, I definitely felt like I was not the target audience for a number of reasons. This is a very male book, written by a man, about men, and pretty obviously (to me) for men. There are no major female characters, the minor ones are paper thin, Cassidy’s teammates speak derisively of women in general and female runners in particular (at the beginning when they’re all on about the pudgy lady joggers they pass in the streets, that stung, I’m a pudgy lady jogger.) I get that this is specifically about the highest level of running, which doesn’t include me. And I don’t expect a sports novel from the ’70s to be a beacon of feminist thought. But that doesn’t prevent me as a reader from feeling alienated by the categoric dismissal of my participation in the activity the book is about, while I’m reading it. One section in the middle details the freedom of night running through town, which depending on where you live and how your gender is perceived, is simply not possible for many people, because hey, it’s not usually safe for women to run alone at night. I had accepted that I wouldn’t be able to fully relate to the high caliber of the athletes, but I didn’t expect to have issues of basic safety shoved in my face.

If this book was as famous as the book jacket claims it to be, I had wondered why I never heard of it until a used copy fell into my hands at a sale. But given my experience with the online running community–which, no matter where I’m engaged with it, is much friendlier towards dilettantes like myself than this book is–I wonder if that’s because this work has outlived its time.

#2 – Seaside Dreams, by Melissa Foster

  • Mount TBR: 2/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 17%, page 50 or so. I found the first red flag at only 2%, but it’s disheartening to start DNFing books so early in the year, so I held on until I couldn’t anymore.

In the first fifty pages, these are the things I found questionable or objectionable:

  1. The physical depiction of women. One of the female lead’s friends is described as having breasts “like bowling balls” coupled with a “tiny” waist that eventually leads to a unflattering comparison with Barbie dolls. The protagonist herself is then described as having a decent body for “an almost thirty-year-old”–because women past 30 aren’t apparently allowed to have good physiques–and then there’s a lazy shorthand comparing her body type to two female celebrities (Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence) who I don’t really see as having the same body type, so the comparison isn’t actually helpful, and also who are generally considered pretty damn gorgeous, so am I supposed to think the protagonist is attractive or not? Because if that depiction is supposed to have a tone of “ho-hum, she’s not perfect but she’s okay I guess” but also saying she looks like gorgeous famous women is way off base.
  2. Four adult women whom the narrative unironically pronounces are “besties.” It strikes me as childish. I’ve heard women call each other that occasionally, but more often in jest or with a tongue-in-cheek tone than actually meaning it straight up, and here the first chapter is just littered with the word and I found it irritating.
  3. The male lead is a cop. That’s not automatically a problem in and of itself, especially as this book was published in 2014; while I might want to avoid cop romances more recently for their glorification/romanticization of the profession, I also don’t think it’s anathema. Okay, so he’s new to the area where his love interest lives because he moved after his partner was killed and he wanted to raise his son someplace safer. Okay, still mostly on board, the single-dad angle actually works for me. Then we find out his partner was black. The only character of color introduced so far–I’m obviously meant to assume everyone else is white even if their skin color is never mentioned–and he’s dead, and he’s a prop to motivate the white lead. This was at 16%, and I really argued with myself about setting the book down there, but I decided to finish the chapter at least.
  4. Which led me to the actual last straw only pages later. The cute cop and the commitment-phobic lady get temporarily misty-eyed over the picture of the dead black cop partner while the cop explains his reason for moving, then they’re kissing, then she’s getting an orgasm courtesy of the cop’s fingers.

What. Just. Happened.

I’m not shaming anyone for getting frisky–it’s not the behavior itself that I find questionable. It’s the timing. These two have known each other for not that many days, they were just out at the flea market together before this but she insisted it wasn’t a date even though she was constantly cozying up to him, and then first kiss leads straight to first orgasm with no buildup. AND when she offers on the next page to return the favor orally, he says no, because he “takes intimacy seriously” and she’s not looking for commitment. You do? Really? Is that why you finger-blasted a woman you only just met immediately after telling her about your dead partner? That’s “serious” to you?

The whole scene, I was reading and saying to myself, “Is this really happening? Am I supposed to find this believable?” So I’m not going to finish the book.

#3 – Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn

  • Mount TBR: 3/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A non-fairy-tale retelling
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A Jane Eyre retelling that may have crossed the nebulous border between “faithful” and “rote.”

I love Jane Eyre, but I have only read it once, several years ago, so I was not alarmed when I saw from other reviews that it was “predictable” because it followed the plot of the original so closely. What I remember far more than the basic outline of the story was the memorable character of Jane herself and her lively narrative voice, and that is something I felt lacking in this effort. Jenna is not memorable to me the same way Jane was, and while she shares many of the same traits, there is something lacking in her portrayal to endear her to me the same way.

I believe the genre grafting of sci-fi onto this classic was only a partial success. Many of the new elements are suited to reframing the tale–a rigid system of official citizenship to underpin the class system of the society being the most well-fitting. But while I found the PanEquist religion interesting enough in its own right, I don’t think it was a necessary inclusion for this story, and the question of humanity/cyborg balance on the individual level would have been better left for a work intending to explore it more deeply (as cyberpunk often did beforehand and even up until the time this novel was published, though less so lately.) The use of synthetic humanity to explain the source of the mad wife’s madness I don’t think has aged well, now that we’re in a time when technology is ever more entwined with medicine.

The first word I thought of when I went to sum up what I felt was different about this novel in comparison to its source material was “soulless,” which is unfortunate, given what I just objected to. But in a poetic sense if not a literal one, I think that position is defensible; this is a ghostly imprint of the original with a few new bits drawn in for flavor, but what it adds doesn’t do much to disguise what it lost.

Given that Sharon Shinn has been one of my favorite authors for just over two decades, and that Jane Eyre became a favorite classic several years ago, I honestly expected more of this, but ultimately I think it’s a bad match. Shinn is perfectly capable of writing both fantasy and sci-fi well, but adhering to the formal, flowery speech patterns and agonizing melodrama of Jane Eyre while attempting to create a shiny new sci-fi setting simply didn’t work for me.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #50)

#176 – A Kiss for Midwinter, by Courtney Milan

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I didn’t know I needed a short romance between a slightly grumpy and relentlessly honest doctor, and a determinedly cheerful but painfully in denial young society woman. Their banter made me laugh, occasionally broke my heart a little, and in general gave me life, watered my crops, cleared my skin, etc.

I also value this for being a Christmas-adjacent story without making “the magic of Christmas” its central tent pole. I found it refreshing to have this set in a time period where Christmas traditions were actually changing and the story could address, in small ways, what people thought of that. It wasn’t completely without Christmas spirit, but neither was it cloying or saccharine as contemporary Christmas romances so often are.

I’m glad I’ve come back to this series, because I so rarely find Regency/other historical romances engaging, when they’re usually focused on how external obstacles–the strictures of society in particular–might prevent the romance from happening, and after a while I don’t find that particularly interesting. Milan always manages to make the conflict about something else, and here, society at large isn’t at all standing in the way of Lydia and Jonas–their issues are entirely personal, and I think that’s a great fit for both my personal tastes and also the short length of the story.

#177 – Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 153/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I felt some of the same pacing issues were present here that I had with book two–for the first half of the wandering story I was anxious to forge ahead and find “the good stuff,” and then when I got there, it was over so quickly in a string of high-adventure shenanigans.

But somehow those shenanigans also made time for a brief examination of gender roles and nonbinary/trans identities–I’m hesitant to choose between those terms for Heali’i when neither are used in the story–and also the barest hints of a possible future romance. Whatever frustrations I have with this book, I was never on the verge of giving up the series, but if I had been, I’d still want to stick around to see if Suhail is the future second husband that Isabella occasionally refers to but never names. Their friendship grows organically from their situation and the hardships they endure together, but from Isabella’s perspective, at least, there’s chemistry between them as well, despite the numerous societal obstacles that would undoubtedly plague such a match. Not gonna lie, I ship them, Suhail was my favorite new character.

I’m less sure about Jake and his presence in the story. On the one hand, I like the slowly-growing rapport he and his mother are developing; on the other, I dislike that for large stretches of the narrative, Isabella seems to forget he even exists. I suppose it’s difficult to sympathetically portray a woman who was never particularly interested in having children as a mother, and benignly/occasionally neglectful is far, far better than actively resentful. But at times I genuinely had difficulty seeing Jake as anything more than a plot device, because the mere fact of his existence made his presence on this journey mandatory–Isabella goes into that at the beginning at sufficient length–but the story never really gives him anything worthwhile to do, and his governess even less. (The narrative also forgets about her for whole chapters at a time, and that lack made me miss Natalie as a female presence in Isabella’s life.)

Some of my complaints, both those detailed here and others too minor to mention, may be an artifact of middle-book syndrome, as this is the third of five in the series. The ending feels as abrupt and unsatisfying to me as the end of the second book did, if for different reasons. Yes, it’s the end of the voyage, which was the point of this memoir, but it’s as if she dusts her hands together and says “that’s that, then,” while barely devoting any time to the fallout, both political and personal, of her journey.

#178 – Back with the Stuntman, by Amanda Horton

  • Mount TBR: 154/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Yikes, DNF at 10% of the file, which apparently is stuffed with filler at the back end, because another reviewer says the actual book ends at 36%. So I thought I was reading 10% of the story but I actually read almost a third? Which just makes this seem even worse to me, because from where I left off, it didn’t feel like we’d covered much ground.

So I was immediately put off by the constant punctuation errors, poor grammar, and the tone of the characters’ conversation, which was flatly stating everything they’re thinking, to the point where they’re clearly expositing the story in a way that real people generally don’t speak to each other.

That was all before the end of the first chapter, but I didn’t give up yet. I wanted to at least meet the hero in the second chapter.

I found a serious red flag soon after the story switched to his POV. I knew he was a single dad from the blurb. What I was shocked by was that I was introduced to that fact in-story with this sentence:

“After the death of Shaun’s mom I wasn’t interested.” [in long-term dating]

So Shaun’s his son, I guess, but neither his name nor his existence had actually be mentioned prior. And I’m beyond horrified by introducing a dead woman who had some kind of relationship in the past to the hero, not by name, but by her motherhood. WHY DOESN’T SHE GET A NAME? And why, on top of that, is she only defined as the kid’s mom? Wasn’t she the hero’s wife, or at least his girlfriend at some point? Was she truly nothing more than the person who incubated and birthed his child?

But I kept going, and somehow it actually got worse. Not long after the two leads met up again in person after their many years apart, they have a reasonably good chat and feel reconnected–and we finally learn the name of the hero’s son’s dead mother, who was actually the hero’s wife, don’t understand why that wasn’t made clear immediately. At the end of the night, the hero gives the heroine a long “bear” hug (which apparently he’s “notorious” for) and gets turned on enough to just proposition her right then and there. I was disgusted, and fortunately so was the heroine, who got pissed and left. But he’s the hero! They’re supposed to get together, and he’s acting like this early on? I’m not rooting for this guy, he’s a jerk!

No, just no, to all of it.

#179 – A Duke by Default, by Alyssa Cole

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ll throw in an extra half star for solid adult ADHD rep, because I’m in a similar boat to Portia and only recently wondering if that condition is the root of my problems. And overall I feel like it was better than the first book, which I also gave three stars. But like the first book, this one also has a lot of problems.

I know very little about how peerage works in the UK in modern times, but even without a solid foundational knowledge, the sudden and nearly painless fight to get Tavish recognized tested my suspension of disbelief. Other reviews I have skimmed point out the flaws with this part of the plot in far more detail than I could myself, but I see it, I acknowledge it, once again the “royal” part of the “reluctant royal” theme is questionable at best.

I felt like Portia and Tavish had good chemistry, though the push-pull, will-they-won’t-they phase seemed to last a long, long time. I’m a sucker for a tough exterior with a marshmallow center, so I liked Tav well enough even when his excessive Luddite tendencies seemed unrealistic. Portia’s emotional journey sold me on her even when I couldn’t empathize with her rich-socialite attitude towards certain aspects of life. Their personalities weren’t the problem in this romance–the constant back-and-forth of the plot was, especially the accelerated pace of events at the end, which I thought was weak. Both Portia and Tavish flip-flop constantly about what they want (or at least what they admit to wanting) and their relationship devolves into a garbled series of miscommunications worsened by outside interference. The ending tried to tie up all those ends, but it felt abrupt and even slightly unsatisfying–at one point late in the story, things had gotten so bad between them that even though I liked them both, they were doing each other more harm than good and I almost stopped rooting for them, thinking maybe they really were better off apart, that the obstacles between them were too great to overcome. And if I’m not rooting for the couple to get/stay together, what’s the point of reading romance?

So it started with a strong premise and good chemistry, I got some bonus ADHD rep along the way that resonated with me, but it mostly fell apart by the end and I was left frustrated by a rushed conclusion.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #49)

#173 – The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 12/17/20 – 12/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 150/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I generally liked the “unreal” stories and generally disliked the “real” stories. I don’t think Le Guin is at her best when trying to stick too closely the real world–I’ve always enjoyed how she combines SF/F elements and her anthropological bent on writing to examine humanity through the “unreal.”

The notable exception in Part I of the anthology was “The Diary of the Rose,” which I loved. Other favorites: “The Fliers of Gy,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which might be my new favorite UKLG short story of them all, and unlike “Omelas,” one I’d never heard of prior to reading this collection.

So why didn’t I like most of the stories I didn’t like? The Orsinian tales at the beginning were dour and stereotypically bland to me–they read like Orsinia was a predictable extension of Western thoughts on Eastern European countries, but without anything new or interesting to differentiate their fictional culture from its real-world counterparts. That bleak tone also cropped up in several other stories, and I didn’t care for it. Another reason was that many of the shortest stories didn’t go anywhere, didn’t have much in the way of plot, and/or didn’t feel done when they were suddenly over. I was reminded too often of that “what the heck” feeling I got earlier this year reading Cloud Atlas when the first chunk of narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, because some of these stories felt similarly truncated and incomplete.

In a career so long and varied, I’m not going to like everything by even one of my all-time favorite authors, so I’m not particularly heartbroken, only mildly disappointed. And it’s possible, even likely, that coming back to some of these stories in a few years will change my perspective and make me appreciate them more, because I’ve found rereading her work to be valuable in the past. But overall, and right now, there seem to be as many misses as hits in this collection.

#174 – The Replacement Crush, by Lisa Brown Roberts

  • Read: 12/23/20 – 12/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 151/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I enjoyed the story overall, I also had a lot of issues with it. Call it a 2.5 I’m rounding up for Goodreads’ no-half-star system.

Vivian as a narrator could be irritating, but not so much that I ever wanted to put down the book because of it. Mostly I think she and her close female friends are a reasonable approximation of teenagerhood–they sound like teenagers to me, when half the time I read YA and teens sound either like ten-year-olds or adults, with no in-between.

That being said, I’m not convinced Dallas is a teenager, not because he doesn’t talk like one, but because anyone that accomplished in life by 17 or 18 (I don’t remember his exact age being specified, but he’s a senior, so that’s my ballpark figure) is not going to have social skills to match his feats of computer coding, cello playing, and the surprise “twist” skill that gets revealed at the end which I won’t spoil, but took me right out of the book for a minute. Vivian has a single teenage passion/hobby and a skill set based around it–she loves books, she works in a bookstore, she’s a book blogger. See how all those go together? While Dallas is handsome (in a nerdy way, which Viv never lets us forget,) reasonably charming, and he’s fantastic at everything he does, which when added together, is beyond my suspension of disbelief.

Compared with everyone else in the cast, major and minor characters alike, Dallas doesn’t feel like a real person. I get that romances can be escapism and wish fulfillment, but the rest of the book felt real (if occasionally over-dramatic) and Dallas simply didn’t fit, because he was too perfect. The only substantial flaw I could come up with when thinking about him was that he’s a bit argumentative, but a) so is Vivian, and b) he likes that in a romantic partner, so the story doesn’t view it as a flaw the same way I might if Dallas were a friend of mine in real life.

As for more minor complaints, I wondered for most of the book where the subplot involving the rock-star-in-hiding was going, and when it wrapped up, I wished it hadn’t been a part of the book, it was pretty weak.

This had its cute moments and I never wanted to throw it across the room, but by the end I was ready for it to be over, and I’m not going to seek out any of the author’s other work.

#175 – Paper Towns, by John Green

  • Read: 12/24/20 – 12/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 152/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The good thing is that I found the writing style incredibly easy to read, and since my familiarity with John Green prior to this is entirely through Crash Course, I’m used to listening to him talk; he writes in much the same way.

The bad thing was literally everything else. I hated the story. I didn’t like most of the characters, who had quirks in place of personalities, even beyond our Manic Pixie Dream Girl Margo. And yes, I’m still calling her that even though the story is clearly meant to subvert the trope. Margo only swoops in to radically alter Quentin’s life briefly, then disappears, which is usually the whole MPDG plot, but here it’s only half the book, and the second half is Quentin chasing her, even while realizing he had never really known her and placed her on a sort of pedestal. That should be better. I should like that more, I love trope subversions and deconstructions. But it led to an ending that didn’t feel satisfying, and somehow that’s the point, and I don’t think that’s a particularly enriching experience for me, who’s not a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who needs to realize that other people are actually people and not limited collections of ideas living in his own brain.

I could go off on a long tangent here about my relationship with people-as-idea-collections and the inherent inability to ever truly know another person fully, but my bent on it is almost always romantic, and that’s not relevant here, because the “romance” is only a function of the MPDG structure, and the ending demonstrates that to be a lie as well. I never expected this to be a romance so I’m not disappointed it’s not, but since romance is my preferred genre, it’s tough for me to get behind a story that’s basically it’s diametrical opposite, where the entire point is that no one falls in love at the end and Quentin’s “love” for Margo throughout the book wasn’t real.

Since the other major criticism I often hear leveled at Green is that his novels are all basically the same, now I know I don’t have to read any others. He isn’t telling stories that I personally find valuable.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #48)

#170 – Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Read: 12/10/20 – 12/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 147/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The rare two-star DNF review, for me, at least. I gave up around 100 pages in.

A few Kingsolver novels I love very much, and after reading those early, I started on her back catalog, which has mostly underwhelmed me since. I mostly finish them anyway–The Lacuna being the notable exception until now–but this story sat wrong with me on a personal level from the very beginning. I hate adultery in my novels, I don’t think cheating is inherently interesting as so much “literature” believes it is. The fact that our protagonist is prevented from following through with her proposed tryst by something doesn’t really negate for me that that’s her introduction, the entirety of the first chapter. I don’t really care how beautiful the language is or how much nature it’s got stuffed in it (two aspects of Kingsolver’s style I generally enjoy) if I can’t care about the characters, and me and Dellarobia got off on the wrongest of wrong feet.

Once the story moves past the almost-adultery, though, it didn’t get better. Her lot in life is being an unhappy mother, indifferent wife, and badgered daughter-in-law, and I never found any of that comfortable to read about. I have complicated thoughts on the status of American motherhood for many reasons, and I’m fully aware that plenty of woman out there who have children never really wanted them, but whatever about Dellarobia’s situation that was supposed to make her relatable or sympathetic was simply missing to me. I could not form a bond with her, everything about her story was just so unpleasant to read. (For me. I want to stress again that I know this is me not liking the work because of strong personal bias, not because there’s anything wrong with writing about unhappy women/mothers, there isn’t.)

And I’m just not going to wade through 300+ more pages of a story I find so unpalatable. But as always with Kingsolver, the language is beautiful and the details of everyday life and nature are vibrant and interesting, which is why the second star is there. It’s probably a good book for someone else, but it’s a terrible book for me, and I can’t be objective about it.

#171 – The Regulators, by Richard Bachman

  • Read: 12/14/20 – 12/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 148/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

All action and very little heart–if that’s even a fair criticism when leveled at “Bachman,” Stephen King’s supposedly conscience-less alter ego.

On that note, so long after the fact, everything at the beginning about Bachman’s “death” and “lost manuscript” struck me as silly marketing at best. I don’t remember exactly what I knew about King’s pseudonym in 1996–I have no clear memories of when I learned they were the same person, but it was long enough ago that I feel as if I’ve always known, though obviously that’s not possible.

But on to the actual content of the book, which was disappointing even without the marketing surrounding it. I loved Desperation when I read it earlier this year, and I actually didn’t know when I bought this book used on a whim that the two works were at all related, so I’m glad I accidentally read them in the right order.

The thing is, though, I don’t see how this novel stands on its own without Desperation propping it up. It’s not even a matter of Tak–who is far better characterized in this work, actually, than in the novel where he was introduced. But all of these other shivery doppelgangers of characters from Desperation simply never become real people. None of them have more personality than the author can shoehorn into a few brief snippets, a handful of details to transparently attempt to tug on our heartstrings before they’re brutally killed.

When it was just the paperboy at the very start, and “oh, look, he’s going to die a virgin” and never go to college and all that tripe, fine, it’s the first death, we know we’re not going to have time to actually get to know this kid. But characters drop faster than snowflakes in this novel, and the only one that even got to me the tiniest bit was the one who did a quick, so-called “impulse” suicide late in the story.

The huge cast makes it hard to keep track of who is physically where/doing what at any given point of the story, and since so much of it is action, that means much of the narrative is actually stage direction, explaining the placement of these twenty different people and/or their corpses. (Have I mentioned that almost all of them die? That it’s not at all an exaggeration to say you literally can’t predict who is going to bite it on the next page?)

As disposable as that made nearly everyone, I was most attached to Audrey, and to a lesser extent Seth. I have had very little exposure to autism in my life and I’m not clearly aware of how autistic people feel about their representation in media and what they’d like to see more of–but I don’t feel confident that “very special little boy possessed by cruel wannabe-hypersexual evil psychic vampire” is a good idea. Yes, this book is twenty-four years old, and yes, times and attitudes have changed, so I’m not calling for a boycott of Stephen King over it. But it didn’t sit right with me, either, despite the number of times Audrey vehemently spouts off about how much she loves Seth and how wonderful he is when he’s himself and not Tak.

The ending was…an ending. The book was over! And as unsatisfied as I felt about the necessity of having twenty million characters with no personalities just so they could die gruesome deaths for constant shock value, I felt unsatisfied in much the same way by the ending. I was mostly relieved it was done without really feeling it had any meaning. (And that shock mostly stopped having value when it was a constant state throughout the read. You just get numb after a while, especially when no one is worth investing in.)

#172 – Bittersweet, by Sarina Bowen

  • Read: 12/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 149/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Well, I sat down and read this in nearly one sitting on a snowy morning. Would you believe that the only break I took was to make myself a fancy-ish egg sandwich on an English muffin for lunch? Because this book was so “foodie” that it made me want to bake, cook, and generally stop doing myself a disservice by snacking on whatever instead of eating solid meals. (Which I have a tendency to do on low-energy days.)

I could seriously bake a pie right now. I have a pie crust in my freezer leftover from Thanksgiving. I just might do it.

But enough about how inspiring the book was to my inner food nerd. It was actually a really sweet love story too! I can be leery sometimes of the big city girl/rural guy dynamic, but that’s not quite accurate to this situation, because Audrey isn’t some high-powered corporate bitch who needs a little country in her to relax (that’s actually probably a fair assessment of her man-hating mother, actually, I just caught on to that, which I hope is a deliberate nod to the stereotype.)

I was completely sold on her chemistry, both physical and emotional, with Griffin, who was just the right amount of grumpy for my tastes. They laughed a ton together, they talked about things that mattered, they had real external conflicts, I just sailed right through this story like a hot knife slicing butter. (Okay, yeah, there are a lot of food metaphors, obviously, which took a little getting used to, but I didn’t mind.)

The family/minor characters were vivid enough for their place in the story without overshadowing the main couple, and bonus: it wasn’t immediately obvious who was being set up for the next installment in the series. I was actually surprised when I got to the end matter and it said Jude is up next! That genuinely makes me want to keep going with the series, on top of enjoying this book on its own merits so much.

If I seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise, I’m not, I guess I’m just not used to articulating what I like about good romances, with as much time as I spend criticizing bad ones, because I have high standards. But I see my first and only previous Bowen novel (from three years ago, yikes) got four stars from me, and I have several more on the TBR, so at this point, consider me an interested reader looking to read more and become a real fan!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #46)

#166 – The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 11/25/20 – 11/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 143/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I bought this several years ago as a boxed set with the similar short-story anthology, and since then, I’ve actually read most of these novellas as part of other sources: when I sat down to tackle this monster of a collection, it turned out only three of the thirteen novellas were new to me. Between Tales of Earthsea which I own, and my 2018 reading of the entire primary Hainish Cycle, which includes several anthologies, I had most of this book covered.

So it was the first three stories I read, and of those three, I only really liked the first one, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” “Buffalo Gals” was okay, but a departure in some ways from the usual Le Guin oeuvre, tackling Native American-style folklore. “Hernes” I absolutely did not like, because it felt disjointed and strange with all that time- and character-hopping, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get the point of it.

As for the rest, well, to get an overall rating I blended together my memories of Tales and how much I liked it, and my more recently read and reviewed works that provided stories for these, balanced against my lackluster reception of the three “new” novellas and the simple weirdness of including two previous anthologies nearly wholesale in this one. (I’m also mystified that “Buffalo Gals” and “The Matter of Seggri” are included in both this novella anthology and the short-story one, when they’re clearly intended to be a matched set. Possibly others as well, I only skimmed the table of contents out of curiosity and didn’t notice others, which doesn’t mean they’re not there.)

#167 – Secrets in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews

  • Read: 11/30/20 – 12/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 144/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I haven’t read any V.C. Andrews since I was a teenager more than twenty years ago, but this is much, much, much worse than I remember her work being. Granted, I’m older and presumably wiser, and I definitely have a much better sense of story than I used to.

What was the point of this book? There’s no resolution to the ending, no emotional catharsis. It’s just over, and then there’s a baby coming, and what meaning am I supposed to get from any of this?

I’m disappointed by the conclusion I’ve drawn, that Karen was an unhinged liar and murderer the whole time. Because she’s shown to have lied substantively to everyone in the rest of the cast at some point or other, her “best friend” included, absolutely nothing she ever said about her home life can be trusted, which means her sob story that could have proven her homicide was justifiable goes out the window. Her treatment of the narrator goes well beyond “unreliable” story status straight into manipulative–I’d like to think I wouldn’t be stupid enough to almost sleep with a boy I knew my best friend had slept with, just because she wanted us to “share everything.” But Zipporah goes right along with the plan until it’s almost too late.

My takeaway from the story is that seems like the author really wanted to write a book about someone hiding in an attic, judging by the frequency of the Anne Frank references, which I found to be in poor taste. Yes, she’s the most famous attic-dweller in our collective consciousness, but she was hiding from Nazi persecution, not from the consequences of killing her stepfather. Do those situations seem equivalent to you? Because they don’t to me.

Early on, the only good thing I could say about the story was that it did feel like it captured what I remember most about being a teenager–the confusion, the balancing of different identities between home and school and friends, the naivete of sometimes trusting the wrong people. But whatever points I can give it for realistic depiction of that stage of life are completely negated by the ultimate pointlessness of the entire plot. Nothing meaningful happens, nobody seems to learn from their mistakes, and the surprise baby doesn’t tie up narrative threads the way the author seems to think it does.

I’m glad the writing style was simplistic to the point of near mindlessness, because at least that meant this terrible story was a quick read and I can move on.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #45)

#164 – Rose Madder, by Stephen King

  • Read: 11/20/20 – 11/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 141/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve had this exact experience before with a King novel–I’m invested in the characters, the plot is unfolding at a reasonable pace, and I’m impressed with the sensitivity he’s (mostly) treating his female main character with. Then, BAM! SUPERNATURAL STUFF! THAT I REALLY DON’T LIKE!

Because I didn’t. I did not one bit care for any of the supernatural trappings of this novel. I’ve read into-a-painting (or sometimes, out-of-a-painting) novels before across several genres, and I don’t feel this did anything interesting with the concept, especially since it was wrapped up in a combination of Dark Tower references and warped Greek mythology. Why is the bull–the “beast,” the antagonist, the evil evil bad man–named Erinyes? Which is the collective name of the Furies, female creatures who take vengeance on wrongdoing men? Because if we’re trying to de-gender the idea of the Furies so it can apply to Norman, who is presumably twisted by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (whose face he has not forgotten, by the way), and that’s why Rose has to be so careful in the denouement not to let Norman’s abuse of her create another monster–um, breaking the cycle of abuse is one thing, but he is clearly the object of vengeance in this story, not the purveyor of it. If that’s what King was trying to do, I don’t think it’s successful, and by the end I really just wanted this to be an un-supernatural book that dealt with the purely human horrors of abuse, because that story would stand fine on its own two legs without the painting.

Because I did like the rest of it! Normal was horrible, but he was interesting. Rose was a better female protagonist than I expect from many male authors (especially considering this came out in the mid-’90s) and the “all cops are bastards” tone of Rose’s early fears was incredibly topical, if narrowly focused on her own problems rather than society’s ills, considering what’s happening in the year of our Lord 2020. Yes, there is a “good” cop character who promises to catch the “bad” cop, but a) he doesn’t because of other plot shenanigans, and b) his role in the story is incredibly minor.

Also, circling back to me liking characters, Bill was awkwardly and adorably charming, and I love him, and I was rooting for him and Rose the whole time. I never expect and don’t usually get a romantic subplot from any given King novel, so I was pleased by this one.

But I’m so frustrated by how little I enjoyed the supernatural elements that overall this is just a middlingly good book for me.

#165 – Screw Up, by Alexis Wilder

  • Read: 11/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 142/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 28%. I had a long, detailed, angry review written and briefly posted on Goodreads, but I deleted it almost immediately. Last time I posted a review that vitriolic, it got me into a little hot water, which is not stress I need in my life right now, so I’m going to learn from my mistake and not do it again.

So we’re going to keep this one simple. The bisexual character who was introduced just before I dropped the book was three harmful stereotypes in a trench coat, and that made me mad, and I wasn’t really enjoying it anyway for other reasons (poor editing and a lewd narrative voice that didn’t appeal to me, being the main two.) So I’m not finishing the book.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #42)

#155 – Sell Out, by Tammy L. Gray

  • Read: 10/29/20 – 10/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 133/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 44%. Partly because I didn’t realize this was a Christian romance when I purchased it many moons ago, and when it started getting preachy, I felt relieved to have a solid reason to set it aside when I wasn’t enjoying it.

Writing style gripes: Overuse of similes made all the characters sound dramatic, which is not something this narrative needed–it’s already melodramatic enough because of its subject matter. The “chapters”–if you can even call them that–were short and choppy, switching between POVs sometimes as quickly as every two pages, to the point some “chapters” didn’t even feel like a complete scene.

Character gripes: I never got invested because these are all flat people with little personality. And in Cody and Skylar’s case, specifically, what little personality they were given was “pretentious jerk about music.” How dare somebody like anything that’s ever been played on the radio? My name is Cody and I can only listen to music I feel is properly “obscure” and underappreciated because I value obscurity for its own sake and think that makes me cool. Sure, people like that exist in real life, and in real life, I don’t like them either because they judge me for having a Savage Garden phase or listening to the Foo Fighters. I love music. I adore music. And this book was projecting judgment of me for loving music in the “wrong” way, every time one of the characters talked about it.

Plot gripes: ….what plot? Whatever narrative through-line there was supposed to be was not particularly obvious to me when I gave up just short of halfway through. Since I found this marketed as a romance, I assume Cody and Skylar eventually triumph over Evil High School Drama and get together, but at 44% their “romance” is barely started, and most of the events that have happened are typical Evil High School Drama, making sure we know precisely how Evil everyone is, and how awful bullying is (but also making sure to point out that adults are useless and won’t help you so I guess you better handle all your life issues on your own, and/or pray about it, because teachers? the principal? no help there.) But it all felt mostly formless, directionless.

I didn’t find anything to like about this book.

#156 – Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 10/30/20 – 11/2/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by the same author who wrote one of your best reads in 2019 or 2018
  • Mount TBR: 134/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I had no idea the stakes would be raised so high in this installment of the series. I got to the midpoint climax and was so shocked, so anxious, that I had to set the book down before I gave myself a panic attack. I washed a sinkful of dishes and played around with my art journal for a while to calm down.

I know I gave the first three books five stars, but this is a bonkers six-star book. I honestly thought, when the early chapters were splitting up the crew on seemingly unimportant personal errands, that this was going to be a disappointing story, and I could not have been more wrong. Everything quickly goes tense, then it gets worse, then we have four different stories of survival against insane odds while trying to reunite our scattered crew.

And all the while, the mystery of what the protomolecule is quietly doing offscreen ticks along in the background as more human-focused events take their toll on the solar system. The epilogue only ratchets up that mystery.

I usually don’t care about spoilers in my reviews, but with the TV adaptation of this chunk of the story dropping in just over a month, I don’t want to reveal anything more than the vague upheaval I’ve already mentioned, so instead I want to talk about Amos. In previous reviews I’ve said Avasarala is my favorite character, and for large values of “favorite” that’s still true. (And she’s only got a minor role here but is still in top form.) But I’ve always loved Amos, first because he gets all the best one-liners, and as a show-watcher first, I was impressed with the actor’s performance. But this chunk of the series manages to reveal some, but not all, of his backstory on Earth while also pitting him against unlikely odds mostly on his own–he doesn’t have Naomi or Holden there to be his moral compass. Because we’ve known that all along, that Amos is staunchly amoral and deliberately chooses someone to serve as his external conscience. But here we really explore that, and his (relative) solitude creates a different version of himself, one that we’ve only seen glimpses of, a version that I found both incredibly compelling and downright fascinating.

So now Amos is my “favorite” character, as much as I can say I only have one. I was also glad/surprised to see some familiar faces reappearing, as well as finally meeting Drummer in the books, where she’s been in the show much longer. Her role here was so minor I’m wondering why it was expanded to the point where she replaced Havelock; maybe book six will tell me more about her, because I do like her in the show just fine.

I’m excited enough to want to soldier right on, but a) I think watching the upcoming season of the show will help me better understand the gravity of everything that’s just changed (even with any changes/omissions the show makes) and b) I’ve got a reading list to finish by the end of the year, and more Expanse sadly isn’t on it. Maybe if I finish early. Maybe as a Christmas present to myself. We’ll see.

#157 – Forever Buckhorn, by Lori Foster

  • Read: 11/2/20 – 11/3/20
  • Mount TBR: 135/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

So here’s the deal. I picked this (and like, four or five other Lori Foster paperbacks) up at a used book sale. I saw the author name, I’d heard her recommended, I said “sure why not these are like ten cents each because it’s a bag sale.”

Which means I did not realize several of them, including this one, were reprints and doublings-up of shorter, older novels. Gabe and Jordan were both originally published in 2000.

And boy, does it show. I would argue that the noun “female” was never a good way to refer to an adult woman, but this was before the incels (and others) had truly corrupted it, so I was basically cringing at the heroes (Gabe more than Jordan) constantly referring to this “female” and that “female.” Not the author’s fault (not mostly, anyway) but it made this more unpleasant than it perhaps needed to be.

My criticisms of both novels are basically the same. Too short to be well-developed in either plot or character, and to provide a believable build up from meeting to happily ever after. Too focused on making sure we know the heroine is “barely pretty” until the hero realizes “wait actually I love her so she’s beautiful.” Too weird a mashup of wholesome small-town/brother/family romance tropes, right alongside both men instantly becoming raging horndogs the second they see womanly flesh on display. They both read as half-crazed and get physical with their love interests way earlier in the plot than I was comfortable with (especially Jordan, who kisses Georgia in the back of a sherriff’s cruiser the night they met when she clearly doesn’t like or trust him yet, and also one or both of them might or might not be about to get arrested. Nothing says romance like criminal charges!)

In the end, I’d give Gabe two stars and Jordan only one, because I did. not. like. the way Georgia’s sex work was handled both as a plot point and in Jordan’s reaction to it early on. He was a sleazeball who had no problem condescending to her about her dancing ten minutes after he’d spent an entire song drooling over her, so I was definitely not into his towering hypocrisy and did not believe they could ever be a believable couple. Eventually they were a couple at least, but I don’t think it was that believable…

Also, based on how bad these are, I’m purging the rest of this author’s work from my TBR. Maybe her style has improved or changed with the times and her stuff is better now, but everything I bought is older and likely to be more of the same thing I got here.

#158 – Dreams of a Dark Warrior, by Kresley Cole

  • Read: 11/3/20 – 11/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 136/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Considering I haven’t read the first nine books in the series, this was surprisingly readable. There was a brief explanation of the major types of immortals at the beginning, so that I could get my bearings, though obviously I would have understood more and been more invested if I hadn’t randomly jumped into an established universe so late.

That’s what happens when you spot a book by an author you’ve heard about at a book sale, and it just happens to be #10 instead of #1.

Setting aside the stuff I didn’t know but was clearly my fault for not knowing, I followed this pretty well. I do question why this plot needed to be just over five hundred pages, because a lot of the action seemed to take up too much space, but then so did the constant angst involved in the romance.

Declan is too angsty for my personal taste, but his history more than justifies his personality, and I guess we needed five hundred pages to spread out his arc from “insane hatred of immortals” to “some types of them aren’t entirely evil and I LOVE THIS PARTICULAR ONE.” The hurt/comfort dynamic layered on top of immortal/reincarnated mortal lovers was *chef’s kiss* to me, even if I didn’t fully get everything surrounding it. Which made up a great deal for me not always liking Declan, and not always liking Regin either–sometimes her crude sass was hilarious, and sometimes it fell entirely flat for me, with no real way to predict which jokes would land and which wouldn’t.

So, for a random book by an author I hadn’t tried yet, this was a reasonable success. I’m not sure whether that means I’ll go back to the beginning of this series and find out what’s going on, or if I’ll simply try another series altogether, but I would read more either way.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #41)

#153 – Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King

  • Read: 10/22/20 – 10/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a place name in the title
  • Mount TBR: 131/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

For most of the first half of this book, I was enthralled and convinced it was going to be a five-star read. Though this came earlier, in many ways it reminded me strongly of Under the Dome, which I read several years ago and LOVED. Stephen King likes to put small towns through absolute hell, and I’m here for it.

Ultimately, though, this had issues I couldn’t ignore.

While I don’t mind a large cast of characters in general, this one felt too big, the subplots surrounding them too repetitive. At first I was intrigued by the mini-portraits of these flawed people, any one of whom could have been the focus of a much more developed character study, some of whom could even be the protagonist of their own novel. But others were less interesting, and eventually the pattern of “goes to the shop, gets hypnotized, makes a deal with the devil” simply got old, especially when we had a parade of truly minor characters doing it in addition to the main ensemble. Did we need to see so many people wander into Gaunt’s lair and hear the specifics of their agreements? Could we not have glossed over any of them to pick up the pace?

Also, I found the end incomplete and less than ideal. In the final act, after being a non-issue for most of the book, the Casino Nite Catholic/Baptist rivalry escalated into an all-out brawl, and I simply wasn’t invested in it enough to enjoy the amount of space it took up, because none of the primary cast (even as large as it was) were involved. It was filler-disaster, to add to the body count, but it wasn’t gripping compared to how much I wanted to know what was happening to Alan and Polly. (I did read The Dark Half prior to this, by chance, not knowing Sheriff Alan Pangborn was going to have a starring role in a later book. It was nice to see him again, and I like him better now. TDH was only an “okay” book for me.) The very end itself was not to my taste, making a near deus ex machina out of Alan’s idle habit of magic tricks, and cutting off without any insight into what will happen to the town in the wake of dozens of its citizens dying in a single day. The denouement I was hoping would explain even a little bit, show even the tiniest hint of the rebuilding process beginning, simply wasn’t there–hard cut to a brief epilogue that mirrors the opening and implies Gaunt has moved on to victimize another town. I don’t object to that aspect of it–of course he did–but the complete absence of any resolution, any aftermath to the destruction he left behind, was unsatisfying to me.

Did I mostly enjoy it? Yes. Am I glad I read it? Also yes. Did it stick the landing? Not really. Maybe I’ll like it better down the road when I get around to rereading it–I often do with King novels.

#154 – An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, by Annejet van der Zijl

  • Read: 10/27/20 – 10/29/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in the 1920s
  • Mount TBR: 132/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I sometimes have this problem with fiction, but never before with nonfiction: this work has a name in the title, but it’s not about that person. Allene Tew is our nominal protagonist, so to speak, but very little in this tale is actually about her, instead following the lives of her husbands, children, ex-husbands, “adopted” children, and in some cases, her husbands’ or ex-husbands’ friends.

Obviously she interacted with many people in her life, but apparently she did so little herself of note that the bulk of her “story” is actually about other people and what they did before/after becoming a part of her life. How many times did we cut away from a narrative about a man to return to Allene, who was “shopping in London” or “buying and furnishing a new house” or “writing letters”? Listen, I understand that the lives of high-society women were circumscribed quite greatly at the time, and this woman in particular did manage to flout the system in many ways (like having five husbands and marrying into royalty) but a history built on social climbing isn’t inherently interesting if the person doing the climbing is basically a non-entity in the narrative who exists to marry the next husband.

The few personal details we get are thin and repetitive: she loved surrounding herself with active young people. She stopped caring about being fashionable when she gained weight in her later years. Look at how high this woman has flown when she was born in a backwoods town with basically nothing.

Even the big selling point of the concept–a Dutch writer takes on the tale of an American “princess” because of her connection to the Dutch royal family–isn’t much of a payoff, because the baptism ceremony where Allene becomes a royal godmother was apparently incredibly boring to her, and then we breeze right past it to tell the rest of the story, which again, is mostly about men.

I realize this is coming across as harshly critical in ways I don’t necessarily mean it to be–this book is obviously well-researched, and sources from the era would naturally be more inclined to discuss men than women in their pages (rampant sexism we’re still fighting today, of course.) So it’s not surprising that there’s so much information available on all five of Allene’s husbands and her son and her stepson. But this circles back to my point about putting her name in the title and making me (and other readers too, judging from other reviews) expect that the book is actually going to be about her and not an endless set of vignettes about every man in her life? Why frame the narrative this way when she’s basically a shadow we follow along through the history while watching other people actually do things? The only chapter that is truly about her in any substantive way is the final one about her death, and even that’s sharing space with the fight of her heirs over her will.

I didn’t find this particularly interesting or satisfying and basically only bothered to finish it because it was short.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #40)

#151 – Acheron, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

  • Read: 10/16/20 – 10/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book from a series with more than twenty books
  • Mount TBR: 130/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The story of how and why I came to be reading the 23rd book in the Dark-Hunterverse after only having read the first two (and not particularly enjoyed the second one) is long and complicated, but suffice it to say, I undoubtedly would have liked this better if I’d known who more of the minor characters were and more about how various powers worked, but that wouldn’t have solved most of the problems I had with this book.

It’s too long, no question. The first 56%, before the present-day story line and romance begin, is a viciously repeating cycle of “Acheron is miserable and has no agency, things gets better for about ten seconds, then some new betrayal or torture happens to him and he’s miserable again.” I understand that his past is one of abuse, but were over three hundred pages of it necessary to make that point? Absolutely not. It went on so long that my feelings mutated from the initial pity and “I hope he gets to be happy someday” to disgust and horror that his agony was so drawn-out, so indulgent, so sexualized.

The second part of the book was better by comparison, but still not great. The emotional development between Acheron and Tory was generally okay, and their banter as they went from enemies to friends was genuinely adorable (and most of the reason this gets a second star.) Was their catapult from friends to lovers/soulmates/fellow godlings rushed? Despite the overall length of the work, yes, it was rushed, because we had to spend over half the book wallowing in Acheron’s horrific past.

The rest of the reason this wasn’t a one-star read for me was actually Artemis. For all the other flaws I found in this book, it does succeed at one thing I think many other works inspired by Greco-Roman mythology fail to achieve–the absolute arrogance and total lack of a humane moral compass found in the gods. Artemis is unquestionably evil from a human perspective, for her delight in inflicting pain and suffering, and her complete indifference to anything that doesn’t benefit her in some way. She inspires hate in me to a far greater degree than I managed to get invested in any other character, Acheron included–Artemis is THE WORST, which is almost hilarious to me, because as Greek gods go according to the classic myths, she’s not even close to the most “evil.” So I applaud this book (in a very limited capacity) for managing to give me a villain I love to hate.

#152 – Blindness, by Jose Saramago

  • Read: 10/19/20 – 10/22/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring a disease or sickness
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

From other reviews it appears as if I dodged a bullet by listening to this rather than reading a print edition; it seems as though the style of the text would have been a sticking point for me. But I did listen, and while I might criticize the narrator for lack of differentiation between character voices, especially the female ones, he might have done me a favor overall.

Many years ago I watched the movie, and when I learned it was adapted from the book, told myself I would someday read it, to see if it was better, or if it solved any of the flaws I felt the movie had. (Brief movie review: I thought the central part of the story, the quarantine within the mental institution, was a brilliant commentary on man as a social animal and the differences in how people’s moral compasses and general outlook on life influenced their behavior under stress. The very beginning and ending, in the outside word? Hated it, felt so flat in comparison.)

So after all this time, how does the book compare to my memories of a film I watched only once but often thought about afterward? About the same overall quality, though their strengths lay in different areas. The narration’s verbose style irritated me at times, but provided insight into the characters the movie lacked; the movie gave me a more tightly plotted story–for example, the movie removes most of the final quarter of the book, and I can’t say that’s a bad idea. The movie let me have visual representations of the nameless characters, rather than the book’s endless “the doctor” and “the doctor’s wife” and “the first blind man” and so on; but the book often gave me better tension within the scenes.

I enjoyed this enough to be glad I went back for it, but based on my dislikes of Saramago’s style as presented here, I’m not particularly interested in seeking out his other work. There was an over-reliance on aphorisms to make a point, which was strange because they were aphorisms I’ve never once heard in my life; whether this is because they are Portuguese sayings in translation, or if the author made them up to contribute to the setting’s lack of definite country, I don’t know. There was also a tendency towards heavy-handedness in the philsophizing, especially in the final act, which simultaneously made me wonder “Am I getting what he’s really saying?” and “Damn, I get it, you don’t need to hammer your points so hard.” The constant equivalence drawn between blindness and death made sense to me, to a point (re: the loss of a person’s “humanity”) but since it kept coming up and alluding to some apparent (even) deeper meaning, I’m left with the sense that I thought I got “it” but I didn’t get it at all. Which is frustrating.

Finally, there was also just some instances of “men writing women” that irked me, though considering a large point of the quarantine story involves rape, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse. There were times when I thought “women aren’t like that” or “I would never say that,” but they were small, individual complaints, a lack of connection, rather than any larger issues surrounding portrayal of female characters in general. The author sometimes stripped them of their dignity, but in most ways no more so than the male characters, and in the direst circumstances, it is mostly the women who band together to affect change, so while I wouldn’t call this a feminist piece, it’s at least not a misogynistic one.