This Week, I Read… (2021 #14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#39 – Ice Cream Lover, by Jackie Lau

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #13)

#36 – Virtual Light, by William Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#37 – A Hero to Keep, by Susan Gable

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#35 – Unquiet Land, by Sharon Shinn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So disappointing.

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #11)

#32 – Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #10)

#31 – Cards of Grief, by Jane Yolen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!