This Week, I Read… (2020 #3)

8 - The Age of Innocence

#8 – The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  • Read: 1/14/20 – 1/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 8/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed
  • The Reading Frenzy: read a book set in New York City
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF around page 90. I skimmed a bit farther, but that was really where I stopped paying full attention.

When I started, I was immediately enchanted by Wharton’s wit and snarkiness. I was aware the book wasn’t full-on satire of the time period, but that it was critical of the social structure and ideals and unwritten rules of the idle rich of New York City. And as far as that went, I was on board–her observations were sharp and amusing. That’s why I gave this a second star despite not finishing it.

But I was bored. It took me three days to read those ninety pages, because I would tell myself I was going to read, sit down, read a chapter or maybe two, and come out the other side exhausted and wanting to do anything else but read. The endless details about who was related to whom, about the sorts of furniture and china they had or the food they served, the number of times Newland intercepted a “look” from May and instantly decoded it to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean. I’ll give the man credit for being a sort of proto-feminist who has high ideals for the rights of women and recognizes his gut reaction as wrong, when he tries to apply them to May and finds himself disgusted. On one level he despises the society around him, yet it’s also granted him a great deal of privilege that he doesn’t do anything to reject. He could have been a truly interesting character and I wish I’d been able to slog my way through the tedium to find out.

But at the rate I was going it was going to take me another two weeks to finish and I just don’t care that much. Too much of it bored me to keep reading for those small slivers of great language and wittiness.

9 - Break the Rules

#9 – Break the Rules, by Claire Boston

  • Read: 1/17/20 – 1/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 9/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I know I sometimes ding “office” romances for basically never having their characters be at work, but this book proves it’s possible to err in the other direction.

They’re always working or talking about work. Near the beginning sometimes they’re talking about scuba diving instead, and then after they get together they take breaks from talking about work long enough to have some sex, and then sometimes an external conflict comes up in the form of his brother and her best friend being impulsive and inconsiderate jackasses. Oh, and the tedious and heavy-handed foster-sister setup to briefly raise awareness for the political and social strife in many Central American countries, which is true but so out of place in context with the rest of the book, where it doesn’t inform anything about the plot or even do all that much to give Bridget personality as her backstory.

But 75% of the book is about being a safety manager at an oil refinery. I signed up for a romance, thanks, could you give me a real romance? Because this isn’t one. There’s attraction that gets their relationship started, sure. Then the realization that he’s her new boss cools things down, but he gets pushy (which I did not like!) about making a relationship happen anyway. Finally, somewhere around midway through, he accepts “no” for an answer and they agree to remain friends. (Which absolutely should have happened earlier if I wasn’t supposed to think Jack was a jerk. And he was mostly nice other than that, so I think he was not supposed to be a jerk.) But then Bridget almost immediately goes back on her decision, and then circumstances force them to move in together, and then disaster happens at the plant and Bridget proves herself capable and saves the day. Which was the real climax of the story, not the culmination of the thin romance. Have I ever leveled the criticism at a romance that I think it needs more sex scenes? I think that’s a first, but I do want more sex scenes, because every time the scene cut away from or glossed over their sexy times, I was denied an opportunity to see how they treated each other, how they connected. Because it wasn’t happening at work, where they were trying to play it cool for everyone else’s benefit.

This is a “romance” where the personal vindication/validation arc of the heroine took over the entire book and left very little room for actual romance, or anything else, really. Though I do question why she’s best friends with Tanya who never seems to do anything worthy of having friends, and is a constant source of irritation for Bridget, from the big stuff like “oops I got married and I’m moving out so I guess you should live with your boss” to the little “this is my party so you have to wear the dress I pick out and have your hair straightened because I say so even though I know you hate sitting in salons doing nothing for hours, do it for meeeee.” Tanya isn’t a person, she’s three external conflicts in a trench coat.

10 - The Black Tides of Heaven

#10 – The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang

  • Read: 1/18/20 – 1/20/20
  • Mount TBR: 10/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by a trans or nonbinary author
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I am underwhelmed.

I don’t think this story knows what it wants to be when it grows up, because in the small space it’s allowed, it takes on so many weighty topics that none of them get the serious treatment they deserve. If it’s about gender identity, then why weren’t the consequences and potential difficulties of “choosing” a gender after being raised gender-neutral as children explored in any depth? If it’s about politics, then why is the rebellion only in latter half of the story, barely explained, and foreshadowed by nothing? If it’s about this cool world that the author has built to accommodate a society that raises their kids gender-free and uses elemental manipulation magic, why is all the world-building so bare-bones that I literally don’t understand half of it? If it’s a personal story about Akeha’s journey through life, why so we skip so many years of it and then pick up at a different age without making any attempt to fill in the gaps and show us why he is the way he turns out to be? If it’s about his moral victory over his mother/the Protector, well, then why is she the lamest, most mustache-twirling “evil because the story says so” villain I’ve seen recently?

This novella is attempting to do way too much in far too small a space to get any of it right. Any of the things I mentioned could be the central focus of a story, but in trying to do it all at once, every aspect is left half-finished, and I’m just here with a giant cartoon question mark floating over my head, wondering what the point was.

11 - Station Eleven

#11 – Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Read: 1/20/20 – 1/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 11/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in a country beginning with “C”
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a green spine
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it and think highly of it despite some flaws.

Most impressive to me was how seamless, how effortless, the time-jumping was. I was flung between pre- and post-apocalyptic scenes, interviews, character changes, everything, and never once was I confused about where I landed or why I was sent there from where I started. One of the things I hate most as a reader is being confused by anything I feel should be clear right away, and I will ditch books that handle their structure poorly on this front. Station Eleven, in that sense, is an absolute masterpiece.

I found the tone and atmosphere unusual and captivating. This is a very quiet, peaceful apocalypse compared to others I’ve read. It can be most directly contrasted in my experience with The Stand, because both use a super-flu style virus to wipe out 99% of humanity, but Stephen King focused a lot of narrative time on the immediate and often violent fallout of “the aftermath,” those deaths that came not from the pandemic but from the collapse of society immediately following it. Mandel chooses to do little with this time, even glossing over it in some of her character’s memories. What we do see of it, in Clark’s POV, is perhaps the most genteel end-of-the-world possible. It isn’t that she does not acknowledge violence happens–the knife tattoos, the guns in the hands of the prophet’s people and what that results in–but it’s mostly off-screen, distant. That heightens the little violence we do see, a simple but effective tactic to make us care for the characters involved.

If anything, though, that’s where this falls short of absolutely perfect for me. I never quite engaged with the characters as much as I wanted to, perhaps because so much of this was focused on the world and not the people in it. There’s a great reverence for objects, for things, especially the ones that tie the various timelines together (the comic books, the paperweight, airplanes) but I sometimes felt like the narrative preferred those over the characters. One example is the tendency to reference members of the Traveling Symphony by their instruments–at first I thought it was a clever way to have the large ancillary cast such an outfit would require, without burdening the reader with too many names. And it is. But it’s also a wedge driven into the story that creates artificial distance. Most of the Symphony members who are crucial to the story do have names, except, eventually, the clarinet, who given her importance in the end probably deserved to have one as well. Another more pervasive example is that we spend a great deal of time following Arthur’s life–his final night bookends the story–but I never felt all that attached to him, and of the characters within his sphere, I liked Miranda far better, and Kirsten is our main avatar of the new world, so why don’t we spend more time getting to know her?

The other minor flaw is that it did, at times, strain my suspension of disbelief. Not with the seeming coincidences that pepper the story–all the questions I had about “how does that happen” got explained eventually through character actions in the past–but usually with simple logistics. How likely is it truly, that every single person stranded in the airport in Severn City is free from the virus? I can accept that the airport itself wasn’t contaminated, it’s not a major transport hub. I can accept the lamp-shaded “this is how lucky Clark was to survive” section. But everyone else from all the other planes that got diverted there? None of them had been exposed at that point?

So with those strengths and those flaws, it sounds like I’ve written a nice, balanced three-star review, but I still love this book and give it five. I love the way it made me feel while I was reading it. I love how unusual a take it gave me on the end of the world, and how a need for entertainment and community survived, and how beautifully sad it was in parts and how beautifully hopeful it was in others.

12 - Sing Your Heart Out

#12 – Sing Your Heart Out, by Crystal Kaswell

  • Read: 1/23/20 – 1/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 12/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a while this looked like it was going to be interesting, a cut above your usual college/New Adult smut romance, but the wheels fell off around 60% and it was just fight, sex, fight, sex, fight, sex, make up, happy ending.

Listen, I know NA romance is supposed to have a lot of sex, it’s all about the smut, but this was still excessive. Up to a certain point in the story, the sex meant something. It showed Meg and Miles connecting emotionally even though they had agreed this was a friends with benefits scenario. And the reason I thought it was interesting was that it was clearly Miles, not Meg, who was catching feelings first–this setup usually leans heavily on the heroine falling love with the distant, closed-off hero and eventually getting him to admit he’s invested too.

But not Miles. Miles is the best boyfriend-who-won’t-use-that-term ever. He’s depicted for most of the book as a real standup guy, compared to his caught-in-the-act introduction to the heroine. He’s not flawless–he does keep a big secret from Meg, and his need to have someone rely on him for support while not sharing equally of himself is definitely messed up–but he’s generally more of a person and less of a horrible mess than Meg.

Meg, who is the worst part of this story. She’s so smart that it’s her last name, thank you, very clever. But she’s only a brilliant bookworm whenever the plot demands that she use studying as an excuse to avoid Miles (which is far too frequently, might I add, that got repetitive fast) and the rest of the time she’s a hopeless ditz with no common sense, no real emotional depth, a tragic backstory that was a substitute for a personality, and no backbone. Miles, for all his flaws, is generally very clear on what he wants and what he’s going to do to get it; Meg changes her mind constantly about everything except her desire to get into medical school. When she tries not to get involved with Miles in the first place, he’s so hot and so into her that she caves; when they’re fighting and she tries to shut the door on their relationship for more than five minutes, she caves. She goes from virgin to practical sex addict in no time at all, and she allows her libido to make bad decisions for her constantly. The last third of the book is a train wreck of constant orgasms instead of plot.

At one point this was looking to be a three-star book, despite its many flaws. It didn’t take long to drop to two, and the final act puts it solidly at one. It’s bad and I don’t recommend it to anyone, even smut lovers, because honestly after a while even the sex scenes were boring.

 

This Week, I Read… (2020 #2)

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#5 – Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 1/9/20 – 1/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 5/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that you are prompted to read because of something you read in 2019
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

How can a book where so little major happens in the plot be so good?

Things do happen. The betrothal and alliance with the Outislanders nearly falls through and is salvaged only by a challenge issued for a grand quest–which, even though that was basically the midpoint of this novel, was clearly not happening until the third book. Dutiful gets his Skill coterie, albeit an unusual one and in an unusual way. The first major overtures towards peace with Witted folk are pursued, as well as the introduction of Bingtown/Rain Wild folk to the arena of Six Duchies politics, bringing characters from the previous trilogy into Fitz’s story line.

Things do happen. But even viewing all this as setup for the culmination in book three of however many plots we’re juggling at this point, this book is still so much more.

Every assumption I could make as a reader, in keeping with Fitz’s assumptions about his own life, was challenged somehow in this book. Buckkeep is not what he remembered and he cannot seem to find his place in it, and when he tries to fall back on old relationships and old ways, he finds them absent or altered. What begins as a sad but inevitable decline of Chade as a mentor becomes his renewed magical vigor and previously-unknown ambition. The Queen proves herself to be as cunning a political manipulator as anyone else, even out-thinking Chade at one point. Hap, the good country boy, falls into bad romantic company and pays for it, even as Dutiful, who seemed like he would be a difficult boy to trust and to teach, turns out to live up to his name. Fitz loses the safe harbor he had in Jinna because, in the end, she can’t accept him for who he is, even though she seemed far more likely to than Starling, who truly does know him better and wishes him well, even if she is otherwise blatantly self-absorbed.

And most heart-rendingly of all, Fitz breaks his relationship with the Fool almost beyond the point of repair, because in the mother of all irony, between the two of them Fitz is the one who cannot fully accept what the Fool is, and all that encompasses, and stubbornly wants to put him back in the box that he can understand.

[So I wasn’t wrong in my last review that the Fool has romantic feelings for Fitz. This is not necessarily the way I would want to see my foresight justified, though. Fitz’s disgust at the thought of a homosexual relationship is off-putting to me by modern standards, and even though this book is from the early 2000’s, there were other high fantasy writers at the time who challenged patriarchal and homophobic attitudes in their world-building, while Hobb has created the Six Duchies to be as “traditional” as any medieval-informed, male-dominated society. Which is disappointing. But if I had been following the series from its start, if I had read this back in 2003 when it was published and when I still identified as straight, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at any of this. It was just the way things were, to most people I knew. It’s more of a shock to me that until the story needed Lord Golden to be a dissolute pervert as a plot point, the attitudes of their society about non-straight relationships simply didn’t matter, as those relationships didn’t seem to exist. So then when a hint of one appeared, it was reviled. At the same time, the Fool is also clearly an exploration, to what degree I do not yet know, of a genderfluid character. While Fitz has always known him as male, Amber was clearly female in presentation and lifestyle, and it’s not at all clear at this point what he “really is.” Which is to say, both, or neither. I’m sure we’ll get more on this later.]

6 - Next Year in Havana.jpg

#6 – Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton

  • Read: 1/13/20 – 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 6/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a pink cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a cover featuring a skyline
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 98. I could have stopped as early as 10%, back around page 36, but so many people have said so many good things about this book that I was hoping it just had a rough beginning.

It did not get better.

The prose is overwritten and poorly edited. If I quoted specific examples we’d be here all day, so instead I’ll sum up the problems: overuse of ten-dollar vocabulary words, overuse of adjectives, repetition of many words or phrases too close together or simply too many times overall (“my gaze,” “the wind/breeze blowing through my/his hair”,) chaining descriptive clauses to the ends of sentences that don’t actually describe the subject of the sentence, comma splices everywhere, and a few choice sentences that simply didn’t make realistic sense if you read the words in the order they’re on the page. I’m not kidding–one of the love interests, at one point, is wearing both his pants and his shirt on his legs, if you don’t transpose a few things in your head when you read his description.

It’s bad. Bad enough that I wanted to quit pretty early on. But the story still sounded interesting, and like I said, I still had hope it would improve.

But both romances are instalove, or damn close to it. I stopped just under a third of the way through the story and Elisa, the heroine of the past, is already throwing the word “love” around in her head after meeting the guy twice and exchanging one letter with him. The modern-day romance is also cheesy as hell in spots–he’s staring up at you in the window while he plays the saxophone? Really? I laughed hard at that, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to.

I could have even forgiven that, to some extent, if the stuff about Cuba’s history, revolution, and the musings on Marisol’s conflict about her Cuban-American identity were good. But here, again, it falls flat. The characters lecture each other on history (or current events, in the past plot line) and I honestly feel like I’d be better off reading nonfiction about it. There is one, just one, moment where I was moved and sympathetic to Marisol’s struggle for identity, but out of nearly a hundred pages, that’s not enough to keep me reading any more.

7 - So I'm a Spider Vol. 1.jpg

#7 – So I’m a Spider, So What? Vol. 1, by Okina Baba and Asahiro Kakashi

  • Read: 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 7/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read the first unread book you find on the highest shelf of your bookcase
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s cute. In fact, it’s freaking adorable. It doesn’t do anything for the isekai genre that at least a few other properties haven’t done already–even the “I got reincarnated as a very small, basic monster” idea starts off That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. (Which, to be fair, I don’t know if predates this or not, I saw that anime before I read this manga. And it goes in a strange direction quickly–I doubt this little spider is going to end up ruling her own empire.)

But she’s a tiny pink tarantula! Tarantulas are adorable! I want her to survive and succeed and kill the basilisks!

The main reason this manga doesn’t get five stars is that the art was not always the easiest to decipher during major action sequences. More veteran manga readers might disagree with me, but I watch anime far more than I read manga, so I’m not as comfortable with the common conventions of how they depict action.

I’m probably not going to keep reading because manga volumes are hella expensive and this is getting an anime adaptation this year, but if it weren’t, I probably would treat myself to the next volume every so often, because tiny pink tarantula.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #1)

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#1 – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

  • Read: 1/1/20 – 1/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 1/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book without the letters A, T, or Y in the title
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new-to-you author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is, perhaps, the most unconventional story about vampires I’ve ever read/watched/experienced.

It’s an alliance between a human and a vampire, but it’s not a romance, at least not in the traditional sense: it’s got a few confused elements of romance, but it’s far more about developing a deep bond with someone that isn’t romantic or sexual or even familial. Sunshine and Con save each other’s lives so often she stops being able to keep accurate track.

I’m there for that bond. I’m there for the mutual suffering that leads to closeness, and the cultural misunderstandings (if vampire can be said to be a different “culture” rather than a different species) that cause the rifts between them that need to be healed through discussion and the kind of tentative reaching-out that is all people who have been burned too often can manage. This books hurts, at the same time it feels so good. This kind of intense relationship is one we don’t usually get as readers without attaching sex or romance to it, or dressing it up in military garb and pinning some patriotism on it. It’s two warriors who will always, always have each other’s backs, even if they didn’t start that way. And that’s a great story.

But as much as I love the emotional guts of it, and I do, it’s overly indulgent in its style and world-building. Now, the world-building is great, the problem is is that there’s too much of it. Sunshine goes on pages-long tangents explaining some aspect of wards or some obscure fact about vampire-related fiction or some detail about their world’s computers, and five minutes later when it’s over I’ve completely forgotten what was being said in the middle of the conversation she zoned out of to tell me about the world she lives in. And this happens constantly. It’s not that any one piece of information isn’t interesting or something I probably would have wanted to know, but as an aggregate, did I really need all of it? Wasn’t there anything that could be cut without sacrificing clarity in order to move the story along faster?

In addition to that, I had to keep reminding myself that Sunshine was in her mid-twenties. The constant whining (often justified but definitely not always,) the tendency to lose focus and go on a tangent at the drop of a hat, the mental inability to use certain words or phrases and leave the reader to fill them in at the “…” at the end of her sentences–all of these together contrived to make her sound like a younger narrator than she is. Yes, she lives alone and has a steady job and a steady boyfriend and she’s not just independent but semi-distant from her family (despite the fact they all work together) and all sorts of other markers of adulthood, so I know she’s an adult, but most of the time she sounds like a teenager. It’s not a deal-breaker but I did sometimes find it irritating.

2 - Bound to Be a Bride

#2 – Bound to Be a Bride, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 1/4/20 – 1/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 2/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were aspects of this that were fun enough to keep me reading–Javi and Isabella’s banter being the key one–but most of it was a little too rushed, a little too contrived, a little too inconsistent. Since I know absolutely nothing about this part of history, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I will say that Isabella’s time at the convent teaching her hard work is believable, but the survival skills, not so much.

Good thing the runaway bride meets up with her runaway husband almost immediately so he and his companions can look after her.

This is interesting, in a way, though, as an example of a narrative style that keeps everything snappy and interesting even when the plot or the characters fall apart the second you examine them closely. Isabella is an inconsistent mess of wantonness and sudden shyness; Javi is hell-bent on being a revolutionary and not a husband, until he gets a sweet little thing who likes to be tied up, and then he’s fine with staying in Spain and being himself again for a while. (Actually, now that I type that out, his character arc does make a fair bit of sense in context, it’s just very rushed. Isabella’s still a flip-floppy nightmare.) The entire point of the novella, two people running away from their own marriage only to find each other anyway, is ridiculous to the point where you can almost appreciate it just for its brazenness as a romance plot. So this is bad, yet somehow still really fun? Usually when I rate something this low by a new-to-me author, I’ll ditch whatever other books of theirs I have on my TBR, but the first Regency Reimagined novel, which I also own, sounds a lot like this–kinky fun without being worried too much about making sense. I’m surprisingly okay with that.

3 - Full Dark, No Stars.jpg

#3 – Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

  • Read: 1/5/20 – 1/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 3/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose last name is one syllable
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a story collection that holds a mirror up to you as the reader and asks, “What would you do?”

Usually when I review an anthology I have to say, well, they’re tough to rate because the stories are all so different, and I liked some better than others. Though in most cases I don’t take the time to do a story-by-story breakdown, especially when there are a lot of stories. But here there’s only four novellas, with the bonus short story in my paperback edition. So it’s far easier to say “I loved these three and didn’t care so much for this one but I see how it fits into the book’s overriding theme.”

Which is what I feel. The one that sticks out to me is “Big Driver,” but mostly because I’m always wary of a male author writing about the experience of rape from a woman’s perspective. In that story, I wasn’t so much looking in the metaphorical mirror and asking, “What would I do if I were her?” I was constantly thinking, “Is this how I would feel if I were her? Does this sound right to me?” It didn’t seem as authentic as the others, though I still appreciate the message it sent.

“1922” was terrifying, and had the strongest supernatural elements of any of them, though it can be interpreted as the narrator’s mind coming loose from its moorings, rather than actual otherworldly happenings, if a reader chooses. I certainly read it that way, though there’s room for interpretation. But as an opening story it’s a solid introduction to the bigger picture. “Big Driver” does carry on that picture, though as I said, it’s not as strong for me. “Fair Extension” surprised me with its apparent lack of closure–Dave Streeter makes his deal with the devil and just gets away with it? It’s rare to approach that sort of tale that way. But the best story, by far, was “A Good Marriage.” That was the clearest moment of “holy hell, what would I do? How on earth could I deal with that?”

As for the bonus story, “Under the Weather,” I actually didn’t like it at all, and I had it figured out almost instantly, and wading through the boring minutiae of the main character’s job to find out if I was right about my suspicions wasn’t tense or interesting, but plodding and dull. That was a swing and a miss for me. But it’s so short, and it’s not in all editions of the book, so I’m not really counting it in my rating.

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#4 – Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

  • Read: 1/8/20 – 1/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 4/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that starts with “A”
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 60%. I know I didn’t have much more to go, page-count-wise, but I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

This book is a mess and I don’t think any of its messages are clear.

On the level of societal commentary, tackling health care issues via patent law and piracy makes it appear to some extent anti-capitalist, but it’s really just anti-monopolist, because mostly everyone is still out to make money. We live in a society, and all that. As an American I’m used to medical dystopias revolving around insurance, rather than drug prices/availability, though this future doesn’t seem to have medical insurance at all, so I guess Big Pharma is the only enemy in that regard. It’s interesting from that perspective, but this story does little to establish the state of the world beyond its level of science and technology. There’s vague reference to “the Collapse” which apparently altered the world to the point of complete political and social restructuring–people can be indentured or enslaved and that’s normal, citizenship is a commodity, the maps would look incredibly different if any were included, I’m sure–but it’s all “this is how the world is now” without much “this is how it got that way.”

On the level of interpersonal relationships, how does this literally get everything wrong, from my perspective, about positive representation? The bisexual main character is shown throughout her life to fall into bed with anyone at the drop of a hat. The nonbinary character is a robot. The man in love with the robot is homophobic to the point where he doesn’t “have sex” with the robot until “she” reveals “she’s” discovered her human brain came from a woman, and changes her pronouns to match, not because “she” cares either way but because it will make him feel more comfortable with “her.” All of these things are harmful tropes or stereotypes.

And what’s more, even if the (cough) “romances” in this story weren’t harmful or degrading, they take up so much space on the page that there’s no tension in the chase between the pirate and her pursuers. At all. The pace is plodding. She has a chapter where there’s a lot of science talk, maybe a flashback about her past, maybe there’s some implied off-screen sex with the dude she rescued at the beginning who is waaaaay younger than her and she’s basically keeping around as a sex toy even though she wants to get rid of him for practical life purposes. (I’m not even going to stop to unpack all that, because it’s also gross and I don’t want to.) Then we switch POVs to the nonbinary robot, who is some ways is actually rather charming in his/her attempts (I’m using both pronouns because both are used in the story at one point or another) to learn and process human behavior. I would have been much happier if the entire book were just Paladin figuring him/herself out in the world of humans, even though I know that’s not a very original story concept; Paladin is by far the most interesting character of this cast. But his/her chapters focus so much on that (and his/her exploration of and research into what robot-human sexual relationships would be like, and eventually are, when “she” and Eliasz finally sleep together, which was a bizarre scene that made no physical sense) that the chasing of the bad guy is a subplot at best when it actually should be the main story line linking these characters together.

Also, am I supposed to feel sympathetic to Jack? She’s a drug pirate, fighting Big Pharma to bring cheap and necessary drugs to the masses who can’t otherwise afford them. That’s Robin-Hood-esque, in a sci-fi kind of way, but her mistake in distributing an addictive drug that’s getting people killed doesn’t hold up well in that light. The drug wasn’t medically necessary to anyone–it’s a stimulant to make doing your job more pleasant–and she wasn’t exactly handling it responsibly, reverse-engineering something that wasn’t yet fully tested or available for public distribution. If she’s so altruistic, shouldn’t she have been making useful things like insulin or anti-cancer meds or basically anything else? It’s lampshaded in the story as not-stupid by saying “well people on [this drug] are more likely to get hired or keep their jobs because they enjoy working, so people without it are at a disadvantage.” Except…it’s not in large-scale distribution yet, so has anyone actually lost their jobs at that point because they don’t have access to the drug?

Jack comes across as a pretty cold, unfeeling person who, past and present, uses sex to manipulate people, justifies her not-life-saving drug-running by saying she’s sticking it to Big Pharma, then screws up royally and gets people killed. Her attempts to “fix” that, even at 60% where I gave up out of annoyance, don’t amount to much at all, which is another reason there’s no tension in this story. She’s not on the verge of some drastic breakthrough to create a drug to counteract the bad one, only pursuit is hot on her heels. Pursuit is too busy falling into bed with each other and drowning in homophobic angst to bother doing their jobs properly.

Even if I only had a little over a hundred more pages to find out how this story turns out, I could not make myself go on any farther. It’s a mess and I just don’t need to know how it ends.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #54)

Yes, I know, it’s 2020 now, but these are the last books I read in 2019 and I haven’t finished my first 2020 read yet! It’s only been two days and it’s a big fantasy novel! More on that next week.

So, let’s wrap up last year.

Spellbinder

#168 – Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn

  • Read: 12/26/19 – 12/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (110/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 159. I’m bored.

The most fundamental problem is that none of the things I expect from a Melanie Rawn novel are present here. My teenage and college years were spent reading the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, and rereading them quite frequently. I loved the first two books of the Exiles series, and like many fans, became somewhat resentful when it was made clear that Rawn was never going to go back and write the third book, giving us both the ending it deserved and the closure we needed. I wasn’t involved in the boycott of her later work directly, because I didn’t even know about the fandom drama until years later when I looked up “is the Exiles series ever getting finished” after I saw my two lonely books sitting together on the shelf one day. But I did not know about Spellbinder until several years after it was published, and I was annoyed enough that I didn’t give it a try until now, when I found it at a used book sale and thought, “Rawn may have disappointed me with Exiles, but her other work is so good. What if I’m missing out by not reading this?”

Well, now I know I wasn’t. Her big fantasy series were a tangle of romance, magic, dragons, and most of all, family. You could boil down the central themes of all eight of those books I loved across all three of those series to family bonds are one of the most important things in the world, no matter what that world happens to be. And that’s simply not present here. It’s a gaping hole in my expectations, and maybe I could forgive that, because that’s on me and not Rawn, at least not directly.

But I just can’t get invested in these snarky, glib characters. Everyone is snapping at each other all the time, be they friends or lovers or found family. And it does seem like “found family” is supposed to be a trope here–Holly has her fellow witches and some of them are honorary uncles and such–but those bonds aren’t forged strongly enough to believe in them. And all that fighting is just irritating, not cute, when I don’t believe these characters care about each other.

And all that fighting is the entirety of the plot so far. I gave up at 40% and I have only faint clues what the central conflict of the book is going to be. The prologue introduces the villain first–at least I’m assuming she’s the big bad of the book, but if she is I’m already disappointed because she’s a flimsy construction of three evil witch tropes in a trench coat–and then, a handful of short and confusing, disjointed scenes introduces Holly and her entire coven and presumably sets up the core conflict. In the prologue. But…it’s that a bad witch is bad and pissed off at the main cast for being good and trying to put a limit on her power? If that’s the point, why have I read 40% of the book and it’s almost entirely about the romantic subplot between Holly and Evan? And it’s not even a good romance because they flip-flop constantly between being sickeningly cute with each other and being slammed-doors, storming-out pissed at each other? None of it reads as believable, and it’s tiresome because it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the main plot. Whatever that is.

I can predict at this point that Holly and Evan are going to break up, because they’re already engaged at 40%, so what else can even happen to keep them apart so that the climax involves their satisfying reunion and declaration of love? And then while they’re estranged, I guess the evil witch is going to a) try to seduce Evan; b) put him in direct physical/magical danger; or c), both of the above. Again, so if that’s the point, why hasn’t the story done anything to show me the evil witch is at all dangerous (she’s kind of ridiculous) or to make me care about Evan (he’s mostly a jerk) or to prove that he and Holly actually care about each other (they’re usually snapping at each other, then having sex, then throwing some sort of cultural pissing contest about which one of them is more Irish)–why should I care?

The only reason I can tell this is a Melanie Rawn novel is because her name is on the cover. This could have come from any two-bit “hop on the urban fantasy train” author who produces utterly dismissable work today, and I wouldn’t know the difference, because nothing about what makes the other Rawn books great is here. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen an author change (abandon?) their own signature style so completely as this.

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#169 – Music of the Heart, by Katie Ashley

  • Read: 12/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (111/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At one point, in one of her many proud, take-no-crap moments, the heroine of this story says she needs a chiropractor for the emotional whiplash the hero has been inflicting on her.

I’m right there with you, sister, but for the entire book, not just his behavior. Every time you stood up for yourself against a douchebag or a jerkwad, I was cheering for you, but then you just keep giving your emotionally crippled hero chance after chance after chance when he treats you like garbage.

Now, when I grabbed this romance ages ago, either free or deeply discounted because the blurb sounded vaguely interesting, I had not fully realized our heroine was a Christian virgin whose three older brothers comprised a Christian rock band. I am not Christian and through repeated exposure generally find Christian romances to be bland or bad or even intolerable. So color me surprised that Abby ended up being my favorite character in the book (though that’s not actually saying much because of all the flaws this story had) and the underlying message, that of forgiveness, was clearly a Christian one but not via Bible-thumping or excessive preachiness. Which I appreciate. In reality, her Christian background strikes me more as a all-in-one reason for her to be the angelic virgin counterpoint to the bad-boy rock star, more than this actually constituting a “Christian” romance as they usually are.

Jake is a needy mess and the underlying message of forgiveness translates effectively to “Don’t give up on this jackass no matter how bad he treats you, because forgiveness is good and yeah sure stand up for yourself but only so far.” I would have left Jake and stayed gone long before the end of the book. Also, his final try at pushing her away was one of the most fake things I’ve ever read in my life–very very few people are that bad and say such awful things, especially when it’s a 180 from their previous behavior. But when she storms off because he’s a horrible person and it’s the last straw, she forgives him when he changes his mind and chases after her. Because of course she does, and then they can live happily ever after.

So there are aspects of this that I like–mostly Abby when she sticks up for herself, and to a lesser extent, how AJ, one of the other band members, becomes her friend after he realizes he’s got no shot with her because of Jake and actually is a pretty decent friend. But the things I didn’t like far outweigh that–how the message nearly exonerates Jake from all of his bad behavior, how everyone follows all their assigned tropes and gender roles to perfection without a single interesting deviation, how poorly edited it is (missing or misplaced punctuation abounds, and quite a few times the author uses common phrases incorrectly, and there are some obvious typos a spellcheck would not catch.) I don’t like how fast Jake and Abby go from disgust/hate/annoyance to love. I don’t like how small children ended up being used as props in one scene to make Jake sexier to Abby, because “aww, look at the man with the baby, my ovaries just exploded.” Not cool.

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#170 – Vivian’s List, by Haleigh Lovell

  • Read: 12/30/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (112/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All sex and no plot. Very little conflict aside from the beginning, when the hero is trying to convince the heroine that her boyfriend is psychologically abusive. He is, but the hero spends literal pages talking down to the heroine about it like he’s lecturing her on the topic. I buy that he’s concerned and that it’s a tough issue for him because his mom was similarly abused by his dad, but it was like wading through the preachiest pamphlet ever: “Ten Signs Your Partner is an Abusive Jerk.”

Once that’s past, though, the pair falls into bed together on an accelerated schedule (he’s shipping back to Iraq in a week! Let’s shoehorn in some commentary on America’s perpetual state of war!) and it’s all sunshine and lollipops after that. The whole time I was like, “is the only conflict driving the rest of the story that this is supposed to be a fling and they’re clearly catching feelings?” Because that’s a good single source of conflict in a romance, but it’s awfully thin to base an entire book around without anything deeper to go with it.

I was still thinking that right up until the unexpected cliffhanger. Yeah, this is half a story, padded out to reasonable novel-length with truly excessive amounts of repetitive, cringey, cheesy sex scenes. If this is supposed to be a romance, it needs more story. If this is supposed to be straight-up erotica, it needs better sex. Splitting the difference to try to make this sail as an erotic romance leaves it stranded in the middle without the better aspects of either.

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#171 – When You Got a Good Thing, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 12/30/19 – 12/31/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (113/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is less of a romance than it is a story about personal growth and proving yourself to your family. This was the Kennedy Reynolds show, with everyone else–including her love interest Xander–getting very little development. Her sisters are all one-note supporting players (this one’s the angry one, this one’s more sympathetic, and so on) and the central conflict of the story is not “will the lovebirds get together,” it’s “can we save our house from the bank so our nearly-adopted sister doesn’t get kicked back into the system?”

Which is a fundamentally good story at its heart, don’t get me wrong. I’m still giving this three stars. But this is really more of a women’s-fiction-type tale, a story of a woman and her sisters and their family legacy, and there’s a flat, simple romance grafted on to it. Xander and Kennedy spend a fair bit of time shouting at each other about the ten years they missed in their second-chance romance, but not all that much time doing anything to convince the reader that they’re still in love. It’s chemistry, sure, you guys banged like bunnies as teenagers apparently, but is it love? Does it have time to develop into love around all these external obstacles? Because there are no internal conflicts worth mentioning. Neither of them really examines or questions if getting back together is a good idea for more than a few minutes, and they barely even acknowledge that they’re different people now than they were when she left (at least in the romance arc, Kennedy’s family arc is entirely about how she’s changed.)

So in the end, I did enjoy this story overall, but I feel like billing it as a romance is, to some degree, false advertising. The romance is less than half the plot and by far the weakest aspect of it.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #53)

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#166 – Ice Massacre, by Tiana Warner

  • Read: 12/18/19 – 12/20/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Read a book with a wintery word in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Another hugely hyped book that was a vast disappointment to me. The concept is cool, I’ll give it that, or I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. But the world-building is thin, the plot full of gaping holes, the characters mostly without personality, and the action is jaw-grindingly constant to the point where it leaves no room for character development or better world-building.

And calling this a sapphic love story is just laughable. Literally the last thing in the book is the main character realizing she’s in love with her childhood best friend who’s also a girl who’s also a mermaid–but they spend most of the books at odds with each other because of misunderstandings, because of the fact that they’re both supposed to want to kill each other, and because they can’t truly trust each other for most of the story. Eventually there’s a small measure of devotion, but there’s no romance to speak of. Everyone’s too busy fighting, and I do mean everyone.

But okay, if it’s setup for the future installments, I could give that a pass. What I can’t forgive is the insanely stupid logic of this thin, nonsensical world-building.

First, the simple idea of the merpeople’s “allure”–their hypnotizing magic–being effective against the opposite gender only is heteronormative in the extreme. My bisexual self is plenty attracted to women, so for most of the book I felt like it should work on me just fine. (And I can’t even address the issues of trans or nonbinary characters, because there aren’t any.) When it eventually became obvious that allure working on everyone would break the plot (the two friends can’t fall in love with each other if magic is involved because then it’s fake, also then the entire idea of sending girls out instead of boys to fight is a moot point and there’s no story) I threw my hands up in the air and said to myself, “I’ll accept it but I don’t think it’s good.”

Second, that leads to another problem; if the merpeople sent their women to fight because the human warriors had always been male before, when they discover the new ship of warriors are female, shouldn’t they send their men instead? Oh, wait, they’re all lampshaded to be fighting somewhere else entirely, in a different ocean. Except…are they all really gone? Because if they are, then who’s making babies? We know there are babies because the crazy girl kills an infant. Which, by the way, is a war crime if you consider the mermaid “people,” because clearly an infant is a noncombatant. So that’s fun. (Also she ends up murdering a crew mate, but that’s not tied to any of my complaints, actually, which almost surprises me. It was terrible but it actually sort of made sense at the time that it would happen the way it did.) But really, why keep sending the mermaids to kill the girls when mermen would have the advantage?

Third, the structure of the Massacre itself. Would you have me believe that a group of twenty girls who have been training together for five years can’t put aside petty high-school-style drama long enough to not get each other killed? Do you mean to tell me that the position of captain is assigned by their trainer, with a list of captains to follow in case of death or incapacitation, and it never once occurred to anyone organizing this thing that that’s a recipe for constant mutiny? Do you seriously expect me to believe no adults went with them for supervision? That no adult women could have been trained alongside them to sail the ship, if not to actually fight? That no adult woman on the entire island was capable or available to be their captain and keep all those little shits in line? Weren’t those people fishermen before the mermaids invaded, and that’s why they’re being starved out now? Sure, in modern military we train people about their age for combat, but we don’t send them out on their own without superior officers, older and more experienced and hopefully with a little more wisdom! And if the problem is that they can’t send the men who have survived their Massacres because now we send women because of the allure, then why were they ever sending men in the first place? Why did it take so long to decide to train girls instead? (The story’s answer: unquestioned patriarchy. Girls aren’t warriors. Because.)

Fourth: no one has much of a personality, they’re too busy getting killed. Of the twenty girls who set sail, I believe only seven or eight survive. They are mostly names on a page who die. Even some of the survivors, I couldn’t tell you anything about, be it their physical appearance or their demeanor. They are mermaid fodder, some are there to be Captain Crazypants’ cronies, they are faceless and interchangeable in death.

Back to the “romance” for a second: I don’t read Meela’s constant distaste for her compatriots talking about boys or their boyfriends as her actually being in love with her female mermaid childhood best friend. That early, it doesn’t even seem to allow for the possibility. It was far easier for me to read Meela as ace and/or aro–she seems completely uninterested in romance with the guy back home who’s in love with her, and she says outright at one point that she can’t imagine kissing him or having kids with him. Yes, it’s all coded, but to me that’s all code for aro-ace, possibly even to the point of sex-repulsed ace. The depth of her aceness would be open to interpretation, but nothing about her characterization for most of the book, such as it is, says to me, “no, she doesn’t like Tanuu or boys in general but she’s got confused feelings for girls she doesn’t understand.” She just doesn’t seem to think romantic love or sex is important. So throwing it out there at the very end that she thinks she’s in love with Lysi doesn’t ring true to me at all, even though I could see it coming from the structure.

Final problem: the plot takes a completely unexpected and illogical turn at the last second. The whole book has been about the Massacre, and then when it’s almost over, our main character sacrifices herself (kind of) and gets captured by the mer-king (sort of) who agrees to let her and the few remaining crew go home so she can find a MacGuffin that’s apparently a legend of their home island…that none of them have ever heard of. So if they don’t know their own legends, how does the mer-king? There’s no foreshadowing for this (or if there is it’s so subtle as to be invisible), it makes no sense with the rest of the book, narratively speaking it’s a deus ex machina to get them home when they’re basically doomed otherwise. And obviously it’s setting up the next book. But I don’t care. I don’t care because this one is so bad I don’t want to read any more.

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#167 – Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 12/20/19 – 12/26/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (109/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is the best that the Realms of the Elderlings has been since the very first book, our introduction to Fitz and his strange magics.

I was apprehensive about returning to his story line. His first trilogy started great and ended mediocre. Then came the Liveship Traders trilogy, which could hardly be more different in scope, in setting, in structure. I loved those books well, though they had issues too, of course. And then I put off returning to Fitz for some time.

But now, not only am I in love with his story again, I wish I remembered it better. The first 200 pages of this does so well at setting up the missing 15 years of Fitz’s adulthood that we pass over, and reminding us of the key points of the plot we left behind, but his friendship with the Fool in this is so vibrant, so meaningful, that I wish I remembered more of it from before. (Also: I’m not much of a shipper, but there were so many moments in this where I wondered if the Fool is actually in love with Fitz. On Fitz’s side I’m sure it’s a deep and abiding bromance, but I’m not convinced that the Fool feels the same limited way. I’m also not sure that’s going anywhere in the long term, even though this is the “Tawny Man” trilogy and I can tell the Fool is going to be a major player in the story. But those moments came often enough that I can’t tell if I’m seeing a pattern or somehow infected with wishful gay shipping vibes.)

So my biggest quibble with the book, even though I’m still giving it five stars, is the pacing, as long fantasy works do have a tendency to drag no matter how “good” they are. As I said, the first third of the book is set up; Fitz spends that whole time refusing his Hero’s Call while we the reader get filled in on the missing time in his life. Then the middle 200 pages wander for a bit in a quagmire of trying to figure out what the hell is going on: did the Prince run away or was he kidnapped? Who’s plotting against him? What can be done about it? It’s a lot of intrigue packed into a small space, but it gets bogged down in so much minutiae.

Of course, then after I make that complaint I go and read the final third of the book in a single day, because suddenly things are going down. The plot moves forward toward the climax at a breakneck pace and I was happy and sad and scared and angry and everything felt a little too real and heartbreaking. And I loved it.

Long gone is the stupidity of the boy/teenage Fitz that frustrated me to no end, his blindness, his willfulness, his lack of self-awareness despite the near constant introspection he subjected himself to. This new, haggard adult Fitz is constantly faced with situations that have no good solutions, but instead of whining about all his choices being bad, he gets on with things as best he can. He makes the hard choices, or uses his wits to change the game. I can accept that we had to have boy Fitz make those mistakes and whine those complaints to get him to be the tortured soul he is now, but that wasn’t always pleasant reading, and now, I love him and my heart bleeds for him.

Though that actually makes me nervous for him going forward, because this is just the end of book one of this trilogy, and in a three-book structure, usually the hero is at his lowest at the end of book two. So, like, things get worse than this? Because Fitz is in a pretty bad place right now, despite saving the day and all that. Good thing I’m planning to read Golden Fool as part of a readathon next month, so I don’t have to wait long!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #52)

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#164 – The Dark Half, by Stephen King

  • Read: 12/12/19 – 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (107/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Naughty or nice? Read a book with a good or evil main character
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There was a much shorter, tighter story that could have been great hiding inside this wordy and repetitive mess.

I’m on board with the idea that a psychological horror-thriller staged between two men who are halves of the same whole is going to have to have a lot of internal monologue. I wouldn’t have minded if only I hadn’t had to read it all twice or even three times over. Throughout the book, we get a scene from Thad’s perspective, but then we have to replay part or all of the same scene from his wife’s, or that of the police officer he just spoke to, or George’s. Or someone would be murdered and we would see it happen, then an agent of the law would describe it to Thad. The book is over 400 pages long but to me it felt that at least half of it was simply treading over the same ground covered five or ten pages before. The excessive use of “darlings” exacerbated this–how many times did I see “foxy George Stark?” It wasn’t even limited to the key phrases that were arc words, important to the story, so they were more forgivable. But the text is littered with similar phrases that stick out every single time.

It made what, in essence, could have been a brilliant story about personal darkness and grappling with what is usually the unknowable source of creativity into a slog of tired, unnecessarily repeated perspectives. The pace did pick up eventually–I managed to read the last 150 pages in one sitting–but I will admit to skimming some when a tidbit of a scene was just covering the minutiae of how someone was stealing a car or ditching the cops. I wanted the big confrontation at the end, and after committing myself to finishing this slog I did not want to get bogged down in the petty details of travel when it was clear where everyone was headed.

The plot was good. The presentation was lacking.

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#165 – A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, by Masaji Ishikawa

  • Read: 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (108/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A Secret Santa recommendation
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is a difficult book for me to rate. I did not enjoy it, at all, but it’s clearly not meant to be enjoyed.

The subject matter was grim and depressing, the tone that of unmitigated anger from beginning to end, but clearly, that’s the point.

I did not really learn anything about dictatorships, totalitarianism, or even specifically North Korea that I did not already know from less personal sources, so it was not educational for me, but I can see its value to others who are unaware of the dire state of things in that country.

I’m really only left with a feeling of helplessness, even powerlessness. We know this is a humanitarian crisis, we know these people need aid, but there’s nothing I can do about it on a personal level, no calling my congressman, because even the problematic policies of American interventionist behavior won’t solve this in the current scheme of world politics. I’ve been raised in a nation that has often interfered with foreign governments, which basically never works out well for anyone, ourselves included in the long-term; but even knowing all that, my heart is still screaming, “Why can’t we do something about this? A dictator is starving his people and we’re all letting him get away with it!”

And then I remember the consequences of trying to intervene: possible nuclear war.

Any complaints I have about the simple style or the glossing over of major events in the author’s life or the flat tone pale in comparison to the simple fact that I can see this tale’s value, but I did not come away from reading it with anything less than a bleak outlook for the future and no real hope of doing anything to stop this.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #51)

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#162 – The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Read: 12/3/19 – 12/8/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (106/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book that was gifted to me
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A four-star first half with a one-star ending stuck on the back end.

I went into this blind in terms of actual content, as this was a gift I received. I doubt I would have bought it on my own, despite loving both science and the history of science–I would not have trusted Gilbert to write that novel well, knowing what I do about her other works.

But it was a gift, and I finally read it. At first I was surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Henry was a fascinating character to set up Alma’s story, and she was still reasonably interesting, though I do see why some reviewers find her lacking in comparison. One of the strengths of this work is that the side characters are all given full, even lush, personalities and backstories–no one is glossed over as unimportant, and that does lead to the risk that side characters could catch a reader’s attention more than the heroine. I found her engaging enough that I was fine following her around the length of her life, but I do see the potential for other, better stories in many of the minor players.

However, that level of devotion to all characters does lead to a certain narrative ponderousness, a slow pace that drags further when one has to stop the main story to find out everything and anything we’ll ever need to know about this new character being introduced. I didn’t mind so much in the beginning, but by the time Alma goes to Tahiti and I had to sit through the entire life story of both the Reverend and “The Boy,” I was worn out on being introduced so thoroughly to each and every soul in the book.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is that it’s an incredibly long walk to get to a very short pier. I see how the pieces fit together. I see how every person in the story was necessary to Alma’s decades-long journey through the fields of science, and more literally, from her home all the way to Tahiti and then abruptly to Amsterdam. It’s a long chain of connect-the-dots across years and continents, and the scope is incredible. I know the how, but in the end, I’m unsatisfied by the why. I was quite bitterly disappointed to realize that this is, at its deepest core, literary fanfiction for The Origin of Species, and not a particularly good one, at that. All that work to put an OC into actual history and not have it go anywhere, not fulfill any purpose! If I’m going to read that style of reimagining, I’ll just pull Neal Stephenson off my shelves, he makes it far more entertaining.

The ending was just so bland, so unfulfilling, so purposeless. Why did I follow Alma for nine decades and five hundred pages only to discover she was happy with her life despite not really accomplishing much of anything?

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#163 – Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 12/8/19 – 12/12/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A slight dip in quality compared to the first three in the series, but still really engaging–in the second half, anyway.

Part of my problem was the slow start. It took me three days to read the first half and one to read the rest. There’s so much setup to the politicking on the newly settled/contested planet that it’s a slog at the beginning, despite what is supposed to be a big “boom” of an opening–literally.

Part of my problem was one of the new characters. I loved Havelock’s story–surprised to see he’s back, of course, but he was the perfect counterpoint to the villain, whose primary flaw was inflexibility, while Havelock weighed the relative benefits of company loyalty against morality and made the “right” choice. Basia’s story was okay, he’s got grief issues about his lost son and he’s emblematic of the sort of pioneer spirit of the settlers. But Elvi was by far the weakest female character this story has ever produced. It’s not that I don’t see how the choices she made about her love life made sense, from an introverted scientist’s perspective. She’s actually a reasonably complex character, so I can’t level the “two-dimensional” criticism at her. It’s just that her entire function is to be the science girl and tell Holden things. Yeah, she figures out how to stop the plague, she’s not entirely useless. But the story focuses so much on her crush on Holden, which is “solved” by banging someone else entirely so she stops throwing her sexual energy in a useless direction and can get back to doing science. Putting her in the climactic sequence with Miller and Holden at the end felt wrong, like she was sorely out of place, and it didn’t really finish her character arc in a satisfying way. I’m not even sure what her arc was supposed to be; she’s not completely without agency or heroism, but her purpose is murky, narratively speaking, unless she’s just the lens we view Holden’s actions through. And since Holden still has his own POV chapters, I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.

So that’s the bulk of why this was a four-star read instead of a five for me. I still enjoyed it a lot; I still think the series is moving in an interesting direction, giving us a bit more information on both the protomolecule civilization and whatever it was that destroyed them, while moving along humanity in what is obviously a reasonable direction: of course settlers are going to go squat on newly available worlds! Humans explore things! We colonize them! We get ourselves into trouble! Which is basically the thrust of this entire story.

What I really liked, though, was Avasarala’s epilogue, spelling out to Bobbie what the consequences of this new human migration would be. Things are going to get even more interesting from here, and I look forward to having both of those beloved ladies back in the future.