This Week, I Read… (2020 #20)

73 - First Frost

#73 – First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen

  • Read: 5/21/20 – 5/22/20
  • Mount TBR: 69/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read Garden Spells all the way back in 2016, and I haven’t reread it since, though now I definitely want to. I remember it being sweet and comforting and blessedly easy to read. Being me, I was mildly concerned that I wasn’t going to remember what happened well enough to dive back into world with its sequel nearly four years later with no refresher, but that didn’t end up mattering. The exact details of the plot that matter are reincorporated, and the time frame leaps forward by a decade, so it was smooth sailing all the way.

This is proof that the stakes don’t need to be high to make a piece of media engaging–no one’s in danger, the world doesn’t need saving, and aside from one teenage fistfight there’s no action to speak of. But when you care about the characters, you want to keep turning pages to find out what’s going to happen to them, and that’s how I ended up reading from page 93 to the end in one sitting this morning. I wanted to see if Bay and Josh had a chance of working out. I wanted to know when Claire was going to figure out what was wrong with her career choices and how to fix them. I wanted to know if Sydney was going to come clean with her husband about the change in their dynamic. (I’d say I wanted to know who Mariah’s new best friend was, but I figured that out really quickly, and I was right. But hey, I’m not reading a novel like this for big plot twists or surprises.)

I went into this wanting more Garden Spells, and that’s exactly what I got, and I’m extremely happy with that.

The Necessary Beggar

#74 – The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick

  • Read: 5/22/20 – 5/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 70/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a yellow cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

For a random freebie I got from the Tor newsletter, I was surprised how much I liked this, because freebies are always hit or miss, you download them because they’re there!

But it was far from great, and while many elements in this strange sci-fi/magical realism/slice of life mashup were interesting and moving, many were too strange to fit or downright harmful.

The central “plot”–and it’s pretty loose, structurally–is supposed to be this amazing love story, this recreation in human flesh of a myth, that sends a message about the power of love and forgiveness, and also provides catharsis. But notice how I didn’t include “romance” in the mashup listing? Because not one of the love stories contained in the book, spread across the members of a large family, felt authentic, and one had a strong abusive dynamic (the aunt and uncle) while the young adults (the daughter and her American boyfriend) were downright creepy. I never felt like they were in love, although I know I’m not supposed to think she was in love with him because for a long time she wasn’t, but his love is so obvious and forthright that at first it seems pure, but then gets twisted by the necessities of the plot into a semi-coerced marriage, and that was just ALL KINDS OF WRONG to me. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t beautiful, it didn’t feel good after everything else the book had heaped on the daughter’s shoulders.

So what did I like about this book? The strong emphasis on familial love and loyalty, the richness of the fictional culture the family comes from, the culture clash in the early parts of the book when the children are adapting but the adults are struggling. (Part of me feels like it’s a cop-out to explore the immigrant experience in America with an entirely fictional culture when there are so many interesting ones right here in our own dimension, but at the same time, sci-fi has always been a lens through which to examine humanity, and by using a fictional culture the [white] author isn’t co-opting a real culture not her own. Yes, this was written in 2005 and I shouldn’t expect it to be up to today’s levels of “woke” but as I was reading I really wasn’t sure if this was a great idea or a lazy one. After finishing I’m still not sure. Of course, the central conceit of the story is based on a fictional myth, so I guess practically speaking it had to be a fictional culture to go with it…)

In the end, I didn’t like the ending. It was obvious to me long before then what was going on, and while that’s not me demanding some big twist–I’m not, I swear–I didn’t feel satisfied to be right, when I got to the incredibly predictable ending. After all the emotion I had built up for (some of) these characters, it did feel like a letdown. So it’s an interesting blast from the recent past that I probably never would have read if it hadn’t been a freebie, simply because I probably never would have heard of it. But my thoughts on it are too mixed, my reaction too “meh” by the end, to call this a hidden gem that I should recommend to everyone.

75 - Room

#75 – Room, by Emma Donoghue

  • Read: 5/24/20 – 5/25/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with the major theme of survival
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics
  • Mount TBR: 71/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The book that I started last night and felt absolutely compelled to read straight through to the end became, this morning when I finished it, a dreary slog that didn’t satisfy the questions it raised in the beginning.

Seriously, this did not pay off its premise.

So many other reviewers, now that I’ve finished the book and skimmed some of the reviews, hated Jack’s narration and listed in detail why, all the quirks and odd word choice and Capitalization; and I feel that, but I also feel that the situation he was in explained it all adequately, and any annoyance I felt at the style was overwhelmed by interest in the story. I was hooked. It was horrible and gripping and I wanted to know what was going to happen and how they were going to escape and what would become of them afterward.

The escape itself is thin. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but I’ll give it a pass because at least it wasn’t belabored. Ma thought of it, explained it, Jack got scared and whined, but he did it, and it didn’t take more than a handful of pages to get through.

Once they’re both back in the real world, though? The book completely fell apart, because as interesting as it might be to see from Jack’s own perspective how he deals with an environment he’s never known–the whole world–by focusing on that the book almost completely ignores Ma’s struggles with reintegration. Her attempted suicide feels more like an excuse for the narrative to force Jack to deal with someone else for a change than it does a consequence of her precarious mental health. I wasn’t interested in seeing Jack go to the mall with his aunt and uncle, I wanted to see Ma’s recovery.

There’s plenty of disturbing things in this book on the surface, but I’m walking away from it with some equally disturbing thoughts about motherhood, because not only does Ma repeatedly imply or outright state that Jack’s life is more important than hers, the narrative seems to think so too, focusing narrowly on Jack’s pain and Jack’s struggles while his mother suffers in the background, almost entirely off-screen, and all in support of furthering Jack’s story. It’s not exactly the same as being fridged, but in many ways it echoes that harmful trope, and I don’t care for it.

#76 – Bound to be a Groom, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 5/25/20 – 5/26/20
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I read the prequel novella earlier this year, and despite it having some major flaws, I enjoyed it as a fluffy, “don’t think about it too hard” erotic romance. The premise of the first novel in the series still interested me, so here I am.

This was equally good, which is to say, equally bad. The historical and political aspects of the plot may be accurate, for all I know, but they weren’t interesting, and they weren’t a major enough part of the story to even be worth investing in. They were, at best, a skeletal framework on which to hang the notion of four people having a lot of licentious, semi-forbidden sex.

The bulk of the story was the sex, as tends to happen with erotic romance of course, but even for the genre this was stretching the “romance” aspect, because in two hundred pages four people have to forge several “love” relationships and one notable “we can have sex with the same people but no way no how with each other” dynamic.

Everything felt thin and rushed because there simply wasn’t time for anything more to develop. And to be honest, the sex scenes themselves were only so-so. I’ve read better, I’ve read worse. But if the entire point of the novel is the sex, shouldn’t it be better than so-so?

I gave the author a second shot, but I will not waste time on a third.

#77 – Melting Steel, by C.M. Seabrook

  • Read: 5/26/20 – 5/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 72/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I had a running list in my head of all the small issues I had with this book throughout the first half, many of them being related to needing a better editor. (Two different people were wearing “sequenced” dresses. Don’t let auto-correct write the story!)

But by the end, none of that matters, because this novel wouldn’t be any better for being perfectly proofread and presented. The heart of the problem is that the hero is a controlling and possessive man whose behavior crosses the line into abusive several times and the heroine is a pushover whiner with very little agency who lies back most of the time and lets the hero do whatever he wants–be that have sex with her, make her move in with him, have her followed whenever she leaves his apartment, runs a background check on her, forbids her from leaving later on when she tries to break off their relationship….

[The sex is always consensual, but often of the type that’s “I shouldn’t sleep with him for ALL OF THESE VERY GOOD REASONS but he’s just so hot and I’m just so weak-willed so I’ll let him convince me.” While I would consider much of the hero’s behavior abusive, there is no actual rape. And that’s about the best I can say about him.]

On top of that, the two of them fall in InstaLove, despite the only things they have in common being sex and trauma, since eventually it comes out that she’s half-sister to his dead best friend he feels guilty for not “saving” from her own mental health issues and eventual suicide. The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past made this impossible for me to read as anything beyond the hero “loving” the heroine because she reminded him of his lost friend, which is so gross.

The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past also spawn a ridiculously contrived suspense subplot involving the drugs, stolen money, the heroine’s little brother, and her rape-y ex-boyfriend, which culminates in the hero getting non-fatally shot at his sister’s wedding.

The level of melodrama in this was beyond believable. This isn’t the worst romance I’ve read, but it’s got to be hanging out down there in the bottom ten somewhere.

#78 – Never a Mistress, No Longer a Maid, by Maureen Driscoll

  • Read: 5/27/20 – 5/28/20
  • Mount TBR: 73/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The pacing here was strange and definitely impacted my enjoyment of the story. I read on my Kindle, and the end of the prologue was at 9%. What? The prologue takes up nearly a tenth of the book? The early chapters seemed fine, but then the last act packs a lot of action and intrigue in at a pace that left my head spinning: two failed kidnapping attempts before a successful one; a murder; a daring rescue; blackmail; and the end to the subplot I originally thought was the major external conflict, a strange and rushed resolution to an unwanted betrothal for the hero.

The last act seemed like it was finishing a different book than the one I’d been reading, which had almost no physical danger in it.

As for the romance itself, I’m used to contrived setups, but this didn’t put in the work to make it really work. The hero’s career as a “spy” is thin and never seems important aside from making sure he’s in the war in Belgium to have sex with, then lose, the heroine. Who also has a somewhat unbelievable backstory, that she runs away from home to be a surgeon in the war but then as soon as she’s found goes meekly back to England to be a good daughter, except woops she’s pregnant now.

And neither of them display much growth as the story progresses, because most of the conflicts are those pesky external ones, the kidnapping, the unwanted almost-betrothal, the murder. I guess the hero does go from finding marriage distasteful to being all on board, mostly due to meeting and falling hard for his adorable little daughter (who was probably the best thing about this book, realistic, funny, not too well-behaved or perfect, but not a stupid brat either. I liked Violet a lot.) But the heroine’s internal conflict is “I don’t want to get married because I think that means giving up the life and career I have now” and she doesn’t deviate from that at all until the very end, when the rampant danger to her, her daughter, and the hero, prompts her to change her mind and think being a family together is more important than her career. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it didn’t feel natural, because it wasn’t set up at all by the earlier story.

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.

 

Next Month’s TBR: January 2020

January 2020 TBR.jpg

I managed to cover my three year-long challenges and The Reading Frenzy’s monthly challenge in just nine books!

  1. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  2. So I’m a Spider, So What? Vol. 1, by Asahiro Kakashi
  3. Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton
  4. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
  5. Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
  6. Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb
  7. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
  8. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
  9. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

All nine will count towards Mount TBR. Eight will count for PopSugar tasks. Six are for TRF’s Travel-a-thon: New York City challenge. Five are for Around the Year in 52 Books (one each week.)

I’d call that good planning! I’d say my average book-per-month rate is 12, which leaves three spots open (in theory, at least) for reading unplanned books (though they will still probably end up being books I’ve picked out for PopSugar, and they’ll almost certainly be Mount TBR-worthy.)

I’ve got a wide spread here, though, from classics to manga to post-apocalyptic to historical romance, so even if this is all I get through in January, I won’t get bored.

My October 2019 TBR!

October 2019 TBR

Yesterday I mentioned that I’m not participating in any monthly reading challenges, and those usually account for about half of my reading any given month. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a TBR stack anyway, based on my progress with the year-long challenges, and here’s what I came up with!

As I hope to be doing more writing (and cross-stitching) this month, this is, perhaps, an overly ambitious TBR, and I don’t expect to get through all of it. But to explain my thinking:

  • The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb
  • Abaddon’s Gate, by James S.A. Corey

The Mad Ship is my current read–see my bookmark sticking out halfway through?–and the others are next-in-series books. I’ve been meaning to read more of The Expanse for a while, and that last remaining 2016 book I have to check off my list is Fool’s Errand, which is the seventh Realms of the Elderlings book. These two are #5-6.

  • Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  • The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn
  • The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All books I’ve selected for various PopSugar Reading Challenge tasks that I haven’t gotten to, yet. For October I’ve prioritized physical books that I might be able to get rid of when I’m done–I’ve read so much this year, yet my shelves don’t feel any emptier. I’ll still be reading some digital books to finish the challenge, but those can wait for now.

  • The Dark Mirror, by Juliet Marillier
  • A Blunt Instrument, by Georgette Heyer

The odd ones out, The Dark Mirror is my current library book, chosen because I’ve been trying to work through my master TBR list roughly in order for Virtual Mount TBR, at least as much as availability allows! It’s #3, so it was time to request it. A Blunt Instrument, on the other hand, is at the top of my acquired-in-2017 books, alphabetically speaking, and it’s time to work on that list, now that I’m nearly done with 2016. Plus, I have another Heyer book on my shelves, so if I hate this one, I can ditch them both!


So that’s nine books, which doesn’t particularly sound like a lot, for me–I regularly read more than a dozen a month. But when you add up the page count–which I did, out of curiosity–it comes out to almost exactly 5,000. Thanks to Goodreads “Pages Over Time” stats breakdown, I know that’s mid-range for my 2019 reading, which has a low of about 3K pages and highs over 7500. However, because I mark DNF books on Goodreads as “complete,” my page counts will generally be inflated by the books I “read” but didn’t actually finish.

Which makes this TBR ambitious, like I knew it would be, though I like having solid numbers to back that up. Granted, I am just over 400 pages into The Mad Ship already, having started it at the end of September, so this doesn’t seem impossible, just challenging.

Have I Read That? The 20 Most Reviewed Books on Amazon

In a recent newsletter, Book Riot sent an article listing the twenty most-reviewed books on Amazon, ever. I don’t read every article, and I don’t click on every list, but I was curious about this one, because “most reviewed” doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with “most popular”–popular books are read more, so could be reviewed more, but they also have to provoke a strong reaction, good or bad.

So I scanned the list and was surprised by how many of the books I’d actually never heard of! I thought I’d take a few minutes to run through the listed works and see a) if I’ve read the book, b) what I thought of it if I did, and c) if I haven’t read it, do I want to?

1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins: Unread, uninterested. I did watch the first movie when it showed up on Netflix, and it wasn’t terrible, but if I were to read this series, it would only be to understand the deeper references to it in popular culture that I haven’t already figured out through osmosis, and with the state of my TBR, that’s just not a good enough reason to invest the time right now.

2. Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline: Never heard of it before, going on my TBR. It’s well-received on Goodreads, and I see it was published in 2013, so it could very well have been one of those “big” books, but before I was paying much attention to popular works. (I didn’t start this blog until 2015 or any reading challenges until 2016.) The story sounds interesting enough, my library has it, and I do enjoy historical fiction when it’s done well, so I’ll give it a try.

3. Divergent, by Veronica Roth: Unread, deeply uninterested. This big YA series started back in 2011, again before my time paying attention to current reading trends, so I didn’t hear about it until it was optioned as a movie and the marketing was EVERYWHERE. It didn’t sound appealing to me then, it still doesn’t now.

4. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Already in my TBR. I picked this up at a used book sale–twice, to be honest, because the second time I’d forgotten I bought it several months before and hadn’t read it yet. If I like it, I intend to give the second copy to a family member, and if I don’t, I’ll re-donate it.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: Read, five stars. Finally, one I’ve read!

6. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan: Never heard of it, not really interested. “Based on a true story” war fiction is not generally my thing, and I’ve read so much about WWII over the years that I’m very choosy about books set during it, it’s just so overdone.

7. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green: Unread, possibly interested. I have yet to read any John Green, but I have two other books by him (Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines) waiting for me on my unread shelves. If I like those, I’d definitely consider reading Fault as well.

8. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown: Unread, going on my TBR. I remember my mother reading this and loving it, but despite her recommendation somehow it didn’t make it onto my TBR. I’m fixing that right now.

9. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James: Unread, nope nope nope. I will never. I read enough of it through Jenny Trout’s brilliant deconstruction/criticism/outrage blog series, and that’s all I need to read.

10. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty: Unread, uninterested. I checked on the reviews and ratings from my Goodreads friends who’ve read it, and they’re pretty dismal. The blurb sounds interesting and alarming, but I trust these people, so I’ll give it a pass.

11. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand: Unread, uninterested. Again with the WWII, just not going to happen.

12. The Martian, by Andy Weir: Read, five stars. Two out of twelve! I’m not completely out of touch!

13. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon: Read, four stars. Though the books definitely decline in quality and readability as the series goes on, I gave up partway through book eight and I kind of wish I’d given up sooner.

14. Sycamore Row, by John Grisham: Never heard of this particular book but I certainly know the author, not interested. I think I read The Client way back when as a teenager, and I haven’t felt the need to pick up any Grisham works since, so why start now?

15. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: Read, two stars. Such a disappointment after how much I loved The Secret History.

16. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah: Read, five stars. Loved it to pieces.

17. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: Read, four stars. This puts me at six of seventeen, that’s getting better.

18. Inferno, by Dan Brown: Unread, uninterested. Though I could probably build a house out of all of the used copies of Dan Brown books I’ve seen available over the years, I have never felt the slightest inclination to give him a try.

19. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: Read, three stars. I think this was my first “popular” book I read after I started my reading challenges, and it wasn’t terrible, but I definitely didn’t see why it was a runaway hit like it was.

20. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins: Unread, still uninterested. I suppose it says something that the series was so popular (and contentious) that it’s got two of the top twenty spots, but that doesn’t change my mind. I can survive just fine without knowing more than I do.

The Book Blogger Confessions Tag

I was wondering what to post next–I’m trying to get ahead on the blog while #spookyromancenovel is in beta–and I saw this bookish meme on Adele is Reading! Please give her a visit and check out her answers as well!

Which book, most recently, did you not finish?

There’s going to be a review on Friday for my most recent DNF, but I don’t want to spoil that, so the prior one would be Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’d heard great things about it, and I’d already read a bit of her nonfiction–We Should All Be Feminists. And I tried and tried and got almost halfway through but I just couldn’t make myself keep going. There was a lot I liked about it, in terms of cultural detail and setting and some of the characters, but the plot wandered without much direction.

Which book is your guilty pleasure?

I’m trying not to think of things in that frame of mind any more, to let of the “it’s bad but I love it anyway” mind set. But my current guilty pleasure, not in the way you think, is Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Not because it’s bad–it’s amazing!–but because when I’m not super into the book I’m “supposed” to be reading for whatever challenge or book review, I’ll go back and reread my favorite sections of RWRB instead. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover more than once, but there are definitely scenes I go back to (not just the sex scenes, either, get your mind out of the gutter) when I can’t face whatever I don’t feel like reading. It’s quickly becoming a comfort book.

Which book do you love to hate? & Which book would you throw into the sea?

I have to reach pretty far back for this one, but the worst book I’ve ever read was Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, and I feel no shame hating it with a flaming passion for all its faux-literary pretentiousness, wandering pointless plot, complete lack of meaning or satisfying conclusion, and fundamental inability to help the reader understand literally anything about what’s going on in the story by neglecting the basic tenets of common dialogue and punctuation. In reading it I felt like McCarthy himself was standing over me, reveling in how much I couldn’t keep track of who was speaking, what was happening, and what any of it meant, while sneering and saying, “But look how many awards I’ve won!”

I would happily throw my copy into the sea if I hadn’t already thrown it away long ago. With it, I’ll toss in anything “classic” that is horribly outdated in terms of social justice, sexism, and racism but continues to be taught in school because that’s the book that’s always been taught and Old White Male Authors are the only literary tradition worth perpetuating. You can all go into the sea, for all I care.

Which book have you read the most?

I can’t pinpoint for sure, because before I started frequenting used book sales in the last five years, my collection was actually quite small and I reread books frequently. Most likely, it’s a Sharon Shinn book, possibly Archangel or Angelica, but if it’s not one of hers, then the next most likely culprit is Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest. Now, I hardly reread things at all, because I have too many new-to-me books to plow through.

Which book would you hate to receive as a present?

I got my husband a nice leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of Moby Dick & Billy Budd, because I knew MD was one of his favorite classics. I tried to read it, finally, and I hated it. So don’t anybody give me another copy of my own, a) I don’t need it and b) I wouldn’t want it anyway, it’s terrible.

Which book could you not live without?

Tough choice, but I think this is going to go to another one of my favorite authors, heavily featured in my personal collection: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Every time I reread it I get more out of it, and it’s strange and fascinating and beautiful, and I recommend it to everyone I think might have even the slightest chance of appreciating it. I would never willingly get rid of my copy, ever.

Which book made you the angriest?

If we ignore The Road because I’ve already ranted about that, the book that made me angriest was The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth, by Gerald Schroeder. Many years ago, when my devoutly Southern Lutheran grandmother found out I had given up on church and was on the road to becoming atheist (which I am now) she was not disappointed or judgmental, she didn’t cut me off. (She was really the best grandma ever, I miss her so much.) What she did was send me this book, hoping that it would convince me science and religion weren’t oil and water, that there could be room for both in my life, that they could be reconciled.

Honestly, just looking at the book made me mad, so I didn’t read it. For several years, actually, and then my grandmother passed away and still it sat there, staring at me from the shelf and making me feel guilty that I neglected that avenue of connecting to her.

Eventually, I did try reading it, and gave up 10% in. It was a terrible mishmash of flawed reasoning, rampant logical fallacy, and at times seemingly willful misunderstanding of “science” in order to twist in into something that gelled with Christianity. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for, some insight into my grandmother’s faith that I’d never understood, but it just made me angry that drek like that can get published and continue to mislead people about what science even is.

Which book made you cry the most?

Recently, that’s definitely Feed by Mira Grant. I was in occasional tears throughout the first half of the book and near-constant weeping at the end. I was a soggy, exhausted, emotional mess. And it was amazing.

Which book cover do you hate the most?

I haven’t read it yet, so I have no idea if this is going to be a good-book, terrible-cover situation. But I’ve got a copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and that cover is just a nightmare waiting to happen:

Haunted.JPG

I picked it up from a used book sale not on the strength of its cover, just on the author’s fame. I did one of those “put your writing in the box and we’ll tell you who you write like!” and I got him. (From the entire first chapter of What We Need to Survive, if you’re curious.) But I hadn’t read any of his work, and a few months later this turned up, so it went into my basket and came home with me. Maybe I’ll try to get to it soon.

I hope you enjoyed my answers to this tag! Feel free to keep it going on your own blog, and if you do, please link back to me so I get notified and can check out your post!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #28)

89 - The Songbird's Refrain

#89 –  The Songbird’s Refrain, by Jillian Maria

  • Read: 7/5/19 – 7/7/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was provided a free copy of the book by the author for review purposes. This consideration does not affect my review in any way.

A debut novel that showcases a lot of potential but is hampered by a few amateurish flaws.

At first, I liked the story. A wee baby lesbian with an interesting way of talking herself out of self-centeredness (or even, occasionally, paranoia) doesn’t run away to join the circus, but is instead kidnapped by one. (Not exactly a circus, but it’s the best shorthand to use without spoiling all sorts of things.) There were some pacing problems in the first half, it dragged some, mostly because of vague “you’re you but also someone else” dreams.

Right around the halfway point, when I figured out what the dreams meant just before that information was revealed, I got hooked hard. I finished the rest of the book in basically one long sitting. By the end, I loved the story, bumping my “probably will be three stars” rating to a definite four.

Why not five? This really, really needed one more editing pass for word repetition. There are some darlings that still need killing–how many times does Elizabeth rub at the scar on her shoulder? Some chapters it doesn’t feel like she does anything else. Certain descriptive phrases–“peachy skin,” “black-draped,” “lumpy [and/or] misshapen”–come up so. many. times. Even a lot of the description that isn’t repetitive doesn’t quite land with me, I felt like I could see what the author intended, but not without thinking to myself, that’s not really a great way to put it.

Still, despite a slightly rocky start, I was on board with this story once it got going, and I cried a little at the end. It was satisfying in a way I can’t describe without inflicting dire spoilers, but given that so much of the plot is tragic (in the true sense, not the melodramatic one) I was happy that the ending managed to provide a sense of catharsis to some of the horror the characters experienced along the way.

90 - Saga Volume 3

#90 – Saga, Vol. 3, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 7/7/19 – 7/8/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (27/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I have this feeling, now that I’m three volumes in, that the entire run of the series is going to be five stars for me.

I’ve talked before about how much I love the story, and that hasn’t changed here. But as I’m getting more accustomed to the art style, and as I’m also reminding myself to read these volumes a little slower, I’m noticing so much more detail. Visual and environmental storytelling is a subject I’m familiar with in video game design (because I’m a geek who loves to watch YouTube videos about it with my equally geeky husband, we’re totally fascinated) but how have I not been applying those lessons to the graphic novels I read?

I blame the fact that I never read comic books growing up. I didn’t learn to read visually as a child in the same way a comic reader would, and I’ve been reading adult-level novels, absolute bricks of novels, since I was ten. My skill set never needed visual reading skills the same way.

Some of my favorite details from this volume: Marko’s new beard as a sign of both time passing, and of grief. Heist’s piss-stained underwear, because of course the drunken-author figure can’t be bothered to put clothes on and not be a total slob. All the changes in Isabel’s face to make her more frightening when she’s threatening Honest Cat. And, honestly, the level of detail in the single-panel “vision” of Prince Robot’s hallucinatory orgy, there’s just a lot going on there and if your brain just glances at it and says “yeah, people having sex, whatever” then you miss so much, because he’s apparently a pretty kinky dude inside that television skull of his.

And there’s more, of course, but those are the highlights. I’m wondering, now, just how much information of this sort I missed in the first two volumes, which I already loved, so how much better will they be when I reread them?

91 - Butterfly Swords

#91 – Butterfly Swords, by Jeannie Lin

  • Read: 7/8/19 – 7/9/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (60/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: A book with an animal in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I was primarily interested in this because it was a historical romance set outside of England/Europe, and it was, yet I was disappointed by its setting. Sometimes when I read more typical historical romance (especially Regency stuff) I’m inundated with detail about what life was like then, the styles of dress, the manners, the routines of daily life.

I got none of that here. I think the story is assuming I’ve ever seen a martials arts film set in the past (doesn’t really matter when, peasants are peasants) and asking me to fill in everything I know about Tang Dynasty China from that.

So that covers my first disappointment. The second is the romance itself. I see how Ryam and Ai Li are in lust with each other quite convincingly. (Side note: I don’t understand why her name is spelled as “Ailey” the way Ryam pronounces it, even when in the sections the narrative is clearly from her viewpoint. Bothered me through the whole book, it should have been reserved for his dialogue.) What I don’t see is them ever making any sort of emotional connection. Ryam saves and then follows her out of a sense of duty to her for her brief kindness, fantastic opening. But then he obsesses about how sexy she is while reminding himself how inappropriate making a move on her would be, and I never get the sense he moves on from that attitude. Ai Li’s thought process is basically “big barbarian = actually handsome, I can take care of myself, oh no wait I can’t, let’s keep him around.”

And the sex scenes were only okay. I’m glad there weren’t more of them, actually. So yeah, all the reasons I read this romance weren’t delivered on.

92 - Maybe in Another Life.jpg

#92 – Maybe in Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Read: 7/9/19 – 7/10/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (28/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I came to this after discovering Reid with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and wanting to dive into her back catalog. Sadly, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by this, even allowing for how she’s obviously grown as a writer.

It’s not all bad, fortunately. No matter how often the characters talk about soul mates or fate, it’s clear that this story is about refuting the idea of soul mates, because both of the parallel story tracks have happy endings that match Hannah with a different person. Which I think is lovely, because in other Sliding Doors-style books I’ve read, it’s clear there’s a right romantic choice, and even though the paths are different in the two story tracks, they both wind up in the same place in the end, or at least with the potential to get there. I really like that this doesn’t. This book says, no, there’s more than one “right” person out there for you, if you’re open to the possibilities. And I think that’s a good message.

The weaknesses lie in the details.

Hannah reads as incredibly immature for her age, though to some extent I know she’s supposed to, since she starts the story not having her life in order and needs to get it that way; but I honestly question why these two dudes are falling for her, because she’s a mess, and at least in Ethan’s case, he knows she’s a mess and we’re just supposed to accept on faith that he’s been pining for her this whole time. In Henry’s story, on the other hand, Hannah’s a mess because she was the victim of a car accident and he’s got a great reason to be seeing her at her worst.

But that leads me to another weakness. I don’t feel like Ethan and Henry are fundamentally any different. The surface differences are there: Ethan’s a second-chance romance while Henry’s a new man in Hannah’s life. Henry’s a nurse and I honestly don’t even remember what Ethan does for a living because it’s not at all important to the story, especially because he takes a bunch of vacation time to hang out (and repeatedly bang) Hannah when they reunite. But in all the ways that they interact with Hannah, they’re basically the same guy. They’re both sweet and caring. They’re both super-indulgent of Hannah’s cinnamon roll fetish. They both act consistently more mature than Hannah does. When you strip them down to personality, there’s not that much to mark them as different.

Which leads to the root weakness, a weakness that pretty much all stories with this fundamental split tend to suffer–lack of development space for any character that’s only present in one of the timelines. I can’t know more about Ethan or Henry because there isn’t time, from having to deal with both of them.

That’s a lot of negativity, but there were some good things. To contrast Hannah’s dual stories, her best friend Gabby gets them, too, only hers end up with the same happy ending via drastically different paths. That’s a solid subplot that was handled with a great deal of grace and care. (It did result in the worst case of repetition in the entire story, at the end, when her new flame makes the same half-page long speech in both story lines and it’s honestly excessive. I get that he’s the same dude in both stories because nothing about Hannah’s choices ever affected him, but that was just SPEECH –> a few pages –> EXACT SAME SPEECH.)

Despite all of this, I did enjoy it. It wasn’t amazing, it didn’t blow me away like Evelyn did, but it also hasn’t turned me off reading Reid’s other pre-Evelyn work. I still want to explore it, I’ve just tempered my expectations a little.