This Week, I Read… (2018 #50)

178 - Homeland

#178 –  Homeland and Other Stories, by Barbara Kingsolver

As usual for short story collections, some spoke to me much more loudly than others, and in this case, I disliked a few. But what stood out to me most was that I felt every story–even the ones I otherwise liked–ended in the wrong place. An odd, unfinished place. And yes, I know they’re short stories, they’re glimpses of an event or a short span of someone’s life, not an entire plot; but I still came away from each story feeling that I lacked any resolution. Across the board, I felt unsatisfied.

Yet I’m still in love with Kingsolver’s constant inclusion of nature, her beautiful turns of phrase. I can admire this for the language and the strength of her imagery, but also be disappointed that her style of short story doesn’t feel as complete or accessible to me as other authors’. I’m glad I read it, but I have a feeling that none of the stories will be sticking with me.

179 - Last of the Wilds

#179 – Last of the Wilds, by Trudi Canavan

DNF @ page 90. I gave this more than 10% before I gave up, because I wanted to at least rotate once fully between ALL THE MANY POVs. Like the first book, there are just too many, and it makes the narrative too choppy.

Basically the only thing I do like about the book is the inclusion of a new POV character, Reivan, one of the Pentadrian army. Through her I got the first glimpses of the enemy and their society, which honestly seemed to be as rigid, theocratic, and harmful as the Circlians, aka the “good” guys. Part of me was hoping for some kind of subversion, that the Pentadrians were going to turn out to be the winners/heroes/good guys after all, but if this epic fantasy trilogy is about two theocracies dueling it out to see which one is better, well, you’re both idiots, and I don’t care who wins. I’m out. For good.

180 - Friends with Partial Benefits

#180 – Friends with Partial Benefits, by Luke Young

DNF @ 50%. I kept waiting for it to get funny, like all these reviews are saying it is, but it’s just crude, sleazy, and unrealistic.

In the first half of the book, I encountered a whole host of story issues: mild lesbophobia, the perpetuation of demeaning stereotypes about middle-aged women, the constant reiteration that these middle-aged woman can only be sexy/sexual if they look significantly younger than their actual age, completely unbelievable dialogue, predatory sexual behavior including numerous peeping-tom events by both the male and female characters, and constant derogatory comments about the romance-writer-character’s career, both by her and others.

Yeah, this is a “romance” written by a man, and it shows, because apparently it’s okay for the author to make a career writing “romance” but when his female character does it, she’s mocked for it. (On top of that, the excerpts of her writing that appear in the narrative are just awful, right down to more typos and grammatical errors appearing there than in the rest of the work. Though there are plenty of those, too. Did this have an editor?)

You know what I didn’t get from the first half of the book? Any emotional attachment to the characters, or any emotional development on the part of the characters. These are cardboard cutouts moving around a fancy mansion and trying to have sex with each other. Because this book isn’t about romance, it’s about sex. All the characters are constantly talking about it, a few of the characters are actually having it (though almost entirely off the page, so far,) and it’s the only thing any of them seem to care about.

All that being said, I still can’t even call it “erotica” instead, because it’s not erotic. It’s wooden, clunky, and boring. And honestly, there’s not enough actual sex in it for a good erotica (at least in the first half, but I’m not sticking around to find out who hops into bed later.)

181 - The Bone Season

#181 – The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

DNF @ page 135. I just can’t anymore. It’s so bad.

I didn’t hear about the problematic elements of this story until long after I’d picked up a secondhand copy for pennies. If I’d been paying closer attention to the drama the book was causing on Tumblr at the time, I would have ditched it unread. But I didn’t–an oversight on my part.

So there I am, trying to clear out some older books from my TBR and my shelves, and I pick this up, completely forgetting it’s (allegedly) a flaming pile of racism and gross slavery romance. I didn’t even remember that until more than 100 pages in, because I was so busy being frustrated at how INCREDIBLY BAD IT IS even without that.

Issue #1: Nothing is ever explained. A new concept is introduced and breezed right past as if we already know what the author is talking about. And I’ve seen writing tips that advise this: write your story as if the reader already knows your world, then pay attention to wherever your beta readers have questions or didn’t understand something. That way, you don’t clog up the story with unnecessary exposition. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN NEVER EXPLAIN ANYTHING EVER.

Issue #2: Waaaaay too much slang. Like, 300% too much. There are already so many unfamiliar words in the text because of the world-building, then you get obscure 1800’s British slang on top of that, only some of it is apparently repurposed to mean something different in this fictional world, so even if I were an expert on British slang, I still wouldn’t have a clue? Really?

Issue #3: Info-dump dialogue. Which seems like it should be a contradictory problem, when up in #1 I was complaining that nothing is ever explained? Let me rephrase. Nothing I want to have explained is ever explained. The stuff I don’t feel like I need spoon-fed to me is what the characters endlessly chat about.

Issue #4: I can’t be invested in the stakes if I don’t understand the world. I don’t even understand what the stakes are. Was I supposed to be impressed by Paige’s abilities during her first test? Because I feel like maybe I should have been, except I literally didn’t understand how she was fighting. It didn’t make any sense.

Conclusion: This book is wretched for all sorts of reasons before the super-troubling slavery-romance subplot even begins. And then I’m assuming it gets worse, but I won’t be reading it to find out.

182 - The Fragile Fall

#182 – The Fragile Fall, by Kristy Love

At first I was trying to keep track of all my problems with this story, from excessively repetitive dialogue to inconsistent characterization; but halfway through, I realized very little of the technical stuff mattered beside the HUGE red flags this story was sending up. They can be summed up in few themes.

1. The romanticization of grief, mental illness, and self-harm.
2. Savior complex, ie, love fixes everything.
3. Look at how these huge problems have such a simple, shallow road to recovery.

That’s all this story is–shallow. Ryanne “loves” Will because…I don’t really know? On paper, why would a college girl fall for a younger and incredibly sheltered high school boy with no real social skills or life experience beyond a tragic backstory? Their age gap is only two years (17/19) which isn’t entirely out of the range of possibility as teenagers, but the way their dynamic works, Ryanne loves Will because a) the plot needs her to, and b) she seems to have a savior complex, which I was shy of pinning on her at first, but as the story went on, things she said and did, as well as her own family’s backstory, made it pretty clear Will was as much a possession and a project for her as he was a lover.

Will loves Ryanne, understandably, because he’s a sheltered teenage boy dealing with massive amounts of grief and isolation, and Ryanne is a pretty girl who pays attention to him. Also shallow, but from his perspective, completely believable.

What’s not believable, though, is how quickly he “recovers” from his accidental brush with death. I’m hesitant to call it a suicide attempt, because the narrative definitely paints it as his self-harm going too far, rather than a premeditated, deliberate act. But the end result is a few weeks of being institutionalized, a quick recap of incredibly platitude-filled sessions with his therapist, then back to almost-normal life with almost no repercussions.

I could actually keep going–I haven’t even touched the weird, pointless drama about Ryanne’s parents, or how her brother Jax is a terrible brother to her and best friend to Will, embodying a lot of what’s awful about toxic masculinity–but this is really the worst of it. Will and Ry “saved” each other from mental illness, family drama, and self-harm through the sheer, awesome power of their completely flimsy “love.”

183 - At Home in Mitford

#183 – At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon

DNF @ page 50. My two major problems: first, there was no plot to speak of yet, 10% of the way in; and second, the fictional town of Mitford was oozing quaintness and upper-middle-class perfection in such quantities I was afraid my fingers would get sticky from turning the pages. It was so fake in its presentation that I couldn’t stomach reading about it.

184 - Magic Breaks

#184 – Magic Breaks, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 12/25/18 – 12/26/18
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

What a wild ride.

The longer this series goes on, the harder time I have being critical of it, or even analytical. I flew through this in just over day–I didn’t find anything to nitpick. I just loved it from start to finish, and the ending has me excited to find out next, since it managed to be a great resolution for this book, yet still a massive cliffhanger for the series.

I don’t think there’s any denying that I’m a complete Kate Daniels fangirl at this point.

185 - Tucker

#185 – Tucker, by Juliana Stone

Great sexual tension between the leads, terrible plot.

Let’s apply a core piece of romance-writing advice to this story: Why aren’t they together now?

1. At first, Tucker and Abby aren’t a thing because they’re “friends.” Of course, this friendship is presented as incredibly shallow for most of the book; she’s a bartender at his favorite drinking spot and they talk. Eventually it’s revealed that he’s stayed after hours a few times and they played darts. So that’s “friends” to him? Because she’s literally paid to be nice to you as her job, and to get tips from you. Now, it’s revealed pretty quickly that Abby’s had a crush on him since day one, but still. None of this strikes me as being actual friends.

2. Tucker’s not ready to move on from his missing/dead wife. It’s been three years, and yeah, a presumed-dead wife isn’t the same thing as an actually dead one, so I get it. That’s an entirely reasonable span of time for someone to let go, or to still be torn up–IRL that would depend on the person. I don’t have a problem with that. I do, however, have a problem when it’s revealed that his wife intentionally got pregnant without his consent, while he believed she was taking her birth control, because she was baby-crazy. Of course she lost the baby before she disappeared–adding a child to this bizarre plot would make the simple closure we get at the end impossible–but apparently Tucker’s grief at her disappearance apparently made him forget that betrayal, which is on a deal-breaker level for me personally.

So in spite of all this, Abby agrees to be his last-minute date for a wedding, and everyone in his family there assumes they’re together, despite BOTH of them constantly insisting they’re not. Terrible family, that won’t take anyone’s word for it, because of course they know better! Anyone can see the tension and attraction between them, right? So that makes it totally okay to mock them when they swear they’re not a couple!

But of course before the wedding weekend is over, they’re having sex in the hotel room they were forced to share. Way to prove the fam right.

When they return home, we get to reason #3: Abby’s older brother is a completely toxic jerk. This story takes the “protective older brother” trope to an extreme, though in a way, since Tucker is a terrible person, it’s almost justified. Mick gives Tucker so much shit for dating/having sex with Abby, and while Tucker might be the kind of man who needs reminding not to be an ass, Abby is an adult who doesn’t need her family insulating her from having a life. But hey, it’s okay, boys will be boys, right?

So eventually Tucker and Abby sort themselves out into a reasonable relationship, the depiction of which is totally unsatisfying (the narrative even says “they fell into a comfortable routine,” which is just what I want–a romance that goes from sixty to zero in the space of a few weeks and a couple pages /sarcasm.) Then! Tucker’s wife is found in Cuba! Maybe!

I honestly expected that not to happen. Like, a missing person is gone for three years, then magically shows back up at the most inconvenient time for the plot? She didn’t have to. Tucker was moving on without that spur, and she could have just stayed missing. Or even been found dead, for real closure. But no, he has to fly down there to see if it’s really her–and it’s not, and the woman it really is gives the authorities evidence of where her plane crashed–and discover the story himself, jeopardizing his new, boring relationship with Abby. And then when he’s back and super sure his wife is really gone, he can finally say “I love you.”

I did like the banter between Abby and Tucker, and the sex scenes weren’t terrible. But mostly everything else was. Including the text itself–and I know this had an editor, because they’re listed on the copyright page. But throughout the book, there was frequently missing punctuation, as well as a sprinkling of commas “inserte,d” into words instead of after them, which is a mistake so obvious a simple spell-check will catch it. It’s minor, compared with the story issues, but nothing screams “unprofessional” like a poorly-edited book.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #48)

171 - The Pearl that Broke its Shell

#171 – The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi

A potentially interesting story that got bogged down under its own weight.

The structure of two intertwined narratives is a good one for the aim of this book, but both the present and the past are treated with equal weight, though the past narrative is supposed to be an inspirational story influencing the present protagonist; it could have been shorter.

In fact, they both could have been shorter, because most pages seemed filled to the brim with dialogue that was often repetitive, either one character restating what another had said, or the protagonist in the present narrative vocalizing her internal monologue. At nearly 500 pages, this simply went on too long to really captivate me. At 2/3 of that, or maybe even 3/4, it would have been a much stronger story.

As for the tale itself? Misery piled upon misery, with our plucky heroines finding the strength to do something about it. The characterization is strong, but the plot is meandering and often predictable, at least if you’ve read any Afghani fiction before.

172 - Saga Vol. 1

#172 – Saga, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

[Challenge note: Now that I’ve read this, I’m not sure it’s much like the “cyberpunk” I’m familiar with; I got it from a suggested list, because I’ve already read most of the genre’s classics. That being said, I’m glad I did read it even if it didn’t quite fit the task, because…]

I loved everything about this, the writing, the weirdness, the art style, the color palette. I binged it in a single sitting and I’m overjoyed that my library has all of it.

Do I have any criticisms? Not really. I have a lot of unanswered questions, but that’s the trouble sometimes with reviewing pieces of a sequential work–I can’t say much about this as a finished object, because it’s not. However, I do think it serves as a solid introduction to what I assume the story is going to be–it’s full of action and tender moments both; it’s weird as all get out but in a way I groove with; the “adult” content is present but not gratuitous or merely for shock/titillation value; and it tells the story of the birth of little Hazel, overlaid with her narration, in a way that screams both “nostalgia” and “fascinating protagonist to come.”

The rest of the series is going on my TBR immediately.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #47)

164 - Priestess of the White

#164 – Priestess of the White, by Trudi Canavan

I would have DNF’d this, if only I hadn’t bought it specifically because I picked up #2 in the trilogy at a used book sale, on the strength of a lot of people recommending Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy.

Turns out, this isn’t nearly as good that the praise for her other works led me to believe it would be.

I have a lot of complaints and basically nothing good to say.

1. Too disjointed. I’m not opposed to brief asides that introduce a new focus character, for the purpose of showing something specific that a main character isn’t present for. In fact, I can think of quite a few fantasy works I’ve read before that use this technique beautifully. Here, though, the narrative hops between characters constantly, and it got to the point where I didn’t know on beginning a new scene (or tiny chunk of scene) if the character being introduced was important or not, simply because the jumps happened so often.

2. Not a fan of theocracies. Auraya, our MC, is one of the White, the chosen of the Gods, and she’s bestowed both magical and political power because of it. The White keep saying that all other religions are “cults” because their gods “aren’t real,” the implication being that their own are, and we do see the Gods manifest in what certainly seems to be a real way. But their reasoning never sat well with me–seeing Auraya agonize over saving the souls of the Dreamweavers, in particular, turned my stomach–because of the constant insistence that the White’s religion, their way of life, was the “right” one, that they knew best and should convert/rule over others. Um, no thanks? By the time this bothered me, I hoped for a subversion at the end of the book, that the White find out somehow that they’re not fully “right.” It sort of happened, because Auraya witnessed what looked like another God manifesting to its followers. However…

3. The war is stupid. Evil heretics are coming to invade us because they hate our Gods! Okay, good reason to have a war. But then, after the entire book is spent gathering allies (with two out of the three missions to do so turning out successfully,) there’s one battle staged around one big magical throwdown that the White have with the enemy sorcerers, and that’s it. Auraya kills one of them, and then the White’s leader orders that the others be spared, and everybody goes home? Yeah, because none of the other sorcerers kept fighting? They weren’t furious at the death of their comrade and they didn’t want revenge or victory? Everything was just over? I was just flabbergasted at how anti-climactic the last hundred pages were. Especially since HEY MAYBE YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY GODS IN TOWN. Hopefully that’s addressed in the next book, which I am still going to read, dammit. (Or at least try to.)

4. Worst romance ever. Okay, that’s not entirely fair, I’ve read some awful romances, but Auraya/Leiard is a dumb pairing because a) he was her teacher when she was a child/teenager (it wasn’t clear how old she was until FAR too late in the story); b) he’s significantly older than her even as an adult, and while I could get over that age gap under other circumstances, he knew her as a child and so it just squicks me out; c) they have no chemistry; d) she’s a chosen priestess and he’s a heathen (according to the White) practicing forbidden teachings and ohmygod this is a bad idea for so many reasons, but “love” is supposed to trump that, only it doesn’t ever seem like love, just like they both get off on the secretive, forbidden aspect of their affair. It’s two people being stupid at each other for the sake of sex, and we don’t even get to see the sex (yes, I know, this isn’t erotic fantasy, but still, maybe if we actually got to see them together in any sort of romantic/sexual sense, their “love” would hold up to scrutiny better.)

5. Unclear world-building. So, mind-reading, yay or nay? Because the White, and apparently a goodly number of the lower ranks of their priesthood, can read minds. Much of what Auraya “learns” comes from skimming the brains of those around her (without their permission, might I add.) The second half of Emerahl’s subplot depends on this, because as a sorceress her mind can’t be read by the priests, so she needs to avoid or trick them to keep herself safe. Yet, about halfway through the book, Auraya expresses grave distaste for other people potentially reading minds; I forget in what exact context, but she viewed it as a violation of privacy and something no one should be doing. You know, except her, her four fellow Chosen, and however many of their priests and priestesses can do it. Because it’s okay for them, they’re the “right” religion, after all.

6. Two demi-human races, very little description. We spend a lot of time with the Siyee, child-sized flying humans, yet for a good chunk of that, I had no idea what they looked like or how they flew. And then when their “wings” were finally described, they sounded like sugar gliders, with wing-like membranes attached to their sides, and I’m sorry, but those don’t sound like functional wings for full flight at all. I had a really hard time believing that they could lift off from the ground, do complicated dance-like aerial maneuvers, or basically do anything other than glide from something tall to the ground or something shorter. And the Elai, the sea people? Webbed hands and feet. If they have any other distinctive features, I don’t remember them, because their part of the story was so short and insignificant it didn’t even need to be included–they were the race that turned down an alliance with the White, pre-war. Nothing would have been lost if Auraya hadn’t had time to go see them and get turned down.

165 - The Snow Leopard

#165 – The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen

Though the blurb did warn me that spirituality was going to be a part of this book, I had no idea I was going to spend nearly 300 pages listening to an entitled white man whine about his search for fulfillment while leaving behind all of his responsibilities to walk through the Himalayas for a while. I actually wanted to read the bits that were about natural history and science, but they were fewer and farther between than I expected, and definitely less a part of the book than I wanted.

I know it’s poor form to criticize an author directly in a review, but as this is basically a travelogue memoir, I don’t see how I can avoid it. Matthiessen goes off on a trip to find himself, on little more than a whim, about a year after the death of his wife. At one point in the narrative, when he’s flirting with death on the mountain and describing the clarity of that immediacy, he even says he was “careful” because he had young children with no mother to look after them.

So what the hell are you doing on a mountaintop thousands of miles away from those children?

Demeaning pan-mysticism and complaining constantly about the crappy job the expeditions’ porters are doing are the only things Matthiessen really offers here, and I’m struck once again by how the journey toward “spiritual enlightenment” is almost always the province of men, because if a woman (especially in the 1970s!) had left her children behind following the death of her husband to look for herself, or the Void, or whatever, in the cold snows of Central Asia, no one would be reading a book about it, because it likely never would have been written, and even if it had been, it probably never would have gotten published or won awards. That hypothetical female author would have been too busy being lambasted for abandoning her family to be a hippie.

As for the actual content of the book, I’m not a student of any Eastern philosophies or religions, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Matthiessen’s portrayal of them, but I can say for sure that his constant need to relate their teachings with the ways of many Amerindian tribes feels like a stretch, a diminishing of the beauty and variety of cultures across the world. Just because these peoples aren’t white and Judeo-Christian doesn’t mean they’re all the same! Stop lumping everyone together because you see superficial similarities in contrast to a typical white American!

166 - 168 - Frost Family Anthology

#166 – #168: A Frost Family Christmas Anthology, by C.J Carmichael, Roxy Boroughs, and Brenda M. Collins

I’d intended to review each romance individually, but it turns out I don’t really have to. Despite being written by three different authors, the only way I could tell the books apart was by small consistency errors that should have been caught by an editor; for example, sometimes the town’s school is “White Pine High School” and sometimes “White Pine Ridge High School,” things of that nature.

All three stories are equally bland, shallow, and rushed. The first is insta-love, while the second and third are second-chance romances, but all the couples go from not-together to married or seriously committed in one hundred pages or less, as well as in roughly a week of story time. ALL THREE BOOKS TOGETHER only take the month of December, as near as I can tell.

Honestly, it’s just ridiculous.

As for the “cozy mystery” that spans the three individual stories, it’s so full of obvious red herrings that it’s impossible to figure out until seconds before it’s solved for real. Both the second and third books present solutions so clear that I knew they couldn’t be correct, especially in the second book, because if it’s solved then, what happens to the mystery plotline in the third?

I did not even read the bonus short story beyond its first few pages, when it became clear it had nothing to do with the characters and town I’d just spent three books following; I simply didn’t care at that point.

169 - One Hundred Years of Solitude

#169 – One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

Nope, nope, nope. DNF @ page 90. I was intrigued to begin with, but I don’t read anything anymore where pedophilia goes unchallenged on the page. When adult Aureliano first falls for little 9-year-old Remedios, I was like, gross, but maybe this is a temporary plot point and nothing comes of it, he gets shamed or something–I wasn’t going to leap to conclusions. Then I remembered to check the family tree at the beginning, and sure enough, they have a bunch of children together. I kept reading anyway in case it was a matter of letting her grow up some first, which is still gross but slightly less objectionable; but no, he wants to marry her now. His family objects because she’s the daughter of their enemy, not because of her age. Her family objects mildly, because look, we have all these other daughters too! But not enough to actually stop him, apparently. One woman even jokes “you can marry her, but you’ll have to raise her first.”

I don’t care how “classic” and “brilliant” this is, it’s also vile and disgusting.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #46)

160 - The Telling

#160 – The Telling, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 11/13/18 – 11/17/18
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A beautiful story about storytelling as a way of life, a religion, a suppressed cultural tradition.

When I started the book, I was not aware that it was inspired by Taoism and the Chinese oppression and attempted erasure of Tibetan culture. I realized about halfway through; the message is hard to miss.

But before I was hit with the real-world symbolism, I fell in love with the Telling as it’s depicted. A religion that is not a religion in any sense of the word I understand; one that does not hold sacred any kind of deity, one that does not focus on past lives or future reward and punishment, one that reveres stories and knowledge as sacred, in as much as “sacred” is even a concept to its practitioners. While I believe an individual’s spirituality is their own business and would never interfere, I can’t help but feel that organized religion, both now and throughout history, is more often a driving force for turmoil than it is for good; Le Guin seems to share that belief with me, at least in part, because she gives future Terra a deeply tumultuous history with religion, where Unism takes over and bans science on a worldwide level, instituting a theocracy and persecuting all nonbelievers, whether they are “followers” of science, or simply devotees of another religion.

I don’t find this the least bit unbelievable, since America can’t even get its act together after more than 200 years about the separation of church and state. I don’t want religion in my government at all, no matter which religion it is.

On Aka, though, the Corporation controls society, a pro-science and -technology government that has banned not only the Telling, but all of its own culture’s history, as a way of promoting forward progress and not being held back by “superstition” and “useless tradition.” Even basic social niceties went to the chopping block; there’s no more “please” and “thank you” allowed.

Both extremes are bad, and Le Guin doesn’t mince words about it.

This book is definitely about the society more than the characters, an anthropological work that does, in many ways, remind me of the earlier great The Left Hand of Darkness. But that’s where this falls flat, comparatively; TLHoD had compelling characters AND a great society.

If I had been reading a similar story from a few of my other favorite authors, I actually would have expected a romance between Sutty and the Monitor; two people from strikingly different backgrounds coming to love/accept/understand each other. TLHoD did that too, even if it went unrequited. And while I didn’t truly expect that–their interactions of that nature were too brief and too near the end to have adequate time for a romance–the actual ending was something I didn’t expect, though perhaps I should have. That’s why I dinged the fifth star off this; after all the beauty of the story and all of my emotional investment in the world, everything just kind of …ended. Abruptly. And with only a sliver of hope that things would get better.

161 - A Free Life

#161 – A Free Life, by Ha Jin

DNF @ page 101.

This narrative has no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation. Everything is a series of recited events, occasionally with named emotions attached. “This thing happened; then that thing; Nan felt angry about it. Then his wife said something; he wondered why he married her if he didn’t love her. Then he remembered how heartbroken he was over a past lover. Then he remembered he married his wife out of convenience and hope that he could forget his past lover. Then he was angry about his job again.”

I wanted to read this because it was about an immigrant man from China struggling with how to cut ties with his past and his country of origin, how to become American, how to balance pursuit of his interest (writing poetry) with the need to bring in a salary and support his family; all in all, an experience of an immigrant’s American Dream. I thought that would be a valuable story for me to read.

However, Nan is cynical about the Dream most of the time, bent under the realities of earning a paycheck, envious of those around him doing better than he is by exploiting typical capitalist behaviors. And the story is pretty critical of capitalism, which is worth examining; America is not perfect and it is not depicted as such.

But it’s just such a trial to read, because I’m being spoon-fed everything I’m supposed to think. There is no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation; there is only one way, the author’s way, to read this. If that’s somehow a metacritical comment on Chinese government and society, well, sir, bravo; but that makes the book awfully boring to read.

162 - 2001 A Space Odyssey

#162 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

I went into this more than a little worried I wouldn’t like it, compared with the movie, but boy, was I wrong.

Now, reading a fifty-year-old sci-fi novel, science and technology have moved so far beyond what they dreamed possible back then it’s amusing. The first part of the book I found almost quaint in its old-fashioned view of what the future looked like. I don’t hold that against Clarke, and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

I have seen the movie several times, though it’s been many years since the last time. What struck me as I was finishing this, was that the book did best what the movie did worst, and vice versa. HAL in the movie was disturbingly menacing and dominated the tone of the movie; in the book, I found him far less creepy, and though his actions are still wrong, the insight we gain into his functioning (and his malfunctioning) means I see him now as a victim of mental illness far more than an evil AI gone rogue. And I actually like that better, because that makes this story less about the perils of AI and more about the journey beyond the stars, what the “odyssey” is supposed to be about.

The big plus of the book in my personal book v. movie debate is that the entire ending makes so much more sense. Kubrick’s directorial vision gave us a trippy and memorable epilogue of cosmic weirdness that I never liked. Clarke’s novelization of the screenplay gives me, instead, a clear view of the intent of Bowman’s final journey beyond space-time, beyond human consciousness, and into/beyond the stars. The final epiphany, and Bowman/Star-Child’s status as a protector of Earth, is just so much more moving when I can understand it, you know?

163 - African Nights

#163 – African Nights, by Kuki Gallmann

Boring, clumsily written, and full of exoticism. DNF @ 15%.

These aren’t even stories, they’re hardly vignettes. Two or three pages will focus on one person, spending half a page describing how strange, short, tall, thin, naked, gaunt, or simple they are. Then there will be some brief action and a revelation or epiphany about them, then the story is over.

Gallman makes constant comparisons between her beloved “Africans” and animals. While some of them, strictly speaking, seem to be complimentary, most read as demeaning and racist.

Then there’s the fact that she frequently includes “African” words without explaining their meaning or even identifying which “African” language they’re from. Yes, after looked in the back of the book, there’s a glossary, but who wants to be checking that all the time, interrupting the flow of their reading? It should be there for reference if the reader forgets what a previously-explained word means, not the sole provider of those explanations.

The fact that her experiences in Kenya and the Kenyan people she’s talking about are all disguised as “African” strikes me as an attempt to romanticize and make “mysterious” the whole continent, adding some more of that “exotic” appeal to her narrative, but it’s another sign of racism. She does mention the tribal identity of some individuals, when it’s important to their story, but other than that everything and everyone is just “African.”

Also, Gallman makes reference by name to her family members without identifying them, either, at first; how am I supposed to know who they are? I managed to infer after a few mentions that Paolo was her husband (or at least partner, because I never saw it explicitly mentioned they were married) but I had to wait quite a while before she finally outright said her children were her children. It does’t seem like that knowledge was deliberately obscured for any reason, so why not just say it outright? Because I’m not psychic, I don’t just know the names of her family.

 

This Week, I Read… (2018 #45)

158 - Unmatched

#158 – Unmatched, by Stephanie Kay

Grant and Lexi meet under less than ideal circumstances, realize they have great chemistry, and decide to have a fling. After all, she’s having a hard time finding a Mr. Right to scratch her itch, and he’s only looking for some fun before he transfers to his next assignment in four months.

No problem, right?

Of course they fall in love. And it’s a hell of a fun time while they do–their banter is generally sharp and witty. I have no complaints there; despite the complaints I’m about to share, I did genuinely enjoy this book.

The sex scenes were many and somewhat repetitive. I get that these two are fire in the sheets, but certain obvious phrases popped up over and over, which detracted from them.

What bothers me most, though, is after sitting down to read this in one sitting, I can’t tell you what Lexi’s job is. Grant’s is brought up constantly–as a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard, that’s key to both the constant “rescuing” he does of Lexi from her bad online-dating-site dates, and to their breakup, because he has to leave for his next posting. But Lexi? I finished the book ten minutes ago, and I could not tell you what she does for a living, which undermines the major conflict. She’s adamant that she won’t move to follow Grant because a) she moved a lot as a kid and hated it; b) she doesn’t want to do the same thing to her daughter; and finally c) she doesn’t want to give up her job and be separated from her friends and family, only to be entirely dependent on Grant without a job of her own or any support system.

I completely get A and B, and I’d even be mostly on board with C–the dependency part–but why doesn’t she think she’ll be able to find a job if she moves? Do they not need [whatever she does] in Florida? Why does that seem insurmountable to her?

Now, I’m not saying the information isn’t there–if I reread, I could probably find someone, somewhere, mentioning what Lexi’s actual employment is; I think she’s even at work in one of the very earliest scenes, but all I remember is that she had to shut down her computer before she left to get her daughter. However, Lexi’s career is nowhere near as present in or important to the narrative as Grant’s, which isn’t a good look for a romance novel, especially when it’s his job that’s the flashpoint for their breakup.

159 - Lisey's Story

#159 – Lisey’s Story, by Stephen King

I tried, I really tried. DNF at almost exactly 50%.

I was bored with it after the first hundred pages, but I thought maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it, and set it aside to read a few other things. When I picked it back up a few days later, it got more interesting and engaging; I can’t put my finger on why, precisely, but I thought I’d be good to go for the rest of the book.

I was wrong.

For being a book named for its main character and her “story” this work is about everyone but her. It’s about her husband, her dead writer husband, who is depicted in flashback segments as brilliant but almost completely insane; there’s no accounting for taste, of course, but I don’t find him appealing as husband material or even just as a character. The made-up language he shared with Lisey was something that I loved at first–my marriage has its own shorthand, so I got it, even if the particular words they used struck me as irritating and juvenile after the millionth time I read them.

It’s also about Lisey’s sister…sort of? Most of the beginning is concerned with one of her sisters and the vegetative state she falls into after a fresh bout of self-harm. I don’t know how important that ends up being, because structurally it seemed like killing time until the “real” plot finally started, the one where a professor, eager for the deceased writer’s papers, accidentally unleashes a psycho fan on Lisey with no way to stop him.

That plotline sounded interesting. I wanted to see where that went. But when I got there, I was more disgusted than intrigued. After reading the first physical meeting between Lisey and “Zack,” I did not want to continue reading, and gave up after just a few more pages of torturously winding flashback about Christmas shopping.

It was time to stop fighting the boredom with this book that was making me put it down every twenty pages or so to find something else to do.

I had high hopes, based on friends’ recommendations of it, and the fact that I was reading a book by a male author I trust with a female character as the lead; but she’s not even a character really, she’s a frame through which the reader views the portrait of the character King seems to believe really matters, her dead writer husband. It’s not about her at all, and if it is, I should have more evidence of that in the first half of the book and not have to wait so long for the story to prove she’s more than a paper-thin widow whose past far outweighs her present and future.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #44)

154 - Under the Banner of Heaven

#154 – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer

This book is obviously well-researched; I’ve never read nonfiction with so many footnotes or such an extensive bibliography. I appreciate that Krakauer made his sources as plain as possible for anyone who wished to check for themselves, because it was clear from the very beginning that this was going to be a controversial book.

What I liked far less was the lack of clear focus. I feel almost as if I were tricked into reading this by the sensationalism of the true-crime aspect; but most of the book is actually the history of Mormonism and the fracturing of its mainstream and fundamentalist versions. I found that valuable, as I didn’t know any of it–I was raised in various Christian (Protestant) faiths through my childhood, LDS was certainly not one of them, and I’ve only ever lived in the Midwest, where the presence of Mormons is minimal.

The problem is, that’s not the book I thought I was going to be reading; and the history was presented with such a high level of detail that it dragged. I understand what a rarity it is to have access to that much detail, how exciting it would be to a bona fide historian–but did it all need to be included for us laymen, when the pace suffered because of it? I would rather have been given a condensed, clear narrative.

In addition, the final chapters moved from nonfiction quickly into a quasi-medical/philosophical debate about whether or not religious belief was an indicator of mental illness, re: the Laffertys’ retrials, ordered on the basis that they were not competent to stand trial originally. While it’s an interesting question (to those it doesn’t mortally offend because of their own religious beliefs), the debate, along with the inclusion of narcissistic personality disorder as a possible explanation for a non-insanity scenario, is not a satisfying conclusion, either to the story as presented, or as a conclusion to the loose hypothesis of the book that the Lafferty brothers committed their murders because of their fundamentalist beliefs. After spending a whole book showing us the history of this “violent faith” I’m dissatisfied with a shrug, I guess we’ll never know ending, even if it’s the truth.

155 - The Lightning Thief

#155 – The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

It was almost perfect.

I adored the chapter titles and every other bit of snarkiness, sass, and wit. I love that the hero is a “bad” kid, I love that there’s disabled representation, I love the clever ways Riordan modernized classical Greek monsters.

My complaints boil down to three things.

1. (Minor) I dislike the depiction of Hades. It’s entirely possible I’ve been spoiled by so many romanticizations of him (and other versions of Death) over the years, but in my mind, he’s much more complex than the simple evil he is here.

2. (Slightly less minor) The story heavily favors action over emotion. Which is certainly fitting for a quest, but the moments for characters to connect with each other are few and brief. I wouldn’t mind so much, except that at the end, when Percy is betrayed, I didn’t feel much of anything because I didn’t feel he and his betrayer actually had much of a friendship to begin with.

3. (Major) I have deep issues with how Smelly Gabe meets his end. Sally married him to protect Percy; she used him. I understand that motivation, and being in a loveless marriage with a guy like him was a self-inflicted punishment for her actions. Fine, as far as that goes. But using Medusa’s head on him, selling the statue as art, and making a better life for herself off the profits? Listen, I don’t care that we find out he’s an abuser, he’s still a person. Sally married him under false pretenses–if she felt trapped by the marriage, it was a trap of her own design. I’m not excusing Gabe’s behavior, because abuse is never justified, but killing him is a far more extreme corrective action than I expected, and far worse than I think he deserved. Leave him? Absolutely. Kill him? Not a good message to send.

156 - First Night

#156 – First Night, by Lauren Blakely

A quick indulgence in sexy times. Pros: communication, communication, communication. Even though this is a one-night-stand setup, they talk to each other. Cons: Not into Julia’s size-queen attitude; some of that communication I’m praising for its presence is stiff and wooden (puns certainly not intended.)

As a standalone story, it’s thin, but as a teaser for the first book in the series, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00026]

#157 – Night After Night, by Lauren Blakely

It’s rare that I read a romance novel where two characters have such palpable and instant chemistry, so that’s definitely in its favor. I don’t even mind that it ends on a cliffhanger, because I knew going into this that it was part of a series romance (multiple books, same characters) and the relationship couldn’t move too fast. Clay and Julia are just beginning to realize how much they might mean to each other, if they can get this relationship off the ground.

And from a kink point of view, since I’ve read my fair share of BDSM novels, it’s fun to see two switches go at each other. The actual level of kinkiness involved is light, but the talk is plenty dirty, and the two of them bounce back and forth in control easily and believably.

My problem with this is the same as it was with First Night, the teaser novella (which I totally wouldn’t have bothered to download separately if I’d known my edition of this had it at the beginning anyway, making it less of a novella and more of just the first four damn chapters of the book)–I love that Clay and Julia talk to each other so much, and that real emphasis is placed on them getting to know each other outside of bed; but the dialogue is just so stiff sometimes. With the longer run time on this, I managed to figure out why, something I couldn’t pinpoint in the novella: body language is almost completely absent. Unless Clay and Julia are actively engaged in seduction or sex, almost nothing is said about what their body is doing during dialogue, and that makes them both read like ventriloquist dummies at times.

I applaud what this story was trying to do, and I might even read the rest of the series, I’m surprisingly invested. But I do wish it had more polish.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #43)

150 - Atmospheric Disturbances

#150 – Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen

DNF @ page 50, around 20%.

I was initially intrigued by the idea of the narrator perceiving his wife as an imposter, as a sign of either mental illness, falling out of love with her, or both. In order to do this, though, the writing style is heavily laced with repetition, filter words, and other tricks to distance the reader from the narrator. Which I found an odd choice, given that it’s in first person.

This quibble is definitely literary in nature, but this work is obviously striving to be “literature” in the way I dislike most, stressing the importance of style and theme over all else, including character, plot, and reader engagement.

Mission success: I am not engaged.

151 - Bel Canto

#151 – Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I have a fondness for absurdity that made me fall in love with this book.

As a writer, I hold a firm belief that any story idea can be a good idea, if only you commit to it. Would I ever be brave or foolish enough to write a novel about opera, Stockholm Syndrome, political unrest, language barriers, and love? Probably not. But here, I think Patchett has fully committed to this idea and pulls it off beautifully.

There are so many moments of genuine pathos and so many more of unexpected beauty, even when I knew, somewhere in the dim recesses of my logical brain, that the plot of this book was utterly ridiculous. Though I was aware of it, once I got past that initial suspension of disbelief–that a hostage situation accidentally happened with captors too weak-willed to actually shoot anyone–the rest of the plot flowed seamlessly, almost inevitably, from the premise.

Even though the resolution of the situation is “spoiled” with sure knowledge in the narrative of the eventual death of the captors, the story concentrates so deeply on showing them as fully human that I found myself still hoping, somehow, for a happy ending, even though I knew it wouldn’t happen. The post-crisis ending of the book startled me into viewing the story differently, in a way that makes me question if I didn’t miss something the first time, something I hope to find upon rereading in the future.

152 - The Iron King

#152 – The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa

DNF @ 25%, around page 110.

This was so painfully unoriginal that even the promise of romance with a mysterious fae prince couldn’t keep me reading.

Our protagonist Meg has no personality to speak of. She doesn’t really get along with her family; she’s unpopular at school; she’s apparently studious enough to be assigned as a tutor to another student, but beyond stating once “I’m good with computers” I have no idea what her interests, hobbies, habits, and life goals are.

She’s obsessed with getting her driver’s license, and that’s about it. I knew tons of people like that in high school, and it’s just not personality-defining. Give me more.

The high school section at the beginning is the laziest selection of tropes I’ve ever seen used to shortcut any actual need to describe the experience. Cheerleaders are fake-boobed airheads. Jocks are cool but cruel. Meg has a crush on the biggest one of all, the “king” of school, but…why? She only ever talks about how cool and unattainable he is, not what he’s like. Not why she admires him.

And what does “good with computers” even mean, coming from a 15-year-old girl in a story published in 2010? Does she code websites? Does she read online comics? Does she edit Wikipedia articles? Or does she play free webgames? Please, tell me anything about her at all!

So then weird things start happening, and Meg’s only friend turns out to be Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck. Shakespeare heavily referenced–that’s Obvious Source #1.

Meg’s little half-brother is stolen and replaced with a changeling, and she decides to go get him back. Now I’m reading a poorly-written YA version of Juliet Marillier’s Heir to Sevenwaters. Or a modified version of a favorite movie, Labyrinth. Obvious Source #2.

Meg and Puck enter faery land and stay with a tiny dude in a tree. Meg is lured out by a wisp pretending to be her brother, and nearly gets herself killed. (Where have I seen this before? Yeah, Heir to Sevenwaters again.)

Then the next day, she and Puck become the target of a wild hunt and get separated, leaving Meg to fend for herself in an unfamiliar world with creatures she knows nothing about. (That’s Labyrinth again, Sarah having to learn about the rules of the Goblin Kingdom.)

But Meg doesn’t have Sarah’s cleverness or daring. Meg’s an idiot to gets herself indebted to Grimalkin (who is described very like the Cheshire Cat, let’s add Alice in Wonderland to our source list) at the very first opportunity she has for independent action, by promising a favor.

Dude, has she literally never read/heard/seen anything about the fae in her life, ever? I refuse to believe a girl her age with the cultural awareness to use the term “otaku” doesn’t know the most basic, fundamental trope about fae in any setting: bargaining with them is super dangerous! (Yes, at one point she lies about her human identity and calls herself an “otaku faery.” Earlier she accused Robbie/Puck of watching too much anime. You know what a lot of anime out there are based on? WESTERN TRADITIONS OF FANTASY, INCLUDING THE FAE. Which just makes it even more unbelievable how thoroughly stupid Meg is.)

Another example of her idiocy: Robbie was her friend basically forever, she states she doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. But she’s never been to his house, supposedly two miles away. She’s never met his family. She’s never seen him do schoolwork and she knows he sleeps through most of his classes, yet he never seems to be in any trouble. But she only realizes now, during the course of the story, how weird that is and just how little she knows about him. Her best and only friend.

Okay, okay, there’s a counterargument to how contrived this appears to be. Kagawa isn’t stealing pieces of all of these other pieces of media that I’m glomping onto as references–I’m seeing them because they’re familiar to me, other readers might see others, and they’re all springing from the same basic source material, that very British/Irish fae mythology that infects nearly everything. And that’s a valid argument.

But if there’s nothing new to this work, nothing original to it while it recycles the same basic ideas and creatures that all this other media has used, then isn’t it just a patchwork of its betters?

And if there is some fascinating new take on it that I didn’t see because I gave up too early, then why wait more than a hundred pages to get to it? Why not introduce it right away, to get me hooked?

153 - A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

#153 – A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This collection didn’t set me on fire the way Four Ways to Forgiveness did–but then, that was composed of interconnected novellas, and this was a grab bag, many of which I simply didn’t like.

The star of the show is definitely the titular novella, which I enjoyed–a story combining second-chance romance, alien anthropology, time travel, and a smidgen of Japanese culture. It’s rare in the Hainish Cycle works that Terra gets more than a mention, so having a Terran character at all is fantastic, and working a bit of her home country into the narrative as the fable, which the novella is an inventive future-retelling of, was brilliant.