This Week, I Read… (2020 #49)

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

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

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

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

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

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

#174 – The Replacement Crush, by Lisa Brown Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#175 – Paper Towns, by John Green

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #48)

#170 – Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

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

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

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

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

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

#171 – The Regulators, by Richard Bachman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#172 – Bittersweet, by Sarina Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #45)

#164 – Rose Madder, by Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

#165 – Screw Up, by Alexis Wilder

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #44)

#162 – Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/10/20 – 11/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 140/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This gets five stars despite some issues I have with the pacing. After the first book’s intense cliffhanger, I really didn’t want this one to take 200 pages to get to the point where Fitz found out about the tragedy at his home. It felt like killing time, it felt needless, it felt heart-wrenching in a way that came more from a place of frustration than sympathy.

Then things move along more briskly, though there’s still obviously tons of ground to cover. There’s a lot of travel and hopping back and forth and dashing about, interspersed with periods of slowness and inactivity, that I think reflects the strange duality of tension existing alongside of grief. Because Fitz is grieving even before he believes Bee completely lost to him, he’s grieving his failures as a person and a parent.

I cried a bit while reading this, not gonna lie.

But to some degree, the strange pacing issues return at the end, with a trip to Kelsingra that felt somehow momentous but also oddly pedestrian squeezed in at the very end, taking up so little space in the narrative that I was scratching my head when they got there and thinking, “Where the heck are we going with this? What does this mean for the larger story?” And the cliffhanger here, while still intense and obviously dangerous, feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story, both because the lead-up to it is so short, and because it takes place in an “exotic” location to Fitz, despite the time we as readers have spent there earlier in the series.

I see how the pieces of the climax fit together, and I see how they were laid out earlier in the book (and throughout the series) so I understand this is a culmination of an awful lot of groundwork; for the most part I think it’s successful. But it’s just so abrupt! There’s very little space for such a big event–the on-page union of what were previously two ENTIRELY SEPARATE narratives in the larger story, both structurally and stylistically–to breathe and unfold properly. Like, I remember that Rapskal was dangerous so I know it’s bad news when he’s the commander of the militia, that can’t be good, but he hardly has any time to remind us why he’s a jerk before he’s trying to seize the Fool…ugh. It’s strange to me that I want this book to be longer, but I guess I really don’t. I just want some of the page space in the beginning, which felt too long, to be reallocated to the end, which felt too short.

Emotionally, still, five stars. I’m beyond invested, I’m more than a little heartbroken. This is by far the longest-running series I’ve ever read and I am so attached to these characters, it’s a little nuts.

#163 – Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/15/20 – 11/19/20
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s been a long time since a book made me cry this much.

When I read Fool’s Fate, when Fitz seemed to get his well-deserved happy ending, I enjoyed it, but I knew something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but because I didn’t read it when it was first published, I was fully aware that there were more books in the series, and some of them were about Fitz.

This is his real ending, and as bittersweet as it is, it’s much more fitting. From an emotional standpoint, I’m pretty well destroyed.

From a technical standpoint, once again my only real complaint is pacing. The buildup in the first half of the book, the arc of them getting to Clerres, felt like it took too long, and yet, once we got there and the action got moving, I felt like we didn’t spend long enough there to justify the journey, and it seemed odd to me to spend so much of the book belaboring details about the island, the Four, the libraries. All that richness seemed to get in the way of what I wanted to know, which was what was going to happen. I know it’s my impatience talking, and that it’s foolish to expect Hobb to suddenly start writing fast-paced books so that I can get my answers faster, but even so, there was enough repetition here that I sometimes felt frustrated. (How many times was the quote about considering your actions used? Twelve times? Fifteen? Twenty? I get that it was important but I got so tired of hearing it.)

Despite those complaints, throughout this final trilogy I have fallen in love with the new characters who stand by Fitz’s and Bee’s side, so I was pleased to see them play their roles with such enthusiasm and be rewarded in the end accordingly. It was also nice to see a few old familiar faces, and meet as adults the children who had not yet been born when we last left their part of the world behind–both Boy-O and Kennitsson, for their minor parts, struck me as exactly as they should be, given their parentage and probable upbringings. And I continue to be impressed with Hobb’s ability to juggle so many plot threads, so many characters, and tie them off relatively neatly in the end to make a satisfying conclusion.

I’m happy it’s over, that I made it this far. I couldn’t have read 16 books set in the same world, following largely the same characters, if I weren’t invested, but that very investment is what is now tearing my heart out, because this ending is fitting, and comprehensive, and sad. And hopeful. But very sad. Ah, dammit, now I’m crying again.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #43)

#159 – Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/4/20 – 11/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 137/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it nearly unreservedly. I was so invested, so quickly, and I guess I’ve finally wrapped my head around the way foreshadowing and clues to the mysteries in these stories work, because I figured out many of the things that were available to be figured out, while still being surprised by several turns of events.

Fitz is still, in many ways, the half-feral and bumbling idiot we’ve watched grow up and mature from his mistakes, but now he’s got a shiny new arena to flail about in–fatherhood. I’m sure he made a credible stepfather to Molly’s children, but they were already out of babyhood by the time he came along, and by the time this story is set, they’re adults and all out of the house. This is the first time Fitz has to play a real, direct role as a parent in a child’s life, and you really see the conflict between his genuine love for Bee and acceptance of who she is (eventually) with the expectations of the society around him, and how that goes against the way he was raised himself, which he both recognizes was often unconventional and harmful, yet in some ways still thinks is good enough. He would never want Bee to be hurt in the ways he was hurt as a child, but he sees little problem for most of the book allowing her a large amount of freedom to dress and act and spend her time as she likes. It’s a really interesting dynamic, that when Fitz feels he had to impose rules on her, for her safety or to meet the expectations of others, that’s when the two of them show the least understanding of each other. Despite being mostly under Molly’s care for the first years of her life, Bee still turned out to be a half-feral kid, talking to cats and hiding in spy-ways and not getting along with her school mates because they (mostly) don’t understand her.

I could talk about plenty of other things, because WOW did a lot of this book punch me straight in the chest repeatedly, but it would just be more gushing thinly disguised as book analysis, because if the point of this deeply detailed domestic tale was to reinvest me in Fitz and his life so that the cliffhanger ending hurt as much as it possibly could, this book was a runaway success for me, and I am still reeling the next day as I write this. (So glad I don’t have to wait for years for the next one!)

#160 – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

  • Read: 11/8/20 – 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to time
  • Mount TBR: 138/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Nope. DNF @ page 145. I slogged through the introduction of the first three narratives in this “sextet”–and boy does Mitchell love that word, once it starts showing up, everything is a freaking sextet–but I’m not invested. This book is clearly not for me; I value character over style, and I found the experimental structure tedious. Why have just one cliffhanger when you can have several? The first narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, and I actually turned the page back over to see if my used copy of this book had pages stuck together, but no, that’s intentional.

So my first cliffhanger was “is this random dude whose narrative purpose I don’t understand going to die from a real brain parasite or is this quack doctor telling him he’s got a parasite to make him buy drugs?” Except he was treating the guy for free, I think, so…

The second was…I’m honestly not sure. “Does this adulterous little shit get caught by the husband first, or the guys after him for the money he owes?” Maybe. There was more direction to that bit of the story, but not by much.

The third was at least solid, with our intrepid reporter getting run off the road and at great risk of drowning in her car. Legitimate cliffhanger there. But that’s when I realized I didn’t actually care. These story bits are so short and heavily stylized, and I’m too busy scratching my head trying to figure out the meaning of the obvious-but-unexplained linkages between them, that I never managed to care about the characters themselves (even the reporter, who was clearly trying to Do Good) so I really don’t have the energy to wade through three more story styles, then do it all again in reverse order, to find out if the reporter doesn’t drown or what becomes of the musician or if the dude from the first story actually has a brain parasite.

I started the fourth section but immediately disliked the character voice after only a few pages, so I knew it was time to give up. I always knew I was either going to love or DNF this book, because it seems to be so divisive among readers and their reviews; and I came down on the DNF side.

#161 – His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare

  • Read: 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a silhouette on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 139/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Cute, quick, charming. My only complaint is my usual one for novellas I enjoyed–I liked it enough that I would have preferred it to be a full length novel! There’s enough going on here in terms of plot and backstory that got shorthanded to fit the bite-size format, and I think a lot of it would have benefited from more space to breathe.

That being said, it was still well-characterized and interesting, and as my first exposure to Tessa Dare, it more than justifies all the praise I’ve heard of her. Historical romance still isn’t my favorite subgenre, but I’d read her again.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #42)

#155 – Sell Out, by Tammy L. Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#157 – Forever Buckhorn, by Lori Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #41)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #40)

#151 – Acheron, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

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

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

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

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

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

#152 – Blindness, by Jose Saramago

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #39)

#148 – Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

  • Read: 10/9/20 – 10/13/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring the undead
  • Mount TBR: 127/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

As usual with a review where I have strongly mixed feelings about a book, let’s just break it down into what works and what doesn’t:

The good stuff: fantastic alternate-history setting with zombies, while I’m not up on every aspect of American history of this period all the changes that the book made flowed easily with what I knew and I never had a head-scratching moment. Strong criticism/commentary on racist ideas by portraying racism constantly and unflinchingly throughout the story. Surprise bi and ace representation! Well-developed, unapologetic, flawed heroine.

The not-so-good stuff: what the heck is up with this pacing? with this semi-directionless plot line? I understand to some extent because of the setting Jane can’t be proactive, only reactive, but the vague “I’m going to get back to Rose Hill someday” motivation doesn’t do much to carry the story forward or spur her decisions, because for most of the book she’s too busy trying to survive. And that return-home arc doesn’t even start until the second part, because in the first part, while she’s still at school, she doesn’t actively want to go home. She’s too busy there trying not to get kicked out, because graduating is necessary even if she hasn’t totally bought into the system.

For the whole 400+ page book, stuff just happens, and a lot of doesn’t really make sense. Most of the semi-mysterious goings-on at Summerland were never explained to my satisfaction–there had to be a huge fight with zombies, I guess, and the town had to be under threat from the looming horde, but why exactly where there giant breaches in the walls? That were repeatedly stated to be impossible to have been the result of zombies? But also there were never any explosions that I recall to account for them, and the town residents tearing holes in their own walls doesn’t make sense either, so all that danger in the final fact felt so incredibly contrived. Also its a big deal in the middle of the book that there are actually zombies inside the town for Reasons, but that doesn’t go anywhere. And everybody’s complaining about rations being cut as more families come to town, yet at the same time, townfolk are disappearing left and right, and only towards the end do we learn they’ve been turned, so they weren’t exactly collecting their food, right?

I had heard so often that this was amazing, so I’m mildly disappointed that I think it’s just good. It’s a solid historical-fantasy with lots of meaty, gory action. But it never achieved greatness for me, because it’s a string of zombie attacks held together with just enough world-building to make it work, and in the spaces that framework leaves, there’s a whole lot of typical villains, unsurprising “is this character dead or not” twists, and at the very end, our heroine revealing she’s more unreliable that I ever suspected, but not really in a way that made her or the story more interesting.

Some elements worked, some fell flat.

#149 – Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

  • Read: 10/13/20 – 10/14/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a spooky cover
  • Mount TBR: 128/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after chapter 3, page 58, over 25%. I will drop books as low as 10%, and after the first chapter I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be finishing this, but I stuck it out through two more to be sure.

The concept is, a bunch of people go to an extreme writing retreat, where they’re cut off from their lives the whole time in order to foster creativity. The three chapters I read have the same components: a few pages of “real” time, where the narrator (whose identity is not yet disclosed by the time I quit) tells us about weirdly-named characters with a narrow selection of highly repetitive details; a poem about one of the other characters that somehow explains their life situation before coming on the retreat; and a short story by that character.

The format is experimental, and I would dig it, probably, if it weren’t incredibly obvious that everything was written by the same person, the actual author of the book. There’s no differentiation between author and character voice anywhere. All three stories had basically the same tone–bitter at the failure of their lives not being what they “should” be–and dealt with nearly the same themes–mistakes that changed the course of their lives somehow.

I’d be okay with the stories being thematically similar, because who, as a person, is likely to attend such an extreme workshop? People who feel they’ve failed at life and think they need a radical attempt to alter course. But I don’t see any excuse for three different characters with wildly different background sounding precisely the same in their writing. They wouldn’t, if they were real, and they still shouldn’t, even if they’re fake.

I’m not going to read the next twenty characters also being bitter cynics with nothing to distinguish them from each other. I’m just not.

As for the style, well, that first chapter managed to include a lot of off-putting gore without actually being horror, and while I was grossed out, I was also cautiously impressed. Though this is my first attempt at reading Palahnuik, because this is the novel of his that happened to fall into my hands at a used book sale, I’ve been aware of him since watching Fight Club, which I enjoyed, and I’ve been curious since one “who do you write like?” website spit out his name when given a chapter of my writing. (I know they go by grammar and word ratios and sentence length, not content; but I was still curious.)

I’ve gathered that for many the author is a love-him-or-hate-him creator, but I haven’t read enough by DNFing this novel to know for sure. I like some of the concepts of this work while being sorely disappointed in its execution–I don’t think it’s an unfair ask for a novel built around the stories of twenty-three different writer-characters to have them all not sound like the same person. I think that’s a fundamental necessity for my suspension of disbelief, and I didn’t get it, so I’m not bothering with the rest.

#150 – The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch, illustrated by M.S. Corley

  • Read: 10/14/20 – 10/15/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to witches
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring witches or magic users
  • Mount TBR: 129/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

First, the best thing: I did not know there was such a thing as a “Kindle in Motion” book that has animated illustrations, so when I started this I was pleasantly surprised to find them, and I really loved the art style. Anytime I flicked a page over and found a new one, I was delighted.

Too bad I didn’t think the story deserved the effort, though. This plot did not need to be nearly 450 pages long, maybe 300 at most. The story moved at a glacially slow pace, because it often took a character an entire page to perform one simple action, and many conversations between different sets of characters retread information I, as a reader, already had. The prose was plodding and simplistic, and the author over-relied on epithets stylistically, even for characters who had names; though in fairness, many didn’t, “the devil” in particular. But why was “the hangman” or “the midwife” or “the hangman’s daughter” or “the physician’s son” so prevalent when we know their names are Jakob, Martha, Magdalena, and Simon?

In addition, the scenes jumped from character to character in different locations abruptly, often without any sort of scene break, which made the narrative difficult to follow in places. I would be following Simon along his tramping through the forest, then next paragraph, I’m with Sophie in her hiding place; this isn’t a movie, it’s a novel, smash cuts don’t work mid-scene without something to tell me I’ve changed locations, like a scene break.

Overall, the writing struck me as amateurish, and as historical fiction, more concerned with accuracy and detail as proof of research than it was with plot and character.

At halfway through, I made the decision to skim instead of fully read, and I don’t regret it.

As for the plot, it’s not complicated, witchcraft is a sensationalized smokescreen for what’s really going on, and several key points are fairly predictable, though I didn’t solve the overall “mystery” myself. (I’m not particularly torn up about my failure to, because I wasn’t deeply invested.) Also, I’m on record disliking this about several other books, and it’s equally true here–why is this titled “The Hangman’s Daughter” when she’s nearly the least important character? She’s barely in the book for the first half, and in the second half she’s mostly an object, for Simon to lust after, for Jakob to yell at, for the villains to kidnap. She’s not interesting, she’s not vital to the central plot, but she’s the title, for some reason.

I did not enjoy this, I do not recommend it, and I won’t be continuing the series.