This Week, I Read… (2020 #13)

47 - The Memory of Running

#47 – The Memory of Running, by Ron McLarty

  • Read: 3/26/20 – 3/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 47/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 87. I cannot abide how grossly sexist and ableist this novel is.

Our protagonist is a fat chain-smoking alcoholic. Most of the early chapters are devoted to repeating his actual weight, his feelings about his weight, how many cigarettes he smokes and just how much he drinks; as if that’s a substitute for being an actual character. At one point, he also reminisces about how the only way he got through a hard time in his life was by being a jerk to everyone around him.

I was already bored with him, but since I knew the point of the novel was his journey of self-discovery and improvement, I can see how he has to be a complete loser to start with. And that’s not me fat-shaming him–the narrative is too busy doing that for me. His obesity is his personality.

So first we have the underlying sexism inherent in thinking this loser, this utterly mediocre-or-worse man, is worth telling a story about. I don’t see any evidence of that.

But it gets worse, because nearly every female character so far in the book is defined by their breasts, their disabilities, or both. The only one to escape that is his mother, who was introduced immediately before she died and didn’t get the breast assessment. The nurses at the hospital? Big breasts. Every woman he meets randomly? Big breasts. Every girl in every story he tells about the past? Big breasts. His neighbor who he played with as a child and meets again as an adult woman? Not so much about her breasts, but she does spend their entire first conversation with him defensively explaining how capable and clean and healthy she is despite her wheelchair. (That was a really uncomfortable scene, not just because of the insensitive treatment of the subject, but also because people simply don’t talk that way. It was beyond stilted and awkward.)

His sister? Again, not quite so much about her breasts, though one past story about how much the protagonist hated her junior prom date skates pretty close to inappropriate, talking about how hot she looked. No, she has more development, I’ll admit, but it’s entirely about her mental illness–she hears a voice that sometimes encourages her to go somewhere odd, take off her clothes, and hold strange poses. But that’s all I know about her, so yeah, she’s completely defined by that mental illness.

I wanted to keep going until the actual plot of the story began, the bike-trip across the country that transforms him (somehow) into a better person. But I didn’t make it that far, because soon after that childhood bike reenters his life, he passes out after riding it drunkenly a short (ie, non-cross-country) distance and wakes up near a community Little League game. The local Catholic priest was attending, and gets him to the hospital to get checked out, and takes him back to the church to rest afterward.

The next scene is actually one of the worst things I’ve read in my life. The priest, who has literally just met the protagonist, goes on a long, winding, bitter confessional story about how he became attracted to a divorcee in his congregation and eventually asked her sexually explicit questions over the phone, which she started recording partway through and later used to get him into trouble. The priest is also a breast man, apparently, because this is one of the actual things he told the protagonist he said to the woman:

“Why don’t you, why don’t you take off the rest of your clothes so your full, ripe breasts can cool off?”

It’s not even just that his behavior was inappropriate that bothers me. It’s that the author thinks this is a story a priest would tell someone he’s literally just met and knows nothing about. It’s an echo of the same problem from the protagonist and his wheelchair-using neighbor: they’re sitting on the porch together after his parents’ memorial and apropos of nothing she’s hyper-defensive about her disability, laboriously explaining her capabilities and routines. People don’t talk that way. People don’t immediately spill their secrets or explain their lives to near-strangers on a whim. Unless they’re drunk at a bar and need to rant, but even then, these aren’t the conversations they’d be having.

I need a shower.

48 - Starlight on Willow Lake

#48 – Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs

  • Read: 3/27/20 – 3/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 48/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: The 20th book on your TBR (it was the 20th unread physical book in my collection, sorted by date of purchase, when I made the list)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A solid family drama masquerading at the last minute as a romance, which is what I thought I was getting when I started reading it.

Most of the story on the hero’s side is actually about his family’s struggles after their father’s death and mother’s spinal cord injury in a skiing accident. Most of the story on the heroine’s side is actually about raising two daughters after her husband’s death from diabetes complications and being unable to move on (romantically and with life in general) because she’s still paying off the debts that incurred and she’s constantly one step ahead of homelessness.

The two of them don’t have their first date until around page 400. I can’t even call this a slow burn, because there’s no burn! They spend very little time together and have very little chemistry! He’s engaged to someone else for most of the book!

It’s not a bad story, but it’s only about 10% what I consider “romance,” and that 10% is weak. Its strengths lie in other directions, notably the two daughters being rather good/realistic representations of their age groups.

49 - State of Wonder

#49 – State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

  • Read: 3/29/20 – 4/1/20
  • Mount TBR: 49/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author on the Abe List of 100 Essential Female Writers
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by or about a woman in STEM
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I can’t recall what book I described this way, I’m fairly certain I once reviewed something and called it “a fever dream of a novel.” Whatever book that was, State of Wonder has wrested that title away from it.

The first half of the book spends so much time dipping in and out of Marina’s memory and nightmares that following a cohesive real-time plot was more of a challenge than I wanted it to be.

I’ve only read one other Patchett work, Bel Canto, and when you read something that good, something you adored, returning to the same author comes with a certain set of expectations, one that Wonder did not live up to for me. Was it bad? No. Was it stunning and transformative? Also no.

The pace picks up and the fever-dream gloss falls away at least somewhat in the second half, which I was able to read much more quickly; yet I felt like I was missing some essential element to the story that would tie the whole thing together. A work like this must have a theme, but when I pick through my memory to find what it is, I can’t decide. Is it an exploration of the earthier aspects of womanhood and reproduction? Is it about confidence and self-doubt, or missed chances? Is it about the purity of science for its own sake, or the necessity of using science for humanitarian purposes versus exploiting it for profit? All of these things are touched upon, and I’m not saying any story has to limit itself to just one central theme, but I can’t parse what the message is, what my takeaway from this work should be.

I’m not sure my indecision is without basis in the novel, though, because Marina herself is a wishy-washy character at best, very passive. First she doesn’t want to go to the Amazon, yet it seems inevitable that she must, so she puts up no real fight. When she reaches Manaus and is waiting for the proverbial guard dogs to make their decision about whether she’ll be allowed to travel onward to Dr. Swenson, she seems constantly on the verge of boarding a plane to go home, yet goes deeper into the jungle on her quest, again, without much of a fight, but also without much gusto. When she’s at Dr. Swenson’s camp, she’s fascinated by what she finds but also always has one foot out the door, ready to abandon her tasks as impossible; yet she stays, allowing other people to make her decisions for her. Maybe that’s what I felt was missing–the protagonist’s backbone, along with any sense of urgency.

It’s a meandering story, despite having such clear goals in mind, and while I’ve been pretty harsh with it here, the good parts were quite good, and overall I’m glad to have read it. But unlike Bel Canto, it hasn’t earned a permanent place on my bookshelves.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #12)

44 - Made in America

#44 – Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson

  • Read: 3/20/20 – 3/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 44/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A prompt from a previous Around the Year in 52 Books challenge (A book related to a hobby or passion you have)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’ve read a few other Bryson works and been favorably impressed, and I’m both an American and a word nerd, so this seemed right up my alley.

But it disappointed. Though it’s obviously well-researched and I applaud it for that, the tone straddles the line between Bryson’s usual humor and serious scholarly engagement, which is a whiplash-inducing pairing. In addition, that humor, especially in the first half, took on a strongly condescending “so you thought you knew American history but you were wrong” attitude. Yeah, Mr. Bryson, the public school system in much of the United States (especially in the ’90s when this was written) teaches us a deeply editorialized version of events canonized as truth but only tenuously related to what facts we do have. (And I’m not even just talking about the racism inherent in both slavery and our historical relationship with Native peoples, which are both mentioned only briefly. I knew that was sanitized. This was more of a “every historical figure you were taught to revere didn’t do half what history claims they did, and/or, they were terrible people.”)

I don’t think Bryson was deliberately setting out to make his readers feel idiotic or uneducated, but that’s how I felt in the early chapters every two or three minutes when yet another thing I was taught was debunked. Being beaten repeatedly with a “stupid” cudgel isn’t any fun, especially when a lot of it didn’t seem to enrich the narrative of “this is how American English evolved.”

That issue faded as the book went on, but the more modern chapters settled into a rhythm of a few paragraphs of notable history followed by a half-page paragraph of dense word listing, showing the date which new words and phrases entered the American lexicon. This is where the well-researched bleeds into over-researched: I’d never heard of half the words or expressions listed, sometimes more depending on the subject of the chapter. Is it that useful to mark the entry of a phrase into the language that no one still uses, at least for the layman audience? I’d rather find out about expressions I know, and there were plenty of those, but a lot of the rest was dead weight.

That dead weight made a 350-ish page book of nonfiction, something I can usually read in two days, into a slog four days long that constantly tempted me to give up. But I did enjoy some of the later chapters more than the first half of the book (particularly the chapters on food and sex, go figure.) So this wasn’t a total loss, but it was definitely the worst Bryson book I’ve read so far.

45 - Shy Girls Write It Better

#45 – Shy Girls Write It Better, by May Sage

  • Read: 3/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 45/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A really cute premise with charming characters, but unfortunately the story was incredibly rushed, hamstrung by the novella length.

Now, the Kindle edition I read lists the page count at 182, but the end of the story fell at 80%–the rest was composed of samples from the author’s other works and similar end matter materials. So chop nearly forty pages of story off that length. Also, rather than standard paragraph formatting as in print, the paragraphs were separated by blank lines (as is common in website text, like this review, for example) which further padded the page count. I wouldn’t actually care about that, if I didn’t think this story when from zero to happy ending in a ridiculously short period of time.

What do I mean by that? Well, I was invested in these characters pretty well for a novella, their interactions were downright adorable, and their dynamic subverted some pretty well entrenched gender roles–for example, it’s the man who decides they’re going to be friends instead of lovers at first, despite their obvious mutual attraction. Everything is going along pretty swimmingly, then all at once the story takes a trope-laden roller-coaster dive. When they hop into bed together for the first time, he’s taking her virginity (a), without a condom (b), while thinking about how it’s totally fine if he gets her pregnant because he’s baby mad and wants a family with her (c), even though they’ve only been dating for about ten seconds (d).

(a) + (d) I would be okay with separately, or even together, because maybe she’s absolutely ready to ditch that virginity even if they hadn’t been dating very long. But (b) + (c) are ridiculous/unsafe/abusive/toxic behaviors that I’m frankly disappointed this otherwise reasonably charming romantic hero decided to engage in. Functionally, that whole scene is apparently supposed to convince me how in love with her he is, how happy their ending is going to be because he’s so passionate and committed, but honestly I think it’s just gross to want to get your brand new lover knocked up immediately, and without discussing the possibility of children with her at all beforehand. Accidents happen, that’s one thing, but this is him just not using protection knowingly, asking her partway through if she’s on birth control, then going on anyway and telling himself it will be great if they have a baby. (They don’t, the denouement points his disappointment when she gets her period, and he basically says to himself “well maybe next time.” /shudder)

So the first 60% or so is a solid three stars with potential, then the rest is one star at best for how rushed and cringey it is.

46 - Erstwhile

#46 – Erstwhile, by H.E. Trent

  • Read: 3/25/30 – 3/26/20
  • Mount TBR: 46/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

A lot of wasted potential.

I don’t read a lot of sci-fi romance, and this particular work felt heavy on the sci-fi/politicking and light on the actual romance, but that imbalance may be actually just a different balance than I’m used to because of the subgenre. Sci-fi takes a lot more world-building space than contemporary or military or half a dozen other subgenres, so this criticism could fall under “it’s not the book, it’s me and my faulty expectations.” I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that the world-building here is full of holes, starting with the time period it’s set in. This was published in 2016 and set in 2036. That’s twenty years out, yet apparently Earth has colonized another planet, and we’ve been there for at least a while, presumably longer than twenty years, based on the level of devastation we’ve inflicted on the native population, and the fact that the lead’s grandfather was a political agitator in the past about the colonization. (If there were hard dates given to the timeline, I honestly don’t remember them, but this didn’t feel “new” as it was happening, it felt like they’d been at this a while.)

So am I supposed to believe this is our Earth, our society that’s doing this? Because we’re not. This isn’t set far enough in the future to be a believable course of events, and if it’s supposed to rely on some alternate history where the story Earth diverged somewhere in the past and this is their future, that alternate history is not given.

Okay, so my brain pushed it farther into the future to get past that, because hey, does it really matter? It’s just a year number, right?

But the holes just keep coming. The native population was brutally crushed under the weight of colonial boots, apparently, but the fugitive men we meet and who become the protagonist’s lovers have a surprisingly deep awareness of some aspects of human history and culture, odd things that my brain kept bumping into and saying “How would they know this? What human taught them this?” And they know English and some German (apparently, it comes up once and is never mentioned again) but I never saw any evidence of the sort of formal schooling that would teach them that (they’re really fluent, this isn’t a “pick up it from the oppressors while I’m fighting to survive” kind of knowledge) and it’s all just hand-waved.

Then, let’s talk about the “romance.” I have never read any romance novel where consent is so unclear. Courtney really just does sort of fall into bed with one of the men, and yes, we the reader know he’s sick because of a hormonal imbalance that female pheromones will alleviate and eventually cure, so we know why he wants to bang her. But she never really says yes, and during that first scene and several following it, Courtney asks him (or later, the other man in their pairing) “What are we doing?”

It keeps happening, this bewildering sex they have without any sort of discussion or boundary-setting or even emotional attachment. It’s strange and uncomfortable and not particularly sexy to read, because I was as bewildered as Courtney. Yes, it’s established she finds both of them attractive physically, but there’s never really much of an emotional connection, and at one point Courtney even questions if it’s appropriate for her to “use” Murk for sex because she’s a colonizer and he’s a native. Which, yeah, dicey dynamic there.

But I called this wasted potential because the bones of a good setup were there. I wanted to read a story where these two men were suffering doubt about their attraction to Courtney: is it just their biology, are they that desperate for pheromones, or is it something beyond that? Could it be real? And I think that might be what the author was going for, but I never thought she got there. An unplanned (and supposedly impossible) pregnancy happens instead, so suddenly they’re all stuck together whether their relationship would have developed naturally or not, because (newsflash) the dominant male partner in Jekhian trios are biologically baby-crazy and territorial as all get-out.

There were moments, when the three of them were trying to hash out their cultural differences and what it meant for their expectations of relationship and family dynamics, that I keenly felt that wasted potential. This could have been so, so good, if it hadn’t fallen into the baby trap as a shortcut to keeping them together, if it had explored the power balance among them with any kind of nuance, if it hadn’t relied on keeping one character mute for most of the book because he was the one who could have explained Jekhan culture better than the one who could speak, which fueled constant and repetitive misunderstandings. (Side note: that muteness was handled poorly, which couple with a great deal of head-hopping, meant that a lot of times I honestly wasn’t sure who was speaking/thinking any given line. So that was no fun and did not help matters any.)

I did not like this book at all, but I’m left with a wanting feeling to read the book it could have been, because I think I really would like it.

Next Month’s TBR: April 2020

April 2020 TBR

  1. Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb
  2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
  3. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller
  4. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard
  5. The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
  6. Trick, by Natalia Jaster
  7. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
  8. Wasted Words, by Staci Hart
  9. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  10. Tikka Chance on Me, by Suleikha Snyder

It took one more book this month than the first three to cover all my challenges, and there are a few other next-in-series reads I want to get to soon, so April is shaping up to be a heavy reading month.

Of course, Michigan is locked down until April 13th, and I’m off work for the duration. (I do still have my job, as long as the business I work for survives the coming hard times. I’m trying not to think about that too much, besides having a rough plan for landing on my feet if things go badly.)

On the other hand, I’ve been playing so very, very much Animal Crossing: New Horizons over the past few days, it’s cutting into my reading time even if I do have extra. But I have to let my husband play too, sometimes, so I’m sure I’ll still stick my nose in books often enough, especially since there are quite a few titles on this (very strangely balanced?) list that I’ve been looking forward to.

Hope you’re all staying safe and enjoying your own reading right now!

 

This Week, I Read… (2020 #11)

41 - By Degrees

#41 – By Degrees, by Elle Casey

  • Read: 3/13/20 – 3/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 41/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I didn’t exactly like it before the ending, but at least most of it made some kind of sense. Then it went off the rails in spectacular fashion.

I have a lot of problems with the main body of the story, ranging from the silly to the serious.

1. What is up with the constantly overused term “bimbot?” Why not just use “bimbo” like a normal person would? Or am I supposed to think the women referred to that way are actually robots designed to look like attractive women? If I am, that insult gets the point across, but there’s no sci-fi flavor to Scarlett or literally anything else in the story, so it’s wildly out of place and it irritated me every single time, which was often, because it’s Scarlett’s go-to word for Tarin’s groupies.

2. Where is Tarin’s personality? Scarlett gets a ton of time being built up to be this business badass in the beginning (which story totally falls down on when she is consistently unprofessional as the romance progresses, by the way) but Tarin is such a standard bad-boy rock star, and even later when he’s growing as a person because he wants to turn his life around, we’re told he’s learning to cook from the chef on Scarlett’s team, we’re told he’s taken up photography as a hobby, but a) we don’t see him doing those things in real time to see him learning, and b) they don’t seem to have any effect on him elsewhere in changing his attitudes (not that I think a few cooking lessons or photographs would have that profound an effect that quickly, but then what’s the point?) Also, related to this, when they’re separated near the end for four months, Tarin’s physical muscle growth is apparently stupendous enough that it has Scarlett in raptures, but that’s just not realistic for anyone who isn’t devoting their entire life to bodybuilding. Visible musculature change is a slow process and while I can accept he could look a little more buff, I don’t accept that his biceps are “half again as big” as they were before. Ridiculous.

3. Scarlett’s inconsistency about the groupies. One minute Jelly and Posey are the bimbot idiots and the lowest creatures to ever walk the earth, but then when someone else (ie, a man) insults them, she turns around and defends them, or at least makes excuses for them. “They don’t know any better,” “they’re caught up in the fame,” “they’re still people, you can’t treat them that way,” even though in her head she’s said far worse things about them. It would be a small thing in a different story, this sort of hypocrisy, but since Jelly and Posey are, at different times, both major plot obstacles to the romance, I don’t think I can give Scarlett (or the author) a pass on this. Posey gets arrested and Jelly dies so that Scarlett and Tarin can be together. So are bimbot groupies the worst, or are they just misguided women? What am I supposed to think of them? You can’t have it both ways.

4. That ending. God, it’s terrible. “We’ve slept together twice but I want you to marry me because the second time we had sex I decided you’re my forever girl, but also I’m dedicated to raising a dead ex-lover’s baby who isn’t mine biologically but is mine legally because I put my name on the birth certificate, so if you want me you’re it’s mother now.” Like, who’s the real father? Does he get a say? Maybe he wouldn’t want the kid, sure, the types of guys Jelly was sleeping with it’s a fair bet he wouldn’t, but shouldn’t you find out? And talk about rushed! On one level, I can commend Tarin for being committed to fatherhood and not offering to throw the baby away to have Scarlett, but that would be stronger if I understood why he’s decided to raise Jelly’s baby at all, because there’s no real reason given. And as a twist, it comes out of nowhere, because Tarin’s issues are not father issues, we know basically nothing about his family. All his tragic backstory is based around his guilt for not preventing another rock star’s death, nothing to do with his daddy. So why is he suddenly campaigning for Father of the Year?

42 - Bayou Moon

#42 – Bayou Moon, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 3/15/20 – 3/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 42/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that is a collaboration between 2 or more people
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This romance is buried under the weight of too many characters and too much new world building. It’s the worst Ilona Andrews book I’ve read since waaaaay back at the beginning of the Kate Daniels series, when Magic Bites was a pretty rough start to what was ultimately a fantastic series.

But I’m feeling those awkward, trying-to-do-too-much vibes again.

(Of course “the worst” IA book is still three stars and better than a heckuvalot of other romances I’ve read, so please keep that in mind as I move forward with its issues.)

First, I like that this jumps to a new featured couple by way of William, a supporting character from the first book. If this had been a series romance (like Kate Daniels) following Rose and Declan, I wouldn’t have been disappointed, but I’m not heartbroken it’s not about them, either. And I liked William so I’m happy to see him again.

The problem is, in introducing the new character as his love interest, we get her entire family clan as well, and it’s a big one. I’m not opposed to characters being from huge families, but there’s so much going on in this book and trying to develop so many family members takes up so much space. None of them really got the treatment they probably deserved (I’m looking at you, Lark, with your incredibly fast-told traumatic backstory that could practically be a book on its own but lasted for two pages) and it was clear to me that at least one or two of these cousins will probably be the leads of future books. (I checked after the fact, and I’m 100% right about that.) By the end, I was disappointed by this lack of reasonable development, because it meant I had no way of figuring out on my own who the traitor in the family was–there just wasn’t enough about each possibility for me to work with–and when that person is revealed, they have to go on an absolute rant explaining their motives for the betrayal in detail, because the reader wouldn’t know, because we didn’t know the character well enough beforehand to suspect them.

Parallel to that, the first book did a lot to set up the Edge and the way this strange worlds-collision works, and yes Bayou Moon does build on that, but mostly by doing an incredibly deep dive into a very small patch of land, so to speak, which functionally builds an entirely new world–the swamp–with very little connection to anything we learned in the first book. Cerise’s Edge is nothing like Rose’s, and when William goes to Declan for help near the end of the book, it’s shocking to see the Weird and the characters from the first book who seem like a fever dream now, because Bayou Moon feels so separate.

And since now I know more Mar family characters are future leads, we’re going to spend two more books building on this setting within the Edge (presumably) which makes this feel like a first-in-series book all over again, even though it’s the second. There’s enough held over from the first book to make this unreasonable as a standalone, yet it does so much to set up new territory and so little to carry on the first book that it seems like it wants to be a standalone/first-in-series.

I don’t want a series to have two “first” books fighting with each other.

Also, the end felt super-rushed, like we spend four hundred pages doing the family feud in detail, then a huge battle happens afterward in the Weird and it’s glossed over like an afternoon tea party. I don’t object to what happened, just wonder why something so major is wedged into the denouement, essentially.

So, after all that structural nonsense I complain about, what’s good? I do love William, and Cerise is reasonably awesome. A lot of the swamp magic was interesting, a lot of the Hand’s magic/creatures were interesting and revolting at the same time, and even if I didn’t want to spend so much time on Cerise’s extended family, the push/pull they had with her about her love life, and whether or not William should feature in it, was adorable and sometimes a little heartbreaking.

43 - Coraline

#43 – Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

  • Read: 3/9/20 – 3/20/20
  • Mount TBR: 43/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a dark or hard-hitting book
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Oh, goodness, this was so delightfully creepy and whimsical and frightening. I didn’t find it too scary, even though some of the things in should be terrifying, but I think as an adult, the simplicity of the language and the quick pace sort of flatten it out a bit? There’s not enough time to build the sort of dread that really gets to me and makes me drop a piece of media unfinished because I’m quivering with fear.

But the story structure is elegant, with the right level of foreshadowing that will satisfy an adult reader but possibly slip by a younger one, maybe they’ll get it if they’re clever, maybe it will be a surprise in the end and they’ll get that lovely aha! moment.

Coraline herself is a wonderful child protagonist, scared but smart, brave, and determined. And hey, look! A male author writing a children’s story with a girl as the lead! (No, I’m not still bitter about Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. Not at all. Why do you ask?)

So, with the caveat that every reader’s tolerance of horror/spookiness is different and this could be too much for you, I can happily recommend this for everyone of any age.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #10)

37 - Dreams Underfoot

#37 – Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint

  • Read: 3/4/20 – 3/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 37/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that is between 400-600 pages
  • The Reading Frenzy: Close your eyes and pick a book from your shelf
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A long time ago, at least fifteen years but possibly longer, I’m pretty sure I got a few de Lint novels out from the library and read them. I don’t remember which ones precisely, aside from The Onion Girl because I do recall that cover, and I thought, I remember thinking these were interesting, so why not give him a try again but start at the beginning?

So I didn’t know, when I picked this up from ThriftBooks, that it was a short story collection, and that’s my fault, because I was expecting a novel. But even taking my incorrect expectations into account, I was unimpressed by this.

Together the stories do paint a vivid picture of a place, a city, that could exist nearly anywhere in North America, at least anywhere many cultures have come together with their many traditions of folklore, mythical creatures, and magic. The world-building is the strongest thing about this; if I felt like combing through the book again for each specific detail, I could probably draw you a half-decent map of Newford. (But this is the age of the Internet, and I bet someone else, a more invested fan than me, already has.)

But though this city could exist anywhere it could definitely not exist anywhen. The combined vagueness and immediacy of place is not matched by an equal timelessness, because these stories are so incredibly, painfully dated in their language and details. How many times was a large cassette player called a “ghetto blaster?” How many musical references are there to existing artists like 10,000 Maniacs and The Pogues? How many characters have Mohawks? (Not that that isn’t still a thing, it is, but the hairstyle has an incredibly strong link with the punk culture of the ’80s.) All of the individual stories appeared in magazines throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it shows in the level of technology in the setting, but also in the language. Compact discs aren’t even abbreviated as “CDs” yet! So there’s where the specificity of an urban fantasy setting rubs the wrong way against the threads of magical realism–I wanted these stories to be more timeless than they could possibly be.

My second major complaint is the weakness of characterization. Everyone gets a physical introduction of a paragraph or two that covers most of the same details–it’s very, very important that we know everyone’s height and hairstyle–but the stories do little to flesh out personalities, being so focused on the magical aspects of the story. Even the characters that come up the most often are still fairly thin, built from tropes that don’t gain complexity through their actions–Jilly is a starving-artist type, Geordie a starving-musician type, and so on. I especially don’t like how all of the women are basically the same woman with slightly different looks and slightly different backstories. Jilly didn’t bother me in that regard so much because she’s the first one we meet, but the Hispanic waitress and the Romani musican lady honestly didn’t feel all that different from her, except the waitress used the most awkward forced Spanish in her narrative even while she whined that she had hung out with “Anglos” so long that she was losing her Spanish and could barely speak to her abuela anymore. Listen, I’m not bilingual, but I’ve read a lot of advice on how to write bilingual characters, based on how actual bilingual people switch between their languages, and this ain’t it. This is definitely a White Male Author writing both poor examples of women and worse examples of women of color.

And yeah, I know, this was more than thirty years ago in some cases and attitudes have progressed. Maybe his more recent works are better in this regard, but my interest was in starting the series from the beginning to get the full picture of his world. The world still seems interesting, but it’s populated by characters I can’t connect with. I won’t be coming back again.

38 - The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

#38 – The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  • Read: 3/7/20 – 3/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 38/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book originally published in a year that is a prime number
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A bildungsroman
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I wish I had liked this better. It tackles grief in a way I’ve rarely seen in YA, with a great deal of depth of emotion, but ultimately, the writing style isn’t a good match for the subject matter.

Everything is too slick. Short sentences. Plain language. Talking-heads-style dialogue that goes on for pages without reminding you who’s talking, without showing anything that they’re doing, without interjecting any internal monologue or stray thoughts or reactions.

There’s nothing to hold on to for more than a few seconds, it all just slides right by. The text is so effortless to read that it’s easy to let it go right through you without leaving a firm impression.

That being said, this work does have a lot to say about the difficulties of being a teenage boy, especially in an unusual family situation, with the pressures of conformity, of grief, of unexplained anger. Salvador was a likable and sweet and sympathetic in his confusion about how to move forward. As a girl, I never felt the same brand of societal pressure to grow up and become a “woman” in the same way we push boys into manhood–society was looking over my shoulder in an entirely different way that isn’t a one-to-one correlation–but this story made me feel that pressure, that confusion, that uncertainty.

So this isn’t a bad story, or even a bad book. I just wish it weren’t so easily digestible, that it asked me to do a little more of the work to reach its conclusions, that it trusted me a bit more to engage with its themes.

39 - The Bride Test

#39 – The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

  • Read: 3/10/11
  • Mount TBR: 39/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read this in one sitting, thank you, unexpected day off work. (I almost managed that with its predecessor, not from lack of trying.)

So, having read both now, it’s clear to me that Hoang’s romantic thesis, the core of both books, is the idea that anyone is capable of loving and being loved, if they can figure out how to communicate with their partner. A lesson she’s showing through romances between autistic and neurotypical partners, but honestly, a lot of NT people need to learn this lesson whether their partners are atypical or not. (A lot of romances, too, the fastest thing that will make me toss a romance across the room is a plot based on constant misunderstandings or an unrealistic lack of communication. Sure, it’s difficult to fully open up to a partner under a lot of circumstances, but when you can’t talk to them about anything? Not a strong foundation for a relationship.)

I’m leading with this because I love this thesis, this central theme, far more than I dislike any smaller items in the book. Is the setup strange and more than a little uncomfortable at times? Yes. Are some of Khai’s family going to great lengths to manipulate him “for his own good?” Yes. Do the leads spend very little time actually getting to know each other, despite having the whole summer together? Yes. So (again like its predecessor) I see the flaws others fairly level at it, but none of them detracted from my can’t-put-it-down enjoyment of the book.

40 - The Thing About December

#40 – The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

  • Read: 3/11/20 – 3/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 40/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A prompt that failed to make this year’s final list (a book by an Irish author)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Ireland
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I only finished this because of its short length and my own stubbornness. This is not a book for me.

First, in the “others think it’s great but I’m not the right reader” department, this is so heavily stuffed with Irish idiom and slang that there were stretches of the narrative that were absolutely incomprehensible to me. Like, I can look up words and phrases online to fill in a lot of gaps, but when Johnsey’s internal monologue or someone speaking to him goes off on a tear and starts using endless idiom and it’s all a long string of words that don’t make sense in that order to me and it just keeps going and oh maybe I see something that makes sense for a second but then here’s more slang and here’s more idiom and at the bottom of the page the paragraph finishes but I’m not sure what just happened because it’s all a rush and I don’t know how it fits together. For a finish.

It’s repetitive and exhausting. But I can see how it would flow for a reader who is far more familiar with the language. I can see the charm of the style, but only as an outsider who will never really “get” it.

On a much more widely damning note, Johnsey is one of the most boring and passive protagonists I’ve ever read. He doesn’t do anything. Everything happens to him. His father died. Then his mother dies. Then he’s beaten to a pulp by the local gang of bullies. Then he lies around in the hospital silently falling in love with his nurse, who for some reason gives him a hand job, thus securing his adoration forever. Then when he gets out, his hospital roommate starts swinging by, then the nurse. And all the while various townspeople are trying to get him to sell his land for development, and the newspaper is writing articles about him blockading progress by refusing to sell, but he’s not refusing, he’s just not doing anything. Then the weird, over-written and unsatisfying ending happens.

Everything happens to him. The only real active choice he makes for the bulk of the story is quitting his job when he’s in the hospital and his boss comes to see him, but that’s both out of left field and out of character. Johnsey just goes with the flow of everything because all his life he’s been coddled/bullied/told he’s too stupid to do things on his own. I understand that his history has built him to be that passive nobody, but that doesn’t make him an interesting character to follow, and honestly I don’t care for the constant conflation of mental disability, mental health issues, and violence. I don’t think there was any ending, happy or sad, that would have made me like this story better, but I can say Johnsey with a gun followed by a cute one-liner restating the title definitely wasn’t it, if such an ending could exist.

This ended up being just a slog of misery that I didn’t enjoy at all.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #9)

34 - Blind Attraction

#34 – Blind Attraction, by Eden Summers

  • Read: 2/28/20 – 2/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 34/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This novel can’t decide if it’s character-driven or plot-driven, so it suffers the worst of both.

Alana, as a heroine, is full of contradictions, but not the good kind like you want. She’d deliberately trying to break free of her sheltered past, which leads her to engage in semi-reckless behavior, and that’s good, in the sense that it’s a defining trait for her that (mostly) informs her actions through the whole book. On the other hand, in situations dealing with her past, she’s incredibly wishy-washy. First she doesn’t want to get to know her estranged grandparents, then she does, then she freaks out when she finds out her rapist father isn’t dead like she was told, but then she’s okay and wants to get to know the family her mother kept from her. In another situation, she never ever wants to return home to her mother who lied to her, she doesn’t feel like that’s home anymore, but then the very next thing she does is return home to confront her mother about everything, but only because her mother had an accident and is in the hospital, but Alana isn’t there to help, just to insist her mother get help for her issues. Like, I get that “I’m never ever going home” isn’t a threat most people follow through on for their whole lives, but it really cheapens her resolve to have her break her word only a few days later.

So if Alana is trying to be the character-driven half of the novel, credit for the trying, her love interest Mitch is fully the plot-driven half, because he has no actual personality. He is completely the standard-issue semi-bad-boy rock star who has a vague “rock star” past of groupies and indulgence, but no actual back story, I couldn’t tell you a thing about a) the band’s history, b) his childhood, c) his family, or d) any views he has on literally anything except sex and commitment. In the earliest part of the story, he’s the rock god who is swooned over by Alana and falls in lust with her because she’s visibly different from the crowd of typical groupies around her. (Oh, yeah, let me tell you about how many rock-star novels are all about “but this girl is so different from all those bitches, she’s real, and that’s why I love her.”) After her injury in his presence, Mitch cares for her pretty damn tenderly, I’ll admit, and I do love a thoughtful man. But why? Why is he so damn wonderful to her when he doesn’t know her at all and his band mates are commenting on how out of character that is for him? The plot attempts to explain this with a bit about his hero complex in the past, there’s an incident with a girl overdosing on their bus, but in the very next scene his internal monologue reveals that’s all bullhonky and it didn’t happen that way, so there’s no explanation for his behavior but “this girl is different and I’m already catching feelings even though I’ve known her for less than a few hours.”

The plot needed to have a contrivance that keeps them together past a single night, so an accident temporarily impaired her vision. Mitchell can’t be a ragingly sexy douchebag to her while she’s recovering because that would be unforgivably taking advantage of her and romantic heroes aren’t supposed to do that, so he’s a perfectly tender gentleman instead, for absolutely no apparent reason. So if this behavior is in-character for him (like if the hero complex were real) then tell me that; but if it’s out-of-character for him, like it apparently is, YOU STILL HAVE TO TELL ME WHY.

On a larger scale even than the two halves of the romance making a structure that doesn’t really fit together, this book handles rape rather insensitively. Alana is a child of rape and her mother withdrew from the world, raising her daughter to fear men. Alana’s story is one of breaking free from this skewed view of reality, and as far as that goes, it’s valid. But in order for her to assert her independence and justify her actions as normal and adult and her own, she basically has to smack-talk her mother constantly. Yes, in the end her mother does need help for her mental health, but Alana’s confrontation with her about it is pretty brutal, and having her mother mistakenly shoot one of Mitch’s band mates (thinking he was Mitch) with a pellet rifle when they came to the retreat? Like, can we not portray mentally unstable people as unnecessarily violent? Can we not make a rape victim the villain of the story who’s holding the heroine back and shooting the man she thought was her daughter’s boyfriend? The entire thing left a terrible taste in my mouth.

35 - I am a Cat

#35 – I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki

  • Read: 3/1/20 – 3/3/20
  • Mount TBR: 35/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with a green cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF @ page 150. I tried, I really tried.

The first chapter was witty and sardonic and fantastic. I am a cat! This is how a cat views the world! This is what cats think of petty human troubles! Cats are the superior life form!

Which, of course, anyone who has ever lived with a cat would immediately recognize.

But by the end of the first volume, I was tired of the style. It quickly stopped being about the cat, and became the cat constantly eavesdropping on old Japanese men having arguments and lying to each other, and while it was still often funny, it was funny in a different way, one that I didn’t find as gripping, and one that often relied on cultural/historical references I don’t have a grounding in.

Plus, the translation seemed to be subbing in British idiom when necessary for Japanese terms, which gave the whole thing an incredibly odd flavor to an American reader with a passing knowledge of Japanese.

Both the extra material and several reviews I’ve looked at point out that the first chapter was supposed to be the entire thing, but it was so popular Soseki continued it as a serial. In that form, I can see how it would be more effective, spacing out the doses of similar humor to readers, and turning the soap-opera betrothal story into something with cliffhangers, at least mild ones, while waiting for the next part to be released. But as a giant brick of dense satire with unvarying tone to be read at once, I found it too exhausting for my initial enthusiasm to cope with.

I really did love that first chapter, so I really am disappointed it didn’t stay that good.

36 - Wabi-Sabi

#36 – Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leonard Koren

  • Read: 3/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 36/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that rhymes
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

It’s going to take me longer to write this review, probably, than it did to read the book.

Let’s get the obvious complaints I have out of the way: the photographs are terrible and do nothing to enhance the book or my understanding of the concept of wabi-sabi. I don’t know if they are in color in other editions, but this one, they are black and white, often out of focus, and sometimes lacking enough contrast or perspective to even tell what it is I’m looking at. There’s one in particular of a large room, the interior of a tea house actually, and I only know that because of the extensive description in the back notes, detailing how the wall pictured is “a mosaic composed of metal in various states of tarnish and rust.” Well, that’s great, I guess, I see how it relates to wabi-sabi as described here, but the photograph conveys exactly none of that. Rendered in black and white, it could easily be mistaken for the exact slick, modern-minimalist, industrial look that is precisely the antithesis of wabi-sabi.

I’d rather not have photographs at all than have poor quality, misleading, or unhelpful ones.

As for the text itself, it’s written by an artist, and it is definitely for artists. The tone takes me right back to the pretentiousness of the art classes I took in college, right down to the language that looks intellectual and precise but often fails to have any real meaning. I know, I know, it’s a stereotype that artists are pretentious, and obviously not all of them are, but good heavens, this embodies that stereotype to the extreme, right down to the extra dose of racism the white author doles out by posing himself as a master of understanding wabi-sabi and going on at length about how modern Japanese culture is losing this aesthetic and how he has to promote it to the world in order to “save” it.

I’m all for cultural appreciation and I do want to know more about Japanese culture and history, I always have, I almost had enough credits in college for an Asian Studies minor because I kept taking classes outside my major (biology) because damn if I wasn’t fascinated. But am I about to write a book about my flawed outsider’s understanding of a core cultural concept of a people not my own, under the guise of saving it from extinction (at worst) or obscurity (at best)? No! Of course not!

But it’s rationalized at the beginning by noting how, when the author spoke to native Japanese people about the concept, they found it difficult to explain, or sometimes unwilling to try, and then he takes a jab at Japanese language being unsuitable for “explaining things in a rational way” which was just peak bullshit for me out of the whole book.

So I’ve just blasted this work for having awful pictures throughout, and for the author embarking on a spree of artistically pretentious cultural appropriation with a white-savior complex he openly admits to in the beginning. Seriously, he actually says he’s on a personal journey to “save” wabi-sabi.

After all that, why does this book even get a second star from me? I’ve made it sound like trash.

But, in some small way, it did deepen my understanding of the concept. I’m not a very spiritual person, so that aspect of it remains out of my reach, but as I was reading, I kept relating what was being explained to a concept I am incredibly familiar with: visible mending. I know about two techniques in this sphere, both of Japanese origin, and I practice one. The first (that I’ve never done) is kintsugi, a method of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered precious metals, often but not always gold. It’s gorgeous and apparently there are kits you can buy for it but a) they’re expensive, b) I don’t actually have any broken pottery to fix, and c) apparently the lacquers used can cause poison-ivy-like allergic reactions? So it’s a beautiful thing I appreciate but will probably never do myself.

The second, though, that I do all the time in my recent years of attempting to be a slow fashionista, is using boro patching and/or sashiko embroidery to repair my clothing and extend its life. Like kintsugi, the entire point of this style is to enhance the beauty of a damaged object with the fixing of it, rather than trying to make it perfect and unspoiled again. That’s wabi-sabi in a nutshell, at least on the material side of things, which I do get very well, unlike the spiritual side.

So I did gain something by reading this book. I did learn some (but certainly not all) of the history of wabi-sabi, and gained some understanding of its precepts, but ultimately I think this is a flawed package to convey it. Several other reviewers who thought poorly of this book, for whatever reason, have offered alternative sources by Japanese authors, which are going on my TBR right now.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #8)

30 - The English Patient

#30 – The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

  • Read: 2/21/20 – 2/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 30/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in the 20th century
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book set in Venice or Italy
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’ve been reading a lot of books this month that I didn’t end up enjoying, but it is this one that has finally crystallized for me the concept that has been swirling vaguely through my head for weeks as I try to figure out why I’ve been disappointed by most of the recent string of books I’ve read.

The English Patient was more enjoyable to me that most “literature” that I’ve attempted to read, though not by much, but that small difference has illuminated for me why so many highly-praised books, so many award-winning novels, have utterly fallen flat for me.

“Literature” often values theme over everything else. I don’t. I value character the most. If a story doesn’t have well-developed characters that propel the narrative, I probably won’t like it.

I tried to read Beauty is a Wound a few weeks ago and failed to get through it. It did remind me, as apparently it was supposed to, of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I also did not finish. Both of those books explored theme through plot–the characters were names on a page, incidental at best. The plot happened, very much in the classic “and then” story format, but in both cases (and many others) I don’t care what happens next if I don’t understand, or the author simply won’t tell me, why the characters are doing what they are doing.

If you can’t get me invested in the characters, I won’t care about the plot, and I definitely won’t care about any grand themes the work is supposed to embody.

So how does this relate to The English Patient? It’s unique in my reading experience–at least since I started reviewing all my reads several years ago–in that it attempts to explore theme through character, not plot. There’s very little plot to speak of, actually, to the point where the first half of the book is directionless wasteland of character exploration, with beautiful language but no momentum. (Like the desert! Oh, look, I figured out the incredibly obvious metaphor that underlies most of the book!) But still, that was enough to intrigue me, to make me wonder why Hana would devote herself to a single grievously wounded patient, why she and Kip shared a mutual fascination with each other, why Caravaggio took such an interest in the English patient and the mystery of his identity.

Ultimately, I didn’t care for the story that much, even when I had the answers to those questions, and the ending was strange and unsatisfying, because, again, nothing really happens, so there isn’t all that much to resolve. For a 300-page book, the plot points that can be condensed down to a recognizable story arc, something you could write down as an outline, is so thin that I think calling it “skeletal” would be generous.

But the language is beautiful–another aspect of writing that “literature” often values above character, and while I don’t, I can at least appreciate good imagery and a tendency for strong turns of phrase. Not everything landed, in that respect, because I do get tired of male authors being obsessed with male characters’ penises, and those images are almost always cringe-inducing, but most of the rest of the book was fine.

So, if my value hierarchy is character > plot > theme > language, then this book is theme > character > language > plot, which makes it a better match for me than a lot of other classics, but still not a good one.

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink

#31 – The Only Great Harmless Thing, by Brooke Bolander

  • Read: 2/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 31/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that can be read in a day
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book that won an award in 2019 (Nebula)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Five stars for the concept, two stars for the execution.

I love the idea of tying together two concurrent tragedies in an alternate-history novelette that, as a bonus, gives us high-level sign-language communication with elephants, recognizing them as a sentient species. (Though some characters believe this far more than others.) I want a world where I can talk to elephants, thank you.

But the actual text is a jumble of jumping viewpoints, three narrators telling three stories over three different timelines. I did eventually get a handle on it, but I don’t usually expect a novelette to have such a high bar for entry. It’s confusing, and worse, it seems deliberately so, because there’s no reason this couldn’t have been even just a little longer in order to do simple things like establish time periods and narrators clearly, to give readers some handle on the structure rather than throwing everything at them in a tangle.

The other aspect of the text I am less than enamored with is the excessive two-word hypenated-noun silly-thing endless-adjective descriptors. See what I did there? Would you want to read that over and over again for even the short length of ninety pages?

What it boils down to is an interesting idea that isn’t really treated with the respect it warrants, and is instead written slickly, disposably, into a nugget of a story that is far more difficult to engage with than it needs to be.

32 - His Custody

#32 – His Custody, by Tamsen Parker

  • Read: 2/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 32/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

There are a few tropes in this book that should squick me out, but don’t, because of the delicacy with which they are handled.

Reasonably large age gap? I’ve read larger ones, and both characters deal appropriately with each other in public.

Teenage lover? The heroine starts this story a minor, but nothing sexual happens until after she’s eighteen, and the hero really, really examines himself, questioning his motives, questioning what’s best for her versus what he wants for himself. I will drop a book in a heartbeat if I get even the slightest whiff of pedophilia, and it’s just not present here. He doesn’t want her because she’s young, because he’s attracted to younger women. He wants her because the care and trust and deep emotional connection they develop becomes something more.

Guardian/ward? I’ve never read anything from this subgenre before, I’m not even sure I could name another romance with this trope. But the power dynamic here is respectful, there’s no coercion, in fact the hero goes to great lengths to make sure there isn’t. It’s really just the situation that brings them together.

So now that I’ve checked off all the boxes of why this romance could have been problematic and wasn’t, why did I actually like it? REAL EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT. It’s not instalove. The bulk of the story (everything except the epilogue) takes place over the course of more than a year. Do you know how rare that is in romances? They usually take place over a few weeks at most, often quite a bit less. This lets the heroine reach legal adulthood, yes, but it also gives their relationship time to grow naturally, and time for them both to deal with the grief that brought them together.

What else? Consent, consent, consent. Tamsen Parker is one of the best BDSM romance authors out there, because not only does she never ignore or hand-wave consent, she works it seamlessly into every scene that requires it, and generally also makes it sexy, not awkward. (Unless it’s supposed to be for character reasons.)

In the end, I believe these characters are not only in both love and lust with each other, but also committed to the work it takes to make a relationship thrive in the long-term. I haven’t reread any of my other Parker books recently, and there’s a lot of hers I haven’t gotten to yet, but this book has reminded me why she’s one of my favorites, and this might be my new favorite work of hers.

33 - The Heart of What Was Lost

#33 – The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams

  • Read: 2/26/20 – 2/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 33/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a prequel
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

There was very little question in my mind that I was going to enjoy this sequel-prequel novel, yet I kept putting it off until I needed to read it for a challenge it fit. Why? I wanted to reread Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn first, and that’s a big commitment that I never managed to make time for. I’ve read those books at least seven or eight times, but not recently, probably not for at least five or six years. Maybe longer. I was afraid I wasn’t going to remember what had happened clearly enough to follow along.

That was an absolutely needless worry. Williams reminds his readers at key points, mostly seamlessly, of the important events that bear relevance to the story. Only the high points matter–did you remember who the enemy was? Did you remember the tower fell? Did you remember who became king and queen? So it’s all there in this, when necessary, for context. (In fact, I think one thing is over-emphasized, Isorn’s death, because one of the main characters here is his father Isgrimnur and it seems he can’t have a single scene without bringing it up. Which in one way is fair, because he’s still grieving deeply, but in another way is also flat-out repetitive. Compared to all the strengths of this, that’s an incredibly minor quibble for me, though.)

I was not expecting and deeply enjoyed and appreciated having a Norn POV character. The insight into their society, mostly unknown until now, was fascinating, and this story sets up interesting questions about what direction the new trilogy will take us. I devoured every bit of history text the chronicler set out before the Viyeki’s scenes, and he was a truly sympathetic character, with his doubts and worries and slightly alien (but still strong) sense of honor and conduct.

I finished this and was so excited by it, so happy to slip back into such a familiar and vivid setting, that I went and broke my current book-buying ban to pick up a copy of The Witchwood Crown. Osten Ard is back, baby!