The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge 2020: Complete!

Earlier than last year, too–there wasn’t space to post about this until now, but I finished the final book on this list at the end of October. So, in the order I read them:

  1. A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it: Sunshine
  2. A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club: Full Dark, No Stars
  3. A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character: Autonomous
  4. A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title: Golden Fool
  5. A book with a pink cover: Next Year in Havana
  6. The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed: The Age of Innocence
  7. A book by a trans or nonbinary author: The Black Tides of Heaven
  8. A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live: Station Eleven
  9. A book that passes the Bechdel test: Hold Me
  10. A book about a book club: The Bromance Book Club
  11. A book with a map: Red Rising
  12. A book with a made-up language: The Singer
  13. Your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge (next book in a series I’m reading): The Secret
  14. A book with a main character in their 20s: Breakaway
  15. A book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads: Barefoot with a Bodyguard
  16. A book by an author who has written more than twenty books: From a Buick 8
  17. A book published in the month of your birthday: Make Him Wild
  18. A book with a three-world title: A Secret Affair
  19. A book you meant to read in 2019: Pantomime
  20. A book with a great first line: Beauty is a Wound
  21. A book with more than twenty letters in its title: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
  22. An anthology: Return of the Black Widowers
  23. A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins: The Miniaturist
  24. A book published in the 20th century: The English Patient
  25. A book that won an award in 2019: The Only Harmless Great Thing
  26. A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics: I am a Cat
  27. A bildungsroman: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
  28. A book about or by a woman in STEM: State of Wonder
  29. A book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics: The Night Watch
  30. A book with a pun in the title: Tikka Chance on Me
  31. Read a banned book during Banned Books Week: The Picture of Dorian Gray
  32. A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name: Wasted Words
  33. A book published in 2020: Girl Gone Viral
  34. A book with a character with vision impairment or enhancement: Lost Lake
  35. A Western: The Birchbark House*
  36. A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics: Room
  37. A book on a subject you know nothing about: Stamped from the Beginning
  38. A book by a WOC: Love on My Mind
  39. A book about or involving social media: Get a Life, Chloe Brown
  40. A book that has a book on the cover: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
  41. A book by or about a journalist: Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival
  42. A book with an upside-down image on the cover: Witchmark
  43. A book written by an author in their 20s: Homegoing
  44. A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader: The Other Boleyn Girl
  45. A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title: Eat that Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
  46. A book you picked because the title caught your attention: Autiobiography of a Corpse
  47. A medical thriller: Wilder Girls
  48. A book with a bird on the cover: A Song for Arbonne
  49. A book from a series with more than 20 books: Acheron
  50. A book set in the 1920s: An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew

Note*: chosen via recommendation and didn’t actually fit the prompt well, but didn’t want to read a replacement book.

This is my fifth year in a row both attempting and completing the PopSugar Challenge, but honestly, I think I’m played out for next year. I’ll miss the peculiarly specific kind of joy I get from pondering the tasks and assembling a reading list proposal for it (and other challenges) but this year really hammered home how much I overthink and overplan my reading, and I already anticipate next year just being Mount TBR (because I still have SO MANY unread book in my possession and as it’s a number-based challenge there’s no prep work for it.)

What started as fun, and a good way to stretch the boundaries of my reading, has felt like a chore and a hassle, which means it’s time to give it a rest. Who knows, maybe I’ll miss it so much in 2021 that I’ll go back to it in 2022!

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 #38)

#146 – Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer

  • Read: 10/2/20 – 10/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A mystery
  • Mount TBR: 125/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 127. It’s only partially the book’s fault, though.

I don’t enjoy mystery novels. Oddly enough, I do sometimes enjoy mystery movies, and I had my phase of watching investigative procedural shows with their mystery elements. But novels have always left me bored, frustrated, or bewildered.

This is no exception; but my dislike of the genre isn’t the fault of this particular book.

My yearly reading challenges, no matter the source or the year, always include somewhere “Read a mystery.” And I always put my game face on and try a new one, thinking “Maybe this time I’ll enjoy it.” And I never do. I should really stop trying.

So what portion of my disappointment with this is actually the book’s fault? It has a huge cast of characters that are uniformly obnoxious with very little in the way of differing personalities between them; the worst of upper-crust British society at the time, I guess, and so overdone to my sensibilities that if you told me this was satire I would believe you. The first seventy pages of the book were solely devoted to these dozen or so awful people constantly slinging accusations at each other and reiterating information that I, the reader, already knew; it was a slog, and I nearly gave up before the inspectors were even introduced. When I got that far, I gamely attempted two more chapters before throwing in the towel; the constant repetition of information in conversation between different characters was simply too exhausting, and the pace of the story was glacially slow.

I’m stating it now: I have no intention of ever reading any book whose primary genre is listed as “mystery” again. I never like them and I’m tired of trying to.

#147 – A Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Read: 10/4/20 – 10/8/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a bird on its cover
  • Mount TBR: 126/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

After a somewhat slow start that left me wondering (as I often do with GGK) how I would keep all the characters straight, this quickly became a story so compelling I didn’t want to put it down, yet sometimes I had to because emotion or inspiration overwhelmed me.

And I didn’t have trouble keeping track of everybody for long. I should really trust the author more by now, I’m most of the way through his catalog. His characters are never ambiguous or interchangeable.

While it’s inevitable for most readers, myself included, to compare this to Tigana, because of its similarities or because Tigana is often considered his best work or because, like me, it was the first GGK novel I read, I find the comparison favorable. So much of what I loved about Tigana is also present here; this is the work that reminds me most of it, in good ways. The complex layers of motivations to the characters, the emphasis on artistry, the nobleman-in-hiding, the way even minor characters are memorable many chapters later when they reappear to play some small but key role in the story. The only thing that felt missing was magic, which has a much smaller presence, but for this particular tale of love and grief and revenge and war, I found I didn’t mind.

I already want to read it again, and I think it will reward me when I do with extra insight and a deeper appreciation of how it balances large political forces against the small, pivotal actions of the individual, a characteristic of GGK’s writing that I don’t think I’ve found often from other authors. He takes the time to remind us that one person can still change a flow of events that otherwise seems inevitable, as well as taking the time to pause and really let us feel the emotions driving those characters.

Will it eventually unseat Tigana as my favorite GGK novel? I don’t know yet; it’s hardly fair to stack a first read against something I’ve reread at least half a dozen times. (Also, I should probably give River of Stars a chance as well, I adored it but also haven’t reread it yet.) But it’s the first novel since RoS that makes me feel like it might, given enough time and attention.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #36)

#138 – Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

  • Read: 9/18/20 – 9/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A medical thriller
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book from a genre you don’t usually read
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Disappointing. Honestly, when you line up the blurb with all the content warnings I’ve seen on friends’ reviews, this sounds like a dark and twisting ride through the worst humanity has to offer.

What it actually read like was a confusing mystery with a weak open ending and muddled character relationships.

I’m all for LGBT in YA, in books where romance isn’t the focus, and even in books without happy endings, as long as it doesn’t fall under Bury Your Gays or some other damaging trope. But the dynamics between Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are so messy they aren’t adequately covered by the subplot-level page space they’re allotted. Early on, the language used for the Hetty-Byatt relationship is so intense I though it was Byatt Hetty had a crush on, so imagine my confusion/surprise when it’s actually Reese, the loner girl who I thought was more of a figure of fear/adulation than love. It never seemed genuine, and especially as more and more of the plot relied on Hetty’s need to save Byatt, I was left to wonder why there was even a Hetty/Reese romance subplot at all. It didn’t add much to the story. And even after I knew Hetty was actually into Reese, Reese still sometimes appeared to be genuinely frightening to her.

But I guess that’s a function of the Tox making all these girls less than fully human?

Oh, the Tox. I wasn’t actually all that intrigued by the mystery surrounding it, and there’s so much left unexplained. I actually read most of the third act wondering what sort of ending was even possible for a plot line going down this road, because it certainly didn’t have time to sort itself out for a happy one. The ending was fitting but still disappointing; I wanted more answers, I wanted more resolution, and failing that, I actually wanted more hope. The Children of Men movie adaptation also ended in a grim situation with the main characters on a boat in open water, but it was perfect and brilliant and stuffed full of hope against the despairing tone of the rest of the story. This? This felt more like an intermission between now and a book we don’t have yet. Not a proper cliffhanger, not a proper ending.

I was prepared to let my stylistic complaints go if I liked the story, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the narrative is choppy in a lot of places. The author relies heavily on sentence fragments for description, stringing anywhere from two to five together in a paragraph whenever a character goes to a new place and has to observe what it’s like. Sparingly or in isolation, fine, but once you get whole paragraphs of them, I’m starved for verbs. After a while, it actually gets worse; a sentence will start with a clause that sounds just like those descriptive fragments, but then a complete sentence gets added on the end after a conjunction. It’s bad grammar, and while yes, you can break the rules for a reason, I don’t see that reason here. It’s just bad:

The emptiness of the horizon, and the hunger in my body, and how will we ever survive this if we can’t survive each other?

Why? What does it add to the story to string a bunch of unlike clauses together? Why is the second “, and” there instead of making them separate, a fragment and a full sentence? (I already returned my digital copy to the library so I didn’t even pick out a sentence myself–I skimmed the quotes listed here on Goodreads for an example, and sure enough, I found several. That’s how common this issue is.)

I try not to be a grammar pedant, but this book brought it right out of me, I wanted to take a red pen to a copy of it and play editor, because the errors happen far too often to be simple mistakes, so I have to conclude it’s a deliberate aspect of the style. And I happen to find it obnoxious.

#139 – And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

  • Read: 9/20/20 – 9/21/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book about an event or era in history taken from the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a diverse/own voices book
  • Mount TBR: 121/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This novel’s ambitious structure is a departure from the style I associate with Hosseini after loving his first two works: deep and introspective focus on only a few POV characters. Instead, Mountains chooses a sweeping narrative that dips through time and leaps from character to character, no two chapters alike. At first the jumps are small and easy to follow–the new character is generally still a family member of Abdullah and Pari, whom the tale is nominally about. Later on, the new characters and their relationships are harder to pin down, occasionally to the point where I was frustrated until halfway through the chapter or more.

I didn’t like this structure when I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest earlier this year, and I still don’t like it now. Personal preference, of course, but I feel this piecemeal approach does a decent job painting a picture of the larger world of the story, but leaves me feeling detached from the life within it. It doesn’t help that some of these characters are comparatively bland or stereotypical; we spent a great deal of time in Nila Wahdati’s orbit, learning about her from several sources, yet she never struck me as more than a standard “sexy French artist” type, with all the drinking and self-destructive tendencies to go along with it. And she’s by far the best-developed character in the book.

What has impressed me most in the past about Hosseini, especially A Thousand Splendid Suns, is that he’s the male author I trust most to handle female characters properly, with depth and sensitivity. Here, he hasn’t devolved into the worst of “men writing women”–he’s not actively harmful or disrespectful–but all the characters, male or female, lack the nuance I was expecting.

It’s not a bad novel, if you’re approaching it from a broader narrative standpoint. Not at all. But it’s also not at all what I was expecting from him, and I’m honestly disappointed by that.

#140 – The King’s Man, by Elizabeth Kingston

  • Read: 9/22/20 – 9/23/20
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book with a trope you love
  • Mount TBR: 122/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This fell flat for me throughout. I’m sold on some of its ideas–a misguided/evil man coming to terms with his past, an unattractive woman who pursued traditionally masculine pastimes reconciling with the feminine side of herself, the two of them becoming better people through their relationship with each other.

But none of it is executed well. Ranulf and Gwenllian have little chemistry, sexual or otherwise. He spends most of his time mocking her, which read well in the beginning when they were adversaries, but never gained the affectionate tone I expected of a romance hero who doesn’t know how to state his feelings honestly and thus continues to mock. He’s often cruel, even after he realizes his love for her.

Does it say something about me, that I’m more irritated with the hero for his mockery than I am with his long-ago murder of his foster father? Because a) he’s clearly struggling with guilt over that, where the mockery is just who he is; and b) his foster father was apparently a wife-abusing/killing piece of total garbage. I guess I’d rather have a murderer who was learning to be kind that an insecure one who still lashes out constantly at the woman he supposedly loves.

Gwenllian has strong characterization as an “ugly” woman who finds freedom in taking on a role usually denied to women–there’s a reason I see so many pictures of Brienne of Tarth from GoT in other reviews. But ultimately her internal conflict–which side of myself do I move forward with, the leader or the wife/mother–pushes her into an incredibly passive role in the story. Basically, after her marriage, she stops having agency. In the early days of her marriage she’s driven by lust, but as she fails to settle into her role as lady of the keep, she runs home to her mother, who’s plotting a rebellion against the king and wants to use Gwenllian as a figurehead to rally the people.

She spends the rest of the book paralyzed by indecision: she can’t stay and be a part of her mother’s plot, because she doesn’t believe in the cause and doesn’t want to be a traitor; she can’t return to her husband, because she’s not a real woman or lady and she’s overwhelmed by the combination of fear, failure, and love. So she sits around sulking, basically, until Ranulf comes for her and she decides she’ll try being a wife and mother again.

I’m just not sold on it. There are plenty of rich concepts here that could provide boundless interest to a reader, but none of it manifested for me. I was never invested, in the romance, in the politics, in Ranulf’s tortured past. It’s flat. It never hooked me.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #35)

#135 – This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples

  • Read: 9/10/20 – 9/11/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Read a book published in 2020
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new author [which I chose to interpret as “read a debut novel published this year” to define “new”]
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is so far outside my normal reading sphere that I’m having difficulty articulating what I liked about it. I’m always interested in LGBT+ stuff; I should be reading more indigenous authors; I’m okay with supernatural elements, slightly less comfortable with spiritual; but I almost never read crime novels.

It’s an odd mix, and it doesn’t always quite work, but overall it’s a strong debut. I felt for Marion, and his history is intertwined with that of his town/reservation, and some strange goings-on. I read this in just under a day; the pacing was definitely compelling enough to keep me going. I didn’t always like any of the other characters, though I found it interesting that Shannon’s POV chapters were generally written in second person, a framework of him talking to himself, because of his issues. Most writing advice tells us all to steer clear of 2nd, but I like it here as a mode of characterization, even if I didn’t necessary like Shannon at first. He comes around in the end, mostly.

The weakest aspect is definitely the many, many side POVs and the lack of clarity when switching to one of a) who our POV even is, and b) how they’re related (in the story, or in some cases, literally blood-related) to Marion. While I recognize much of the cultural content/history given in these vignettes was necessary to the story, I didn’t appreciate having my attention diverted in so many directions, or frequently waiting to get back to the present-day storyline. It’s a serious complaint, but not one that would prevent me from recommending the book to anyone interested in the subject matter–I picked this on a whim for a reading challenge and I’m surprised by how much I liked it, given its dissimilarities to my usual genres.

#136 – Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky

  • Read: 9/11/20 – 9/14/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose real name(s) you’re not quite sure how to pronounce
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book you picked because the title caught your attention
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Russia (or by a Russian author)
  • Mount TBR: 119/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I rarely read the introductions in any book that has one. I’d rather get to the actual content, and often I don’t have the academic grounding to understand half of what the introduction’s authors have to say.

This time, I went back and read it after. Counter-intuitive, I’m sure many people would say, but I was vindicated by Thirlwell mentioning Italo Calvino as a similar author, because I read The Complete Cosmicomics earlier this year and found Corpse to be strikingly reminiscent of it. The subject matter of any individual story between the two could be wildly different, but they all felt the same in their treatment of the “fantastic” as a blend of real, absurd, and academic.

Like my reaction to Cosmicomics, I’m left here with the feeling of “I wish I understood this better so I can appreciate it more.” I’m no student of philosophy, and while I have enough knowledge of Russian history to connect it to the dismal, censorious atmosphere of the stories in Corpse, beyond that I have no ground to stand on. I love absurdity in fiction; but this is high-minded, philosophical absurdity outside my ken. I always felt like I was grasping at the edges of what Krzhizanovsky was trying to say–I could see connections forming between identity, time, brokenness, and storytelling. I feel confident in stating his stories are mostly about some or all of those things, most of the time. But as with Calvino, deeper meaning eludes me; I value emotion most in my fiction, not philosophy. I would rather grapple with characters than concepts.

This is a challenging work that I’m glad I attempted, but not something I’d shout from the rooftops as a general recommendation. It’s weird and interesting, and I’m vaguely sad that this author was never recognized for his fiction in his lifetime because of censorship. Even if I can’t appreciate his work fully, clearly he deserved better than what he got.

#137 – At This Moment, by Karen Cimms

  • Read: 9/15/20 – 9/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 120/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This would be a decently compelling story if it were the novelization of a B-movie-level biopic of a famous musician. It’s only good if it’s about someone I already care about, or at least want to hear gossip about; as a piece of total fiction, it doesn’t do a great job getting me invested in characters this miserable.

As a “romance,” it’s alarmingly lackluster. There’s no romantic or sexual tension beyond Billy and Kate’s initial courtship in the first 10%–after that, they’re together and it’s a roller coaster of family problems, poverty, drinking, drug abuse, lying, manipulation, and eventually cheating and a half-assed cliffhanger where they’re happy but there’s a huge secret hanging over their head.

Nothing about it is what I want from my romances, even when I indulge in angsty/sexy New Adult titles. The tension I want–why aren’t they together yet, what obstacles are in their way–was entirely absent. The tension this story gave me–will they make it work–was far more about their lying and poor decision-making than it was about their love. They must be in love because they keep insisting they are, but they both treat each other like garbage, so I’m not convinced. Billy is abusive from the beginning and eventually acknowledges his anger issues but does little to move past them. Kate is a classic people-pleasing doormat who borrows most of her personality from her token gay best friend. I was never rooting for them, because they’re terrible together.

Even the supposedly central conflict of Billy’s career vs. his marriage–which pops up every few chapters to remind us he’s got dreams–is deeply flawed, because from where I’m sitting, it’s not his marriage holding him back from stardom, it’s his constant cycle of substance abuse and self-sabotage. I’m not rooting for him to succeed personally, either.

This never read like a romance to me. It’s a wandering tale of two messed-up people making each other worse for a few years and having some babies in the process. If the loose plot thread of Billy’s big screw-up is supposed to get me primed for reading the next book, it failed, because I’d rather Kate finds out he’s a cheater and dumps his ass.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #33)

#122 – Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

  • Read: 8/20/20 – 8/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 109/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a book by an author in their 20s
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Africa
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it’s so well-researched and -crafted.

Given what others have said about this book, I expected not to like it as much as I did. I’m all about character-driven stories, especially but not limited to romance. This is no romance, and the characters aren’t explored in any great depth. It’s a sweeping epic of a generational saga, following a new protagonist every chapter, laying out two parallel families over 300 years.

Honestly, I should probably dislike it for being so far from what I usually value in a story. But I don’t. I love it.

I love it because it’s so successful at what it sets out to do. Okay, maybe the meaning of the ending is a little murky to me, but it’s a reunion, a meeting of the sagas we’ve been alternating between for nearly as many pages as years. Even if it’s not directly acknowledged, it carries a small sense of satisfaction for me (though as per other reviewers, clearly your mileage may vary.)

But this story sets its premise at the beginning clearly and never deviates from the terrible beauty of it. Nearly every type of harm that can befall a person happens to someone in this story: rape, whippings, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment and forced labor, limb loss, drug addiction, and more I’m forgetting the specifics of because there’s just so much suffering. But there is still always hope, somewhere, in each vignette. Until the end, there is always a new generation, a child to carry forth the torch into what could be a better world. Yes, there are still challenges, there are still wrongs done to the characters and by the characters. But for all the misery, this book never actually felt depressing to me. Awful and plain-spoken, factual and dark, but never grim. Never hopeless.

Even allowing for the difference between my usual tastes and this book’s style, I still see some flaws. I found the opening chapters more compelling than the final ones; something about them felt like checking off boxes of American civil rights history, they seemed flatter and more rushed. But that didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of it, nor do I think it’s relevant to the larger point of the work. Would this be “better” if it were longer and spent more time developing the characters as individuals, rather than viewpoints for a certain social issue or segment of history? Maybe, but not necessarily. This work was never trying to be a character study, and I know that, so why criticize it for lacking what it never promised to have?

#123 – Dragonsong: A Short Story, by Audrey Rose B.

  • Read: 8/25/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Mount TBR: 110/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It is, above all things, cute. Which I find to be both its strength and its weakness.

Sometimes the cuteness is fantastic. Arlyn the dragon is a joy throughout, especially considering he can’t talk. But my favorite cuteness isn’t even a direct part of Rynn and Elanthia’s romance, as I’d expect it to be–it’s the silliness of the “human mysteries” they’re forced to explain to the faeries during their captivity. I could have read a dozen more pages of that, it was a brilliant way to handle a species/culture clash and bonus, it was hilarious.

But that cuteness extends its fingers through everything, including the “war” that is the foundational reason for any of the plot happening. There’s a war prophesied; there’s a marriage alliance proposed to prevent it; but the princess doesn’t want that marriage (who can blame her in this case) and goes out to find her own way. But it’s superficial. It’s set dressing. Rynn and Elanthia’s reunion near the end was so “cute” it completely spoiled the gravity of the situation–or at least, it would have if there was any gravity. There wasn’t. The war is a vague, far-off thing, an excuse to have a cute love story between two ladies from different fantasy cultures. I think including something as grim and destructive as war is a tonal mismatch for a bite-size story clearly meant to be sweet, romantic fluff. Which it is, and should be allowed to be, without having a completely de-fanged version of war hovering on the horizon.

So I liked the romantic aspect of the ending, while completely disliking the light, almost dismissive tone of how it treats a subject as serious as large-scale human conflict.

The world has promise and I would love to see it better-developed in future works, should that ever happen. The writing style…eh? It was easy to read, not particularly challenging, which is fine for cute fluff. But I tired quickly of how often the only descriptor for something was its color. It seemed crucial to the author that I knew what color literally everything was, but I prefer more variety in description so that it doesn’t feel monotonous.

It’s cute. And if you’re looking for cute, queer fantasy-romance, this will brighten up your afternoon. I’d like a little more substance, but it delivers on what it promises.

#124 – From the Roof of My Mouth, by Reese Weston

  • Read: 8/25/20 – 8/26/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I don’t like “romances” based on miscommunication, spite, and outright lying. I thought I was getting a slow-burn about two queer guys with history and personal issues, but it was more like a perpetual motion machine of angst and misery and distrust.

While I’m not the most qualified to discuss racial issues in fiction, many aspects of this left a bad taste in my mouth. Most important characters are stated to be of a particular race or skin color, but not all of them, so in the cases where I wasn’t told, I was left wondering if that meant I was supposed to assume they were white. A big deal is made of Ryan and Jet being rich white boys, generally in the most derogatory sense of the term, so that made me question the assumption, and it turns out I was right to–“Dice,” the roommate whose ethnicity I either missed early on or it was never specified, turned out to be named “Aarav Parikh,” which is definitely not a white name; he later calls himself “an Indian nerd.” I would have liked to have known that earlier, since it’s such a big deal that Ryan is white and Nakoa is part Native (his mother is stated to be Ojibwe, though if we ever get details on the rest of his birth family, I missed that too.) Also, I was always uncomfortable with the narrative being “rich white guy slums it to save his Native addict love interest.” Alcoholism and drug addiction is a real problem in Native American communities, and treating Nakoa’s vices like something Ryan can “save” him from, for the purpose of creating an angst-fest for a messed-up toxic romance plot, simply feels wrong to me, even if I’m not a part of the community being drawn upon.

Wrapped up in that is also my dissatisfaction about Ryan’s job subplot, where he takes a job for a nonprofit aimed at helping queer teens, but constantly blows it off to deal with Nakoa’s problems. A) Why on earth is he so valuable to the organization that Chloe and Jet let him get away with that, I would have fired him half a dozen times; B) what does he actually do, because his “work” is never described enough for me to get a sense of what his job actually entails; and C) it further reinforces the white-savior privileged complex that Ryan has, that he can skate by half-assing his single job because he has his family’s money while Nakoa works three different menial jobs and still barely gets by. Yes, part of that is Nakoa’s addictions being a drain on his cash flow, and that’s not Ryan’s fault, but constantly bringing up how Ryan covers his rent and food most of the time only makes this dynamic worse.

From me, that probably sounds like a one-star review, and I’ll admit, I considered it. We’ll split the difference and call this 1.5 stars. But I do think this story does some things successfully. As queer rep, well, nearly everyone in it is somewhere under the umbrella, and that’s great. I also think there is a place for darker stories in queer lit, that not everything should be sunshine and roses and Perfect Queer People who don’t have major flaws. Especially when balanced with the happy, functional side character Chloe getting her lesbian dream wedding, it’s okay to have dysfunctional people who also are queer take center stage sometimes. They’re not messed up because they’re queer, they just happen to be both.

I’m less happy about the missing b-word, because Nakoa is often implied to be attracted to women as well as men, but Ryan refers to them as a “gay” couple, the few times he uses a term at all. The few times Nakoa describes himself, which only happen in the context of him defying his father’s attitude, he uses “queer,” which I won’t argue with as a catch-all term. But I’d always rather see bisexuality validated clearly when it’s present, because it gets danced around all too often. And if Nakoa’s not meant to be interpreted as bi- or pansexual, then maybe don’t keep bringing up Ryan being jealous of any attention Nakoa pays to women…?

#125 – Highlander’s Desire, by Joanne Wadsworth

  • Read: 8/26/20 – 8/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 111/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is one of the most repetitive pieces of fiction writing I’ve encountered since I started reviewing books. No, I don’t say that lightly.

The prologue is an exposition dump through dialogue of everything the blurb already told me: bear shifters, prophecy, time travel, fated matings. Everything is laid out so clearly I felt an instant lack of trust that I, as a reader, had the intelligence to connect any dots on my own.

The first chapter jumps forward a thousand years to the present day and tells it all to me again, through two different characters talking to each other about stuff that one or both of them already know AND ALSO I ALREADY KNOW IT TOO, IT WAS JUST IN THE PROLOGUE.

As the story goes on, this extends down to the smallest details as well as the main plot. When Iain gets dressed I’m treated to a complete list of his clothing, so I know he’s wearing black leather pants and a “silver-threaded” cotton tee shirt; when Isla meets up with him later (after a scene break) she has to observe what he’s wearing and tell us again that he’s wearing black leather pants and a silver cotton shirt. It was only two pages ago! I haven’t forgotten!

Iain and Isla’s dialogue is so repetitive, and so oddly formal, that for me it whizzed through “bad” right back around to “good” by way of being hilarious. Like, these two horny bear shifters are rubbing their bodies together to bathe in each other’s scent, letting those animal instincts out, but they’re being super-precious verbally about feelings and boundaries and consent. I laughed so hard, and I know I wasn’t supposed to be laughing. This is honestly the reason I bothered finished the “novel”–which at 150 pages is a glorified novella. If an editor had stripped out the repetition I doubt this has enough story to break 100 pages.

I’m so, so glad that I got this for free on a whim. I actually have one of the later books as well, acquired the same way, but I don’t feel bad at all about ditching it unread. This was, quite literally, laughably bad writing.

#126 – War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

  • Read: 8/16/20 – 8/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A classic book you’ve always meant to read
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in two or more parts
  • Mount TBR: 112/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after Chapter 20 (page 86, or about 10%.)

This is the most epic case of “It’s not you, it’s me,” that I’ve ever had for a book.

I knew this was going to be a challenge. I knew it might not always be fun, though I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

This book, however, is not for me, because I want to care about the characters and not just watch them dance in and out of the narrative on the epic stage Tolstoy has created. I haven’t even gotten to the “war” part yet, which means some people will think I’ve given up too early; but I wasn’t enjoying myself, or the process of note-taking to make sure I was keeping the already-huge cast of characters straight.

When I read, I want to experience the story with the characters instead of feeling like I’m at a play where they’re simply performing their actions for me. I want to know their inner lives and feel their emotions. I can’t have that here–at the scale Tolstoy aims for, that kind of individual attention isn’t possible, and I constantly felt its lack. I could make myself wade through the rest to learn his larger perspective on war and peace and life in general, but I’d be miserable the whole time at how remote and inaccessible the characters felt to me.

I can see why others praise this so. I understand why it’s considered great, because in many ways, I do think it is, even if it wasn’t giving me what I personally want from my reading. Even in the opening 10% that I managed, there’s a lot that’s noteworthy. But this book was never going to be for me, and I won’t put myself through the rest of it.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #32)

#119 – The Great Passage, by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

  • Read: 8/13/20 – 8/14/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a geometric pattern or element on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 107/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Though I’ve owned this for two years, I read it at just the right time.

I took a year of Japanese in college, basically for fun. I had previously been studying French, but that was mostly because my high school only offered French and Spanish. My older brother had taken French, so I chose that as well. I had some fantasy that we’d be able to practice together when he called home from college, which of course never happened.

By my senior year of college, I was in the school’s anime club and seriously dating someone who had studied Japanese for years. I liked learning languages; it was something my brain was apparently good at. A lot of friends said my sanity was questionable for taking a daily language course as a senior for fun; I did it anyway, and enjoyed the heck out of it.

After I graduated, I stopped studying for a number of reasons. I started again this summer. Fifty-seven days ago, in fact. (Thank you, DuoLingo owl.)

Imagine my delight when I actually knew the meaning of about half the words discussed in the course of this story! A story about word nerds from another country I’ve never been to! In many ways this book reminds me (positively) of The Professor and the Madman, also the story of the creation of an ambitious dictionary. I think the process is fascinating, and I probably would have happily read nonfiction about Japanese dictionary creation. Dressing it up with fun characters who occasionally find love in the process was a fun bonus.

My only criticism is a systemic one that touches lightly on everything. I found the plot a bit flat and the narrative prone to telling vs. showing. That doesn’t diminish how much I love its ideas or even the characters, who were idiosyncratic to a fault, no stereotypes here. There was always a sense of restraint, though, between me and the text, a distance I would have rather bridged with more naturalistic storytelling. I can’t know yet if this is a cultural divide in style or innate to this author–I haven’t read enough contemporary Japanese fiction to make any comparison. (I did read Murakami for the first time a few weeks ago, and his style was wordier and far more descriptive, though there was still a definite distance between me and the characters. But then, I’m used to romance, a genre that is all about being up close and personal. I may be overthinking this.) In the end, it may only be a matter of personal taste–I would have liked this book to be a little longer and examine the character’s emotions with a little more subtlety.

#120 – Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

  • Read: 8/14/20 – 8/16/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with an upside-down image on its cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a blue cover
  • Mount TBR: 108/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is one of the many freebies Tor has tossed my way via their newsletter, which I’ve had mixed luck reading so far. I was more than pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this, especially as the core plot is a murder mystery, which is generally not my genre.

But it’s neatly nestled within a fairly rich fantasy world with vaguely Edwardian underpinnings, cozied up alongside a sweet, mostly stress-free m/m romance.

The world-building may be a bit spotty at times, but I prefer that to exposition dumps, so I’ll take it. The only truly well-developed character is the protagonist-narrator Miles, so everyone else can feel thin at times; but he’s a solid construction, with emotional depth in the present as well as an interesting backstory. He’s got problems at work even before the murder happens but also good and trusted coworkers; he’s got issues with his family and his past that catch up to him; he’s got a handsome new “friend” thrown into the mix who is a charm and a delight and also half a mystery. He’s a fun protagonist to follow around when he’s clearly out of his depth as the story progresses, but he’s also a sensitive, caring man who I was always rooting for, even when he was in over his head.

If the worst criticism I have of this was that I wanted to be maybe 30-50 pages longer to flesh out some things that were rushed, well, that’s not really that big a problem, is it? I’m usually criticizing fantasy works for the opposite issue.

I was charmed. I want to read more. And that’s really saying something from me, who usually avoids mysteries like rabid animals.

#121 – Last Memoria, by Rachel Emma Shaw

  • Read: 8/18/20 – 8/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

[I’m pretty casual about spoilers in reviews, but this one went into enough detail that I felt it necessary to hide it on Goodreads for spoilers. It’s only fair I should warn readers here, too. The TL;DR version is “poorly edited for both presentation and story, inconsistent about everything, misogynist ending, I don’t recommend it.”]

The entire book is plagued by inconsistency at all levels.

The most obvious being technical presentation, as it’s riddled with errors. There are several instances of words being incorrectly used in place of their homonyms: “taught” when it should be “taut,” “vile” when it’s obviously meant to be “vial,” and so forth. In addition, a word specific to the story–Sarilla’s unwanted nickname–switches between “beastie” and “beasty” frequently, sometimes even on the same page. Stack those errors on top of repeated incorrect hyphenation (both present when it shouldn’t be in things like “dirt-track” and missing when it should be present, like “Sarilla shaped hole”) and a general tendency toward word repetition and excessive stage direction, it’s reasonable to guess this was edited poorly or not at all.

The story is also inconsistent in characterization. Is Sarilla the scared fugitive who must avoid going into town where she might be recognized, or the brave sister who needs to save her brother? Is she the meek wimp who can’t stop her brother from acting stupidly and getting himself caught, or the sass-talking pain in the backside who’s constantly needling her captors even when it endangers her? The level of danger itself is inconsistent; she’ll be terrified of someone noticing her on one page, then she’ll act recklessly in the open when anyone could see her, because the plot needs her to, so it’s fine.

Thematically, there’s some inconsistency built on top of the apparent running gag of this novel: “everybody lies.” Those two words are used to hide from the reader everything from character backstory and motivations to fundamental ways in which the world operates. World-building was introduced long after it was needed. I didn’t know what the “graves” in the forest were that everyone was so terrified about, and when they turned out to be abandoned tunnels one could fall into, no one bothered to explain how they’d come to be called “graves.” I knew the name of Sarilla’s uncle/antagonist from the beginning, but not that he was King until nearly halfway through the book–that seemed like something that shouldn’t have been a mystery. I didn’t know there was another country peopled by memoria until even later–when Sarilla finally gets a “quest,” just in time for the narrative to switch from her POV to Falon’s.

The story suffered from a pronounced lack of direction, resulting from most of the important characters spending most of their time without any real agency.

I was floundering through Sarilla’s half of the book trying to figure out what her goal was. At first, it seemed simple–stay safe long enough to get to the rest of her family. Okay. But why? The story never told me what was going to happen when they were reunited. (No, wait, it did, another character explained it in the final chapters that aren’t even from her POV.) She abandons her brother because he’s going to get them caught. She changes her mind and searches for him. He’s caught by the army. She follows so she can get him back, but she gets captured by her former lover and his companions in the process. They kidnap her…why? It’s not clear for a while. When it turns out it’s so Falon can regain his stolen memories, they all turn around and go back for her brother, who has them. Except then he’s dead, and so is the rest of her family. At 40%. I was literally staring at the text and thinking, “So the book’s over then? Sarilla can’t reunite with her family, which I thought was her arc, and Falon can’t get his memories back, because the brother is dead.”

I should not be having a standoff with a book about whether or not the story is over at 40%.

And it’s not, because hey! everybody lies! Sarilla actually as Falon’s memories, so he still has a goal. But she doesn’t! Because I have no idea what she wants now! At the halfway mark, Falon takes her before the King and he says “So how about you help me destroy all the memoria in this other country that hasn’t been talked about at all before?”

She accepts. I’m not clear on why at the time, though eventually it’s explained that her deep self-hatred makes her want to destroy the monsters she came from. But also it’s the King’s idea to eventually double-cross them. Sarilla never seems to make her own decisions.

But the narrative switches POV to Falon, and for a while it looks like things are getting better, plot-wise. There’s a clear goal: Sarilla’s going to destroy stuff and Falon’s sticking around to get her memories back from her.

Only then Falon loses his agency by getting taken over by blackvine, which turns out to be a physical form of infectious memory/psychic connection to the race of memoria under threat. Once it’s a part of him, it’s serious emotional whiplash between hating Sarilla and loving her–the memoria want her because she might have their ancient repository of racial memory. Or not. But probably. But she says she doesn’t.

Any interest I still had, I lost here, though I made myself finish the book as it’s for a book club. The constant “everybody lies” story-washing gives the narrative permission to make every character so unreliable there’s no ground to stand on for a reader to accurately interpret the text. The ending reveals so many layers of betrayal that no one is who we thought they were–except I barely thought these characters were anyone specific already, because for most of Sarilla’s half, she’s fighting against being overwhelmed by floating memories that constantly distract her from reality. For Falon’s half, he spends a great deal of it possessed by a foreign collective consciousness. No one can go five pages without a radical shift in self-perception or opinions expressed or behaviors modified.

At the bitter end, Falon believes that Sarilla wasn’t born a monster because of her power (despite saying so at various points at least half a dozen times) but that the King “made” her that way. Then, when he gets his memories back and finds out his part in shaping her actions, he believes that he made her a monster. In both cases, again, the agency for the only female character in the book, the titular character, is usurped by the influence of male characters who take credit/blame for making her who she is. Ultimately, that’s a pretty misogynist conclusion that I don’t care for.

The entire novel is an inconsistent, sucking quicksand pit of a story. I cannot recommend it to anyone and won’t be reading the next book.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #25)

#96 – Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert

  • Read: 6/25/20 – 6/26/20
  • The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge: A book about or involving social media
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Redford Morgan is my new book boyfriend. Sensitive, thoughtful, funny, and one hundred percent willing to apologize for his mistakes. And he’s got great hair.

Chloe Brown is somehow simultaneously a hot mess and a completely put together gal. Yes, she’s dealing with a serious disability, but she’s dealing with it. She’s got a coping system, she’s successful at a job that allows her to work around her limitations, and she’s trying her best to live without fear.

I loved this pairing almost unreservedly; the only sticking point for me was early on, when they weren’t yet friends, because I often felt Chloe was coming across in their “banter” as ruder than maybe the author intended me to think she was, for a rom-com sort of situation. Part of that might be the rapid-fire nature of the conversation, where it flies by so fast I don’t pick up tone quite so well, and part of it might be a difference in sense of humor, because Brits and Americans can differ quite a bit there. (I wasn’t actually aware this was set in the UK until I’d gotten through a few pages and recognized enough Britishisms.) It’s not an out-and-out flaw, it’s just something that didn’t resonate with me as well as it probably does other readers. Once Red and Chloe started opening up to each other and becoming friends, I was all good with it.

On top of that, this novel deals with a handful of Serious Issues lightly but with admirable sensitivity; disability, of course, but also interracial dating, classism, and past abusive relationships. Nothing felt like it was there as part of an agenda or a teaching moment; it all read as authentic and important to the story.

A friend got me to read this by raving (a little) about it and the sequel, so I look forward to reading that too!

#97 – The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Read: 6/27/20 – 6/29/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that was nominated for one of the ‘10 Most Coveted Literary Prizes in the World’
  • Mount TBR: 88/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A well-constructed and thought-provoking piece of navel-gazing about old men and their possibly wasted lives. I probably would have enjoyed it a great deal more if my personal taste was for philosophy rather than emotional connection, because I found no emotional connection to be had with Stevens.

He is undoubtedly in all ways the epitome of English butler-ness; while he spends the entire length of the book pondering the qualities such an individual must possess, and whether one can even be a great butler if not in service to a great man, his actions constantly show us he is that perfect servitor, even when veiled in the one-two punch of unreliability and hindsight. In every instance when he could have chosen to be a human with natural human emotions, he instead suppressed his wants, needs, and even his identity in order to be a more perfect butler.

I understand all of this, and I understand the point it makes. At the end of the day/book/life, the pursuit of professional perfection at the cost of love, family, and other personal concerns only leaves one with the same hollow feeling the book left me with, an absence of emotion and fulfillment. My heart isn’t breaking for the man Stevens could have become if not for the restrictions wrapped around him by society, his employment, and even his father, who raised him both actively and by example to be this perfect, agency-free automaton. I instead feel nothing but vague pity and disgust, because while I might find his situation sad, I find the man that situation created an entirely unsympathetic person; his recalled memories consistently show him being unfailingly polite to his social superiors but often rude, short-tempered, or cold-hearted to everyone else, especially Miss Kenton. Stevens may very well be a great butler, despite serving a man who perhaps was not so great, but he is definitely not a great person, and I don’t generally have sympathy to spare for sad old men who got that way by their own choices.

#98 – The Art of Peeling an Orange, by Victoria Avilan

  • Read: 6/29/20 – 6/30/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the arts
  • Mount TBR: 89/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%. Getting into the high melodrama of this zany plot with unhinged characters would have been a stretch for me anyway, but I was repeatedly distracted by simple errors of realism that could have easily been fixed with little or no detriment to the plot. Two of the worst examples so far: a sixteen-year-old girl can’t become her younger sister’s legal guardian in the US, because she’s a minor and would require one herself; a character dramatically throws together a letter to a celebrity, slaps it in an envelope and runs outside to drop it in a mailbox, then immediately regrets it and wishes to get it back…but it wouldn’t be delivered anyway, because at no point does she add any postage, so perhaps I’m meant to assume she keeps a stack of pre-stamped manila envelopes around, but her life is in shambles and she simply doesn’t come across as that organized a person. (And the letter does reach its intended recipient without hassle.) I can’t suspend my disbelief about the more soap-operatic elements of the story that already strain credulity if I also am constantly fighting obvious mistakes about the way the world works.

#99 – The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

  • Read: 6/30/20 – 7/1/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book that has a book on the cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book about books or a library
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I’m always interested in books about book lovers, but this book felt designed to capitalize on that interest rather than celebrate it. I feel marketed to as a bookworm, rather than provided for.

I understand that not every piece of women’s fiction has to be a trauma-laden sob fest, and not every romance has to be angst-filled, but this didn’t feel fluffy or light to me; it felt shallow. Despite several subplots, there was no real conflict driving the story. We just bumbled along behind Nina as she went about her days, and anything that should have been a conflict was either dealt with promptly and easily, or ignored for most of the story while other things happened then fixed with a wave of the hand and an obvious solution. While there were many minor characters with vastly different (usually stereotypical) personalities on display, somehow they were all incredibly similar in how they related to Nina: each one of them, be they a long-time friend or a newly-met family member, said exactly what they were thinking with no filters and dealt with her in an extremely forthright manner, whether their interactions were positive or negative.

No one in this book possessed a single ounce of subtlety, nor was there ever any subtext for me, the reader, to have to think about. Nothing surprised me. Nothing challenged me.

I didn’t even like the romance subplot, when that should have been the thing I enjoyed most! Tom was so laid back he was practically disengaged from the story entirely, and his not returning Nina’s calls for most of the middle of the book only exacerbated his non-entity-ness. The fade-to-black sex scenes, while appropriate for the style of the narrative, served as further ellipses to his personality, which could have been showcased instead by including more intimacy between him and Nina.

Lastly, and perhaps most tellingly, I found the portrayal of Nina’s anxiety to be thin and disingenuous. For most of the story, it’s just an excuse for preferring to be alone–it isn’t shown to impact her life beyond her penchant for planners, especially as it becomes obvious that despite her repeatedly stated preference, she is constantly with other people–the various book clubs, her friends at the movies or trivia nights, meet-ups with her new family members. The story tells me she’s a hermetic bookworm but shows me she’s a freaking social butterfly whose dance card is so full she can’t even find room for a date for three weeks with Tom when he finally asks. Then, when the plot needs her to, she has a full-blown panic attack. Yes, everyone with anxiety can have a range of symptoms and presentations and one person’s anxiety will look different from another’s. I don’t expect Nina’s to be a carbon copy of mine, but I also don’t expect it to be a plot convenience with absolutely no depth to it. Not impressed.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #22)

#83 – Wednesday, by Kendall Ryan

  • Read: 6/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 78/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Ugh. I can’t fault it for being exactly what it says on the tin–dark, angsty, and burdened with near-constant sex. All of that is true. But it comes at the cost of having characters with personalities beyond “abusive and messed up” for the hero and “absolute doormat” for the heroine.

She even manages, somehow, to convince herself that she’s the one using him, despite the fact that, at the house after his wife’s funeral, he pulled her into a bathroom and starting taking her clothes off and proceeded to have sex with her. It’s not strictly non-consensual–she had plenty of opportunity to say no but never actually said yes either, and he certainly never bothered to ask.

But okay, fine, we’re setting up the “dark” tone and the hero has a hundred pages to get better, right? It comes along far too late and isn’t all that believable–suddenly there’s a hurricane! he could be in danger and she might never see him again and they might never figure out what to do about their super-twisted fuck-buddy situation! she’s worried! he shows up! he decides to turn over a new leaf and actually date her instead of just showing up at her house every Wednesday to have sex with her!

…really? A hurricane? I guess since she never once bothers to stand up for herself, it would take a natural disaster to make the hero change, because it’s not going to be anything she does.

The hero’s face-turn is a paper-thin veneer over an entire novella of abusive, possessive, unhealthy behavior, and the whole time THE HEROINE LITERALLY JUST LETS HIM DO WHATEVER BECAUSE SHE WANTS “TO BE THERE” FOR HIM.

#84 – A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

  • Re-read: 6/5/20 – 6/10/20
  • Original rating: 5/5 stars
  • Reread rating: 4.5/5 stars

I want to knock the rest of the series out this year, and while I read Dragons in April 2019, I’ve read so much else since (and so much has happened since!) that I didn’t remember the plot as well as I would like to before continuing on with the next novel. My original review was no help there, as I mostly spoke about the style of the book and how it made me feel, rather than any specifics of what happened.

So I reread, and I’m glad I did. Did I like the book as much the second time around? Nearly. Towards the end I was impatient with the intrigue plot that wraps everything up, because my memory had washed this title with a sort of science-based nostalgia, when in reality it’s just as much action and mystery. I felt scales tipping in that direction this time much more keenly, and while that doesn’t make it a bad book–far from it–it does take a little bit of the shine off, compared with what I remember.

This is actually the first time I’ve formally reread a book I previously reviewed, and I wasn’t even planning to write a second review for it, just make a few explanatory comments about why it was showing back up on the blog, and then I found I actually did have things to say. It’s still a great book, and I still recommend it.

#85 – Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi

  • Read: 6/3/20 – 6/10/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book on a subject you know nothing about
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This book turned my comfortable and complacent view of American history on its ear. I was aware before this that my decades-ago public-school education on the subject was lacking in nuance, and even to some degree sanitized, and my college education was spread across many other subjects–I never went back to fill in the gaps of what I knew I didn’t know, let alone question what I’d already been taught.

Almost all of it was inaccurate, as it turns out.

In addition to poking large holes in my concept of history, this gave me a new framework to think about racist ideas as a whole, with its assertion of a three-sided system rather than the simple two-sided one: the world isn’t divided into racist or non-racist, but segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist. This explained so much, and will give me a good grounding going forward in my anti-racism reading and learning journey. (At least until, and if, I come across a work presenting a different structure to the system of racist ideas.) Also of note, the assertion that racial hatred is not the source but the result of institutional racism, which actually comes from the political and economic self-interests of those in power; which is a complete reversal of how I had been taught to view racism, and again, it explains so much. People in positions of power create racist policies out of self-interest (thank you capitalism), which then creates the need to justify those policies, and out of those justifications, you get prejudice and intolerance and hatred.

My (minor) issues with this work are not content-based, but structural and tonal. This swings wildly and somewhat unpredictably between dry, factual history and excited activist exhortation, a sort of whiplash that never got easier for me to navigate. And while the structure appears neat from the outside, with the history broken into five parts surrounding a major historical figure of the day, so much of each section was completely unrelated to that person, and every so often, usually at the start of a chapter, the narrative would jump tracks from a tangent to drag itself back to that person, again, a sort of mental whiplash. It may be that these issues were more apparent to me because I was listening to the audiobook and not reading the text, where I wouldn’t have heard the changes in the narrator’s voice as the tone of the piece changed.

This might not have been the best choice for my first anti-racism read, because of its length and relatively dry historicality, but whatever flaws I find in the presentation don’t diminish the content. This was a valuable and eye-opening experience from start to finish.

#86 – Love On My Mind, by Tracey Livesay

  • Read: 6/10/20 – 6/11/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: a book with an emotion in the title
  • Mount TBR: 79/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Part of me wants to say this is well-constructed, because its theme is crystal clear–communication is essential to successful relationships–and all the conflicts support that. You’d be surprised how often I see romances pile on dozens of unrelated conflicts onto their characters without even a hint of a central organizing theme.

But, on the other hand, the conflicts themselves are paper-thin, both ignored and then solved with no real effort. Adam got his pride and reputation ruined by the last women he was serious about, and he has Asperger’s, which in his case makes social interaction difficult for him. Chelsea values her career more than anything, to the point where she uncomfortably accepts the order to lie to a client (Adam) about her presence in his life, engaging in a business relationship with him under false pretenses.

Both of them start by telling themselves they should make it a personal relationship despite their obvious chemistry, though Adam folds on that far faster than Chelsea, who has far more reason to stand her ground. But she doesn’t (of course) and after an incredibly brief span of happiness together, everything blows up in their faces (also of course.)

But they both make huge changes/concessions in their lives almost instantly–Adam having an epiphany about trust, and Chelsea resigning from her job to prove love is worth more than her career–and while those about-faces make logical sense from a thematic standpoint, they come with basically no soul-searching, both of them in less than a day of story time. Then they apologize and get back together and she gets her job back and everything is totally fine now happy ending whee!!!

Also, there’s a stiff quality to nearly everything. Chelsea has no apparent personality or interests to speak of beyond her job, and Adam’s video game habit is poorly executed. Nobody calls video game characters “avatars.” Source: I’m a lifelong gamer. They’re playing a thinly-veiled version of one of the Uncharted games, apparently, based on the name and what little description is given. You’d just call the thing you control on screen a “character” like everyone else does. It makes no sense to use “avatar” in this context, because Uncharted specifically is a story-based game following a main character on his adventures, he’s how the player interacts with the video game, sure, but he’s not a meaningless shell encasing the player with no traits of his own.

Judging from other reviews, the techie-corporate aspect is just as poorly executed. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough during my reading to know the specifics of the industry, but the whole setup felt off. Adam’s best friend and COO hiring a PR firm but insisting they work undercover, essentially? How was anyone supposed to be successful in doing their job while having to disguise who they were or why they were there? If Adam hadn’t been attracted to Chelsea, how on earth would she have accomplished what was basically an impossible task, on her own, with no support or direction from her firm?

I have the second book in the series–they were both freebies or maybe 99 cents back when I picked them up–so I’ll read that too before I decide if this author is a no-go in the future for me, but I have to say, I was hoping for better.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #17)

65 - The Dragon Keeper

#65 – The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 4/30/20 – 5/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A fantasy book
  • Mount TBR: 62/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book that includes an animal sidekick
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s hard to evaluate this as a novel, because it’s really the first act of a much larger story. Lots of new characters are introduced and an epic journey is begun–but only just, very little of that journey happens here.

It’s woefully incomplete in that regard, even by the standards of first-in-series books, especially by the standards of Hobb’s three previous trilogy-starters. So as much as I enjoyed it–and I certainly did–I can’t give it five stars. It’s simply not a good place to end the book.

That being said, I found a lot to like. Alise may have started out a standard unhappy housewife type, but she certainly manages to grow past that. Thymara, as an outcast young woman, is both sympathetic and believable while not pulling too obviously on the pity vote from readers. She treads the line between accomplished and uncertain of herself with grace. Sintara’s sporadic dragon POV scenes are interesting. I even like Leftrin–he’s no Brashen Trell, but my heart has room for more than one mostly honest, rough and manly ship captain. (Speaking of Brash, it was lovely to see him and Althea and especially Paragon again, though their cameo was brief. Most of me is glad it wasn’t longer, it could have read as cheap fan service, but a small part of me still wants more because I loved them so much.)

I can’t argue with the pacing, either, this was shorter and more snappy than any of Hobb’s previous works, and I don’t mind that one bit. Problem is, I think that came at the cost of leaving everything unfinished–there is not even one story line here that resolves in any way, it’s a cliffhanger in all respects.

66 - Fate's Edge

#66 – Fate’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 5/4/20 – 5/6/20
  • Mount TBR: 63/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I like this best yet of the three novels of The Edge, but it’s still got some issues.

I knew I would finish the series because at this point I will read anything by Ilona Andrews, so I dove in without reading the blurb or knowing too much about it–just as I’m sure I will soon when I read the final novel. So I did not know I was in for a fast-paced heist flick/rom-com mashup with clever banter and constant danger. As far as that goes, it’s fun, though it does lead to a flaw I’ll come back to.

The big and lovely surprise was how large a part in the story George and Jack played, and I’m completely enamored with those boys, they’re amazing.

As far as the leads go, I liked Audrey right away and liked her even better when she stood up to Kaldar repeatedly and seriously, choosing to protect her heart rather than indulging in a quick fling. Their flirtation is the perfect combination of clever and hot, but she wisely decides it’s not going to keep her warm at night forever, and at that point in the story, she’s undoubtedly right. It’s the sign of strong character work that I can root for the heroine of a romance novel when her stance and aims are in direct opposition to that romance, you know?

So here’s where the fast and fun pacing falls flat–Kaldar’s complete about-face about marriage in two pages of introspection. I got to that and thought, “seriously, you’re 100% committed to the idea of marriage now?”

Don’t get me wrong, I like Kaldar. I like him far more here than I did in Bayou Moon, where he was one of a million faces of Cerise’s family and was characterized entirely by his light fingers and betting magic. Here, he gets a personality to go with those, and I liked that personality. But I don’t really believe he faced-turned from a freewheeling bachelor to loyal husband material in two pages. I just can’t. Do I want him to have a happy ending with Audrey, yes, of course I do. Do I think the one they got was entirely earned? Not really. Super-rushed.

The Birchbark House

#67 – The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich

  • Read: 5/7/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A Western
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a three-word title
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There are children’s books that are still enjoyable reads as an adult, and then there are children’s books that are definitely for children only, and I think this is one of the latter. I found the writing to be simple to the point of boredom, and if I hadn’t been listening to this instead of reading it, I might have given up when I got to the point where every character in the family had to shout the same words at the little brother for being a bad kid, twice, in sequence. I bet in print that takes a whole page, and I groaned through it playing out in my ear but soldiered on.

And it’s not really a fair criticism that I was bored the style of a book aimed at eight-year-olds. What about the story? Well, it’s really episodic in nature, with every chapter practically being it’s own self-contained chunk, especially when a chapter is mostly about another story an adult is telling the main character. I found some of these chapters more interesting and compelling than others, but for most of the book I really failed to see how they were connected and wondered what the point of the book was–were we really just following a family through a year of their life without any sort of structure beyond the seasons?

Eventually, though, the narrative threads tying the story together became more prominent. Little Omakayas suffers through her grief after the family’s bout with smallpox, finds out her origin story of being a rescued orphan–the experience that gave her immunity to the illness this time around–and resolves to become a healer because that’s what calls to her and what the spirits are shaping her to be.

By the end, I realized that despite my eye-rolling at the style, I was attached enough to these characters to care what happened to them, and to find Omakayas’ ending satisfying and fitting. I’ll admit my white ex-Christian self has more than a little cynicism that prevents me from properly appreciating the more spiritual aspects of the story (and the culture it comes from) but it seems a very comforting ending, to have that soft and buoyant belief in the spirits of nature to ease you through your grief. I don’t understand it on anything but the most surface level, but I respect it, and it’s not at all a bad message to send to children, than life goes on and that our departed loved ones are still with us in other ways.

I probably would have loved this book wholeheartedly when I was the right age (though it hadn’t been written yet) and I agree with many others who feel like this is the Native American answer to the Little House series and its “brave pioneers” story. Even if I couldn’t enjoy it fully as an adult, I think this book has great value for what it is and what can show children who might otherwise only get one side of the historical story.