Reading Challenge Complete: PopSugar 2017!

  1. A book recommended by a librarian: Throne of Glass
  2. A book that’s been on my TBR list way too long: The Mabinogion Tetralogy
  3. A book of letters: The Martian
  4. An audiobook: A Short History of Nearly Everything
  5. A book by a person of color: The Alchemist
  6. A book with on of the four seasons in the title: The Summer Tree
  7. A book that is a story within a story: Wizard and Glass
  8. A book with multiple authors: Beyond Possession
  9. An espionage thriller: The Girl Who Played With Fire
  10. A book with a cat on the cover: Life of Pi
  11. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym: Rewritten
  12. A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read: Falcon Saga
  13. A book by or about a person with a disability: The Blind Contessa’s New Machine
  14. A book involving travel: Fangland
  15. A book with a subtitle: Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness
  16. A book published in 2017: A Court of Wings and Ruin
  17. A book involving a mythical creature: The Wandering Fire
  18. A book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile: The Martian Chronicles
  19. A book about food: The Recipe
  20. A book with career advice: Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right
  21. A book from a nonhuman perspective: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
  22. A steampunk novel: The Iron Duke
  23. A book with a red spine: Rebecca
  24. A book set in the wilderness: The Snow Child
  25. A book you loved as a child: A Wind in the Door
  26. A book by an author from a country I’ve never visited: People of the Book
  27. A book with a title that’s a character’s name: Mr. Cavendish, I Presume
  28. A novel set during wartime: Between Shades of Gray
  29. A book with an unreliable narrator: Alias Grace
  30. A book with pictures: Seveneves
  31. A book where the main character is a different ethnicity from me: Tiny Pretty Things
  32. A book about an interesting woman: Paula
  33. A book set in two different time periods: My Dream of You
  34. A book with a month or day of the week in the title: Tuesdays with Morrie
  35. A book set in a hotel: The Shining
  36. A book written by someone you admire: The Drawing of the Three
  37. A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017: The Gunslinger
  38. A book set around a holiday other than Christmas: Finding Destiny
  39. The first book in a series I haven’t read before: Poison Study
  40. A book I got on a trip: Magic Bites

The Advanced Section:

  1. A book recommended by an author I love: Fantasy Lover
  2. A bestseller from 2016: Lab Girl
  3. A book with a family-member term in the title: The Basket Maker’s Wife
  4. A book that takes place over a character’s life span: The Poisonwood Bible
  5. A book about an immigrant or refugee: Say You’re One of Them
  6. A book from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of: Misfits
  7. A book with an eccentric character: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  8. A book that’s more than 800 pages: Drums of Autumn
  9. A book from a used book sale: Mélusine
  10. A book that’s mentioned in another book: Watership Down
  11. A book about a difficult topic: A Thousand Splendid Suns
  12. A book based on mythology: The Dark Wife

My final list for the 2017 challenge! (If you’re curious about last year’s list, it’s here.)

This year, 14 of these books earned five-star ratings from me–that’s 27%, more than twice the proportion of awesome books as last year. So I guess I’m more confident in my tastes now, even when stretching myself for a reading challenge? A mere six books got the dreaded single star (11%).

I’m eagerly awaiting the 2018 challenge list, because even with my desire to cut back on the reading pressure I’ve put on myself, I still want to do at least one challenge, and PopSugar is so flexible!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #38)

124 - A Thousand Splendid Suns

#124 – A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

A book about a difficult topic? How about several difficult topics, like bastardy, forced marriage, domestic abuse, war, military occupation, murder, and execution?

I put off reading this for a long time because of the dreaded second-novel syndrome–I adored The Kite Runner and I was afraid Suns would be a disappointment. My fears were groundless. If anything, I loved it more–the story is profoundly feminist in its brutally uncompromising portrayal of what an Afghan woman’s life can look like, both at its best and worst.

Despite all the difficult topics, the book isn’t depressing, but beautifully hopeful, even when what’s happening on the page is graphic and horrifying.

I’m so glad now that I have a copy of Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, waiting for me on my TBR shelf.

125 - Paula

#125 – Paula, by Isabel Allende

If this is what her memoir reads like, I can’t wait to get into Allende’s fiction. (I have a copy of Daughter of Fortune, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.)

Despite the inherent tragedy of reading a work dedicated to and written for a dying daughter, Allende’s incredible gift for absurd metaphor and exaggerated melodrama injects a great deal of humor into the narrative. She’s quite up front that she’s going from memory, not history, almost daring readers to take the time to fact-check her–but I would rather enjoy the roller coaster of family anecdotes and political upheaval that describes and defines who Allende had come to be as she sat at her daughter’s bedside and penned this long, deeply moving letter. Love and devotion come across in every word.

126 - Misfits

#126 – Misfits, by Garrett Leigh

It isn’t that I wasn’t aware menage romance was a thing–I’ve read and reviewed two already–but they were both MMF, whereas this one was MMM. Not a genre that had hit my radar until a friend on Goodreads rated this book and it came up on my feed. I was intrigued.

The premise laid out is that a long-term, committed couple has an open relationship, where from time to time both partners take other lovers. What’s suddenly different is that one of the hookups becomes more.

I loved how Jake, the hookup character, got excellent development not only as the third-wheel-turned-partner, but also as a person looking for a career. I love how un-rushed the timeline of the story was–too many romances take a week or two from start to Happily Ever After, whereas this one took months. I love how Tom and Jake’s attraction was instant and gratifying, where Jake and Cass took a long time to heat up, becoming friends long before they crossed over into lover territory.

What I didn’t love was the last arc of the story. An out-of-left-field external conflict throws a wrench into things and makes the worst of Cass come out, causing what is supposed to be breakup-level tension…but it felt all wrong to me. There were barely any hints of it coming, just a few passing mentions of Cass’ dark past which meant little without more context or development, then WOMP! his past is front and center…in the last 20% of the story. It was an abrupt tonal shift, and I didn’t like it.

CYS 8-7-17 Ebook

#127 – The Basket Maker’s Wife, by Cait London

DNF @ 10% from extreme mental fatigue due to the word “basket(s)” appearing 53 times in the first chapter alone. Yes, I was so frustrated I went back and counted.

Even setting that aside, the writing style was excessively repetitive. The tragic backstory was laid on thicker than a clay face mask, and how often in one day does a person really think about their employer dying? I mean, I know she’s ninety, but is she so incredibly frail you can’t go five minutes without praying she doesn’t drop dead?

128 - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

#128 – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

I was completely enchanted by the exploits of the two teenage boys sent into rural China for their “re-education” under Mao’s regime; the narrator’s tone was filled with exuberance and sly humor.

But that was part of this book’s problem for me, as well–for all that dire consequences were mentioned often for every transgression the teens made . . . nothing happened. They stole the forbidden books from Four Eyes, Luo had an illicit affair with the Little Seamstress, and the narrator aided her in obtaining an abortion–and they got away with it.

The specter of prison and torture loses its very real sting if nothing comes of it.

I was also completely bewildered by the sudden jump near the end to three separate POVs–the miller, Luo, then the Seamstress. While each provided a new level of detail about the affair, not one of them told me anything new about the larger plot–it all seemed unnecessary. The transition to the ending, too, is incredibly abrupt, jumping three months forward and telling the highlights in past tense, explaining how both boys were too stupid to realize the Seamstress was going to leave.

So…I really liked the first half, and the second half fell apart for me.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #35)

116 - A Breath of Snow and Ashes

#116 – A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

An unexpected improvement in quality over the last two books, though it was minor. The sections of this I liked, I enjoyed a great deal–but as always with this series, there were long, boring sections where not much happened.

On the up side, we’re finally at the Revolutionary War, which book #5 felt like it was killing time waiting for. On the down side, I got a serious case of emotional whiplash in the middle of the story–first a young woman from the extended friends-and-neighbors clan surrounding the Frasers managed to get pregnant then cheerfully commit bigamy by having Jamie handfast her to one of a pair of twins, then running right over to Roger before word could reach him and having him (newly a minister) marry her to the other twin. Though the moral atmosphere of the time certainly frowns on having two husbands, I was cheering for her–look at that girl go after what she wants!

The very next subplot, though, dealt with another young woman, Claire’s apprentice/assistant in medicine, also turn up pregnant–but then she’s murdered.

Umm, what? Did I just crack a vertebra trying to follow that plot?

The whole book is like that, though. It goes from one plot point to the next with very little continuity of tone, and little foreshadowing to get a reader ready for the abrupt shifts.

Six books down, two to go. I’m going to make it. I’ve still got three months.

117 - The Martian Chronicles

#117 – The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this in about twenty years–I first read it in high school and loved it–and I wondered if I would feel differently now, if it would have lost some of its shine.

It hasn’t. I think I love it more.

Knowing more now about story structure, I can appreciate the difficulty of linking such disparate stories into a cohesive narrative, one that tells the story of humankind going to Mars, ruining it as they did Earth, then abandoning it to its desolation when the final war comes to Earth. But that last story, that glimmer of hope…still so moving.

The language is beautiful, even poetic in places, though it has a touch of the absurd that I enjoy so much–asking the reader to simply accept such oddities as the “crystal buns” in a Martian homemaker’s oven, and other descriptive phrases that don’t have a logical, human sense. Plus the silliness and brilliance of the Martians’ absolute lack of reaction to the visitation of the first human expeditions. Even though I knew why, it still cracked me up.

This really is some of the best that classic sci-fi has to offer.

118 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

#118 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

A disappointing end to the trilogy. I nearly gave up around 150 pages in–I was wading through a seemingly never-ending swamp of political exposition about the bad guys, and it was so tedious. But I did want to find out how it ended.

(I mentioned to a friend I was reading it this week, and she said she loved the first two and lost interest partway through the third. I can see why.)

On top of the sheer boredom of that section, the middle third of the book involves so many different characters investigating/spying on/sabotaging other characters that all reveals lose their punch. What do I care if the bad guys figure out Blomkvist + Co. have been duping them and running counter-surveillance, when I’ve known that for almost a hundred pages? It’s all retreading the same information with different characters again and again.

But still, I stuck with it. Things definitely pick up at the end, when Lisbeth gets to be a hacker again (and a real character too, instead of a vegetable!) Erika’s new job drama also kept me entertained, because though it wasn’t a life-or-death subplot, at least it was different.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #34)

115 - The Girl Who Played With Fire

#115 – The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Considering how much I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this more. I can’t pin down the exact reason why–it might be a lot of small issues instead of a few big ones.

The narrative style is still simple and direct, which made this 700+ page tome a quicker read than its page count would suggest–but since I was familiar with the style this time, the flaws stuck out more. Do I care about all the food Lisbeth buys? Or how many sandwiches Mikael eats? There are so many mundane details clogging the text.

And at times, I felt really uncomfortable with the way both mental illness and non-straight sexualities were discussed by the characters. Yes, some of them were unredeemable assholes for many reasons, so if they’re throwing slurs around I don’t mind so much. But even the “good” characters slipped a fair bit. (Though credit were credit is due, the actual word “bisexual” does appear in the text, in reference to Lisbeth, who clearly is bi based on her in-story relationships, even if she doesn’t call herself that. Her female lover does–close enough for me, because Lisbeth doesn’t seem like the type of person to bother labeling herself, and that’s not the author copping out.)

I guess the ultimate problem for me is pacing. The search for Lisbeth by the police/media/Mikael takes most of the middle of the book, and since we the readers know she didn’t commit the murders she’s accused of, it felt really tedious. Then the actual murderer isn’t revealed by deduction, but by a POV section from his perspective where he thinks about having done it. (We did already meet him before that, so his existence wasn’t a surprise, but I felt the same way reading that passage as I did when a video game character dies off screen, in so-called “box text.” A botched climactic reveal.)

I didn’t hate it, though, and I already  have the third book in the original trilogy, so I’ll keep going. (I already don’t plan to read the extra books in the series written by another author–I just don’t do that, whether it’s the recent-ish continuation of the Dune series, or the Wheel of Time, which I gave up on long before Robert Jordan’s passing and didn’t care when Brandon Sanderson finished it.)


And that’s it for this week, because this took most of the week, and then I picked up the next Outlander book, which clocks in just shy of 1000 pages, so yeah–not finished with it yet.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: August 2017!

This month, the big news is that I finished the What We Need trilogy by releasing What We Need to Rebuild! I’ve also set up a book-for-review exchange–something I’d call an ARC Team, if only I’d known to do it before the books were released–and I’m still accepting review requests if you’re interested! (If you know someone who might be, feel free to refer them here.)

In reading news, I’m finally on track with my Mount TBR 2017 Reading Challenge, in which I set myself the (somewhat ridiculous) goal of reading 150 of my already-owned books this year. I’m at 103/150, with a third of the year left to go, so I’m just slightly ahead.

I am still acquiring new books, of course, but at a slower rate. My TBR, thanks to used books sales, has gotten wildly out of hand.

My quick catch-up is entirely thanks to August being #ReadRomance Month, so I pulled out my romance books on hand and dashed through a few on my Kindle as well, reading a total of 17 books. (It would have been more, if not for The Dark Tower taking me a whole week to finish! Blast!)

That being said, I do still have two other reading challenges to check in with: Beat the Backlist 2017 (27/40 down) and the PopSugar 2017 Reading Challenge (40/52 down). My immediate goal is to restructure my upcoming TBR to finish both of these as quickly as possible. I already have most of the books I need for PopSugar, and all the ones I need for BtB, since that’s another work-down-the-TBR challenge.

Here’s what’s coming up:

Beat the Backlist

  1. The Sandman, Vols. 7-10, Neil Gaiman
  2. The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  4. Blood of Elves, Andrzej Sapkowski
  5. Ruined, M.C. Frank
  6. The Outlander series, books 6-8, Diana Gabaldon

PopSugar:

  1. A book by a person of color
  2. An espionage thriller
  3. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
  4. A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile
  5. A book I loved as a child
  6. A book with an unreliable narrator
  7. A book about an interesting woman
  8. A book I got on a trip
  9. A book with a family-member term in the title
  10. A book about an immigrant or refugee
  11. A book from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of before
  12. A book about a difficult topic

How is everyone else doing on their personal reading challenges? Is the end in sight already, or are you in the weeds?

This Week, I Read… (2017 #25)

79 - Magic Study

#79 – Magic Study, by Maria V. Snyder

But, Elena! I hear you cry. You gave Poison Study 5 stars! You loved it! What’s going on?

I had serious problems with character motivation in this story. Like, scratching my head with a blank expression, serious.

If I were the sole survivor of a royal family, in exile, hoping to raise an army to reclaim my throne and nation, let me be clear…the one person I would pointedly not reveal my heritage and identity to would be THE PERSON I SUSPECTED AND ACCUSED OF BEING A SPY FOR THE GOVERNMENT THAT OVERTHREW MY FAMILY’S MONARCHY.

WTF, Cahil? Why would you do that? How could you not see that would put your life in danger? (Of course, Yelena’s not a spy like he thought, but that’s not the point–she could have been, which makes his actions ridiculous.)

Every bit of character development Cahil has after that is flawed as well. When he becomes convinced Yelena’s not a spy, he…develops a crush on her? I don’t buy it, not an instant turn-around like that. And because he has a crush on her, he feels incredibly betrayed when he realizes her lover is the same person who murdered his family. Except…you don’t actually have any claim on Yelena, Cahil, and she hadn’t even met you, let alone been aware of your existence, when she and Valek fell in love? So, yeah, clearly she owes you an apology for that. (/snort)

(And then also, he’s been lied to his entire life and isn’t even royal like he thought–which I saw coming from miles away. Not a surprising plot twist, there.)

He’s not the only new character who feels poorly developed. Yelena’s brother Leif makes no sense. He hates her because she doesn’t seem to want to be a part of their family, or to shed her ties to Ixia, but his very hostility is one of the things pushing her away from him; and he (and their parents, too) make literally ZERO effort to find out about Yelena’s life in Ixia and why she might be attached to it, why she doesn’t walk into their home with open arms, ready to be reabsorbed instantly as they expect her to be. In the end, Yelena’s the one who has to understand what kind of trauma Leif went through in order for them to start repairing their relationship. Which, since he’s made no effort to do the same for her, is blatantly unfair.

And then there’s First Magician Roze, who also hates Yelena instantly, for even less reason. By the end of the book, it’s clear she’s jealous of Yelena’s power and bitterly frustrated by the Keep’s inability to bring Yelena to heel…but that would have been a much more satisfying endpoint to reach if Roze hadn’t been a Supreme Bitch the entire time, if she had started kindly disposed to Yelena for the ordeals the girl had suffered, or even just blandly neutral. Random, unjustified hatred –> reasonable hatred: not a good character arc.

Okay, so I just spent paragraphs dumping on new characters, but Yelena herself continues to be a delight to read, and her ability to find friendship in odd places (horses and beggar children!) is simply marvelous, as well as important to the plot. Yes, her disdain for others’ wisdom and authority gets her into trouble, but hey, look, a YA heroine who isn’t perfect, who makes mistakes! Can’t have one of those, right?

Overall, I did enjoy the story, but it didn’t come close to wowing me like Poison Study did.

80 - The Look of Love

#80 – The Look of Love, by Bella Andre

A quick (rushed) romance between an abused woman and a reformed playboy…who hasn’t read this book before? The basic plot is so stuffed with common tropes it could have been assembled from a kit.

However, the story was saved, in part, by actual chemistry between the leads, though their plausible instant attraction quickly (in less than a week!) becomes the dreaded insta-love.

Between that, and the fact that the entire first chapter was spent introducing the entire Sullivan family of one mother and eight siblings–well, there’s a reason most writing advice tells you not to front-load your characters. Yes, this is a romance series following the Sullivan family, but did we really need to meet all eight of them at once, right away? It felt like reading off a checklist, especially since half of the siblings have relatively glamorous jobs, and two of them are actually famous–one’s a movie star and the other a baseball player. Kind of straining credulity for me…

81 - The Mabinogion Tetralogy

#81 – The Mabinogion Tetralogy, by Evangeline Walton

There’s a story behind this one. I know I picked it up about fifteen years ago (hence its applicability to the PopSugar task) when this edition was brand-new, otherwise I would never have randomly found a nearly 1000-page tome of Welsh mythology just sitting on the shelf waiting for me to buy it.

It was just after I’d discovered Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, and I was hungering for more folklore-based fantasy. A recommendation list offered up Mabinogion, and I jumped on it, even for full price! (Which was $35, by the way, definitely the most expensive book I’ve bought myself, since I tend to shy away from new hardcovers.)

I honestly don’t know why I never read it. At first, maybe, I was saving it for a vacation, or until I’d read some of the shorter books I had to get to. After that? I just didn’t read it.

So here I am, finally tackling it. Yes, it took me almost a month, even if I read the nearly-as-long Seveneves recently in just a week. The language is dry, formal, and often downright archaic, so it’s not a quick read, and I took breaks to read other books.

As far as the stories go, I was totally on board for the first three books of the tetralogy. They were engaging and descriptive, with clear character motivations and (despite the formal language) decent pacing.

Then I got to the fourth book and the wheels fell off the wagon. It’s the longest of the four by far, weighed down with lengthy philosophical reveries about the nature of marriage, free will, fatherhood, and family. I get that a major theme of all the stories is change: old vs. new, matrilineal descent vs. patrilineal descent as in the Old and New Tribes. But the tone of the final book shifted greatly towards the cerebral, and it also shifted anti-women in a big way. Women were glorified in the first three books, but in the final story they were unabashedly the villians. Arianrhod was a deceitful, cunning woman so in love with her self-image she would do anything to keep it, even denying her own children; and Blodeuwedd was a cheating wife who betrayed her husband to his death.

Okay, fine, women can be villains–but in both cases, it was the male main characters who were the root of their actions. Arianrhod never wanted to be a mother, but her brother Gwydion needed her to bear his heir, so he caused her to give birth via magic (though he points out repeatedly there would have been no children in her body to have if she had been virgin as she claimed) and keeps one of the children to raise himself. Blodeuwedd was actually created via Mâth’s and Gwydion’s magic to be a wife to that child, Llew, in his manhood–and when she fell in love with another man, she who was created solely as a companion to Llew, she fell into scheming to solve her difficulties.

Now, I’m not trying to absolve these two “villians” of all of their culpability, but Gwydion is the main character of the book, his need for an heir and the obtaining and raising of such being the main storyline–and the book constantly excuses his actions. If this were a moral tale and he suffered some sort of downfall in the end, that would be one thing–but the ending is unsatisfactory in that regard, and in others, because the book just kind of… stops. Llew is reborn from his eagle form (which was his “death”) and then… nothing happens. So clearly, I’m missing something, or the book is.

And speaking of the physical book itself, I’m disappointed in its quality as well. For something that cost me $35, I expect it not to be riddled with typos and inconsistencies. There were punctuation and capitalization mistakes once every fifteen to twenty pages, or so, and the spelling errors seemed to be centered on the names. Welsh is difficult to spell for the uninitiated–but it was as if the entire book had been typeset by scanning then left unproofed, because the errors were almost always shape-based. Pryderi became Prydern, mashing the R and I together. Geyr became Gew, combining the Y and R. And on top of that, some of the names in the fourth book were spelled differently from in the first three, even when they were clearly referring to the same characters. I would expect that if I were reading different sources telling the same tales (Gawaine vs. Gawain in Arthurian mythos, etc.) but not in a single compilation volume from the same author.

I’m glad I finally read it after it sat on my shelf so long, but I can’t help but be disappointed.

82 - The Dragon Lord's Daughters

#82 – The Dragon Lord’s Daughters, by Bertrice Small

DNF @ page 100. Honestly, I probably could have given up earlier, all the signs of a classic rape-mance were there, and the writing quality was poor, but I wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself with the first daughter’s “marriage.”

Nope, nope, nope. Okay, she isn’t raped, she’s just bride-napped and forced by “honor” as well as her father and the Prince to marry her abductor. But of course he turns out to be the perfect combination of slightly dangerous and intriguing, and patient and kind, so her deflowering goes (relatively) well and she’s not horribly traumatized by it.

Listen, I get that rape fantasies are a thing, as well as abduction fantasies and all sorts of variations on being “forced” without actually being forced. And I don’t want to make anyone think I’m shitting on readers who enjoy that, because I’m not. Read what you want, no kink-shaming here.

But the romance genre has thankfully moved away from that being the primary set of tropes involved, and in this particular instance (written in 2004, not even in the height of rape-mance in the ’80s and early ’90s) the writing is just so bad. In the first hundred pages I was treated to hearing the titular three daughters’ hair colors listed five times, being reminded of their shared eye color (green) six times, and getting detailed descriptions of their clothes, but no one else’s, four times. More times than I can count, the actions of the previous few pages were summarized in dialogue by one character to bring another up to speed–but seriously, I just read that three pages ago, I don’t need a reminder already. There are times to use expository dialogue, but not like that!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #23)

73 - Melusine

#73 – Mélusine, by Sarah Monette

What this book does well, it does exceptionally well. It has worldbuilding of the “throw them in the deep end” variety–lots of evocative place names, colorful idiom, definitive customs and rival schools of magical thought. It can be overwhelming, and from time to time I was more than a little confused–I still don’t understand how the Lower City calendar reckons dates, which makes it hard to place historical anecdotes in order–but overall, the effect worked. I feel like this world is real.

Where that worldbuilding fails is in a sense of purpose. The book starts by following two separate protagonists through a world of magical intrigue, but that story-thread fails completely when the two meet and set out together to go to a distant land where one’s magic-induced “madness” can, in theory, be lifted.

That isn’t to say that arc of the story isn’t wonderful–it is–but it ends abruptly there, having resolved the relationship between the two protagonists (long-lost half-brothers who have progressed, through trials and tribulations, from strangers to family) but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE. If I had read this when it first came out, with the rest of the series merely a possible mote on the horizon, I would have been pissed.

Strangely, it is that satisfying-relationship ending that has me troubled. The overall shape of this story reads much more like a romance than it does a more standard fantasy novel–the two leads are introduced separately, the story throws them together, and they develop feelings for each other through internal and external conflicts, then the story ends when the relationship solidifies. Which is what happened there, only…

…they’re brothers. I would be applauding that, having a romance-style narrative applying to a brotherhood relationship, if not for two things:

  1. The story had whiffs of M/M fetishization to me. At first I was thrilled to see gay relationships totally normalized in this fantasy world, until I realized partway through there’d been no mention of F/F pairings. And there wasn’t by the end, either. Prioritizing M/M so clearly in a dark, often sexually-charged fantasy setting is ringing some alarm bells for me.
  2. There is one scene where Felix, in one of his more lucid moments, experiences sexual attraction to/tension with his brother. He’s instantly sickened and ashamed by it, which is natural and understandable…but if it weren’t going to be relevant to their relationship somehow in the future, why include it at all?

I have the three remaining books in the series, thanks to finding this one and the fourth at library sales, then recently (finally!) acquiring the middle two from Thriftbooks. I’m committed–I’m going to read them all. But I strongly, strongly hope that I’m not setting off down Incest Road, here.

74 - Sandman Vol 4 Season of Mists

#74 – The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

After more than a year away from reading the Sandman comics, this was a marvelous place to come back to. What happens to Hell when Lucifer walks away from it and hands Morpheus the key?

We get a story that is a clear precursor to American Gods, that’s what. Watching the various gods and faeries interact with each other as guests of the Dreamlord was a treat, one that had me laughing out loud at Thor ineptly making a pass at Bast while Loki schemed quietly in the background.

While the bulk of the compilation is devoted directly to that storyline, I loved the one-issue arc following the sad story of little Rowland, who finds his school turned upside-down by the return of the dead to earth after their expulsion from Hell. Clearly, none of them learned their lessons, because they were all just as evil, and in the same ways. I was alternately terrified and saddened by the boy’s story, until he refused to go with Death in the end. (Who was rocking some excellent legwarmers–I love her wacky, myriad styles!) Finding an odd kind of freedom in living death seemed like a happy ending, if a temporary one.

It was an excellent side-trip, dealing with the consequences of emptying Hell, and while the story would have felt mostly complete without it, taking the time to address the issue is well worth it. That’s exactly the sort of plot hole I wish other authors were better at avoiding–how come you never deal with the extremely obvious fallout of Plot Point X?

I do have to wonder what Morpheus and Loki are up to at the end, though…

75 - Little Birds

#75 – Little Birds, by Anaïs Nin

My little bird has never looked so disapproving.

Off and on since college, I’d heard about the great, classic author of erotica, Anaïs Nin–so when I spotted this tiny paperback at a secondhand shop I scooped it up.

But who knew sex could be so boring?

The style was flat and practical, giving technical and mechanical detail but entirely lacking in emotion or nuance. It was like reading a transcript of a robot describing sex.

On top of that, most of the short stories had no ending to speak of, they just stopped. They hardly had any meat to them anyway, plot-wise, so I’m not sure what I expected, but the endings they had struck me as abrupt and devoid of any sense of completion.

I’ll stick to my modern erotic romances, thank you.

76 - Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

#76 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

My strongest criticism of this book is one I don’t often have: it’s too short.

Everything about the story seemed to me to be Neal Stephenson Lite, and I know Sloan is at least passingly familiar with his work, because Stephenson gets name-dropped. And applying that label to this book isn’t meant as an insult–not everyone wants to read nearly-thousand-page tomes with that level of historical or scientific detail.

This was a techno-puzzler, and it could have been a great one, if only it hadn’t been so rushed.

Nearly every conflict the protagonist, Clay, has is solved by him knowing the right person to ask for help, and the problem magically vanishes. He needs to get to New York to find someone? Ask his rich friend to come along and “sponsor” the trip. He needs a piece of tech for a clandestine operation against a secret society? He fires off an email and gets what he needs the very next day through a dead drop at a pizza joint. He nearly gets caught at the end of said clandestine operation? He hides himself long enough to not-quite formulate a plan before one of his co-conspirators finds him and manages to smuggle him out.

The only puzzles or conflicts Clay actually handles himself are the very first, the one that sets him on this mysterious road, and the very last, the resolution of his “quest.” The entire middle section of the book feels like a string of luck and deus ex machina. Which means very little time needs to be spent stumbling on these hurdles, which in turn means the book races through the plot as quickly as possible, leaving no time to develop any characters with personality.

Clay is nearly an everyman except for some programming know-how, which makes him a suitable every-nerd instead. Kat, his love interest (though fortunately the romance subplot is incidental) is such a stereotypical Tech Industry Geek that she’s never explored beyond that. Mr. Penumbra is probably the most interesting, being the eccentric one who leads Clay into this strange story in the first place, but even he is fairly flat. And the rest of the cast is so thin that they seem only to be there to be called on to solve Clay’s problems when he needs them. (His two roommates do also get a thin, background-level romance, which is the only exception that comes to mind, and I’ll admit that was nice, to see side characters have independent lives. I wish there had been more of that.)

So, it’s not terrible, but it is on the fluffy side, all cleverness and no depth.