This Week, I Read… (2020 #11)

41 - By Degrees

#41 – By Degrees, by Elle Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

42 - Bayou Moon

#42 – Bayou Moon, by Ilona Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43 - Coraline

#43 – Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #10)

37 - Dreams Underfoot

#37 – Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

38 - The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39 - The Bride Test

#39 – The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

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

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

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

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

40 - The Thing About December

#40 – The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #9)

34 - Blind Attraction

#34 – Blind Attraction, by Eden Summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

35 - I am a Cat

#35 – I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36 - Wabi-Sabi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #8)

30 - The English Patient

#30 – The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

32 - His Custody

#32 – His Custody, by Tamsen Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33 - The Heart of What Was Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #7)

26 - Kitchens of the Great Midwest

#26 – Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

  • Read: 2/11/20 – 2/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 26/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with more than twenty letters in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a recipe
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Ultimately, it’s too cute.

I like the ideas behind it more than the actual execution of it. Have a woman’s life described mostly in her absence, by the people around her, by people increasingly far from her, sounds like a great high concept, especially if the woman the story is about is a wildly popular but mostly reclusive celebrity chef. And the food item that titles each chapter is part of the story of her life, as well.

But I hated the ending. There, I said it. I read the whole book and saw the stories of why these foods were important to her, and then they’re on the menu for the dinner her long-lost mother gets to attend, and look how pretty and cute and meaningful it all is! Look at how well-constructed! But it’s so obvious, so artificial, and and it doesn’t really finish the story at all. By ending with the arrogant self-satisfaction of Cindy, who is just happy she birthed an incredible daughter even if she had nothing to do with her raising…that’s just not motherhood, and it’s not a happy or satisfying ending to me. It smacked me in the face with how obnoxious this book was at its worst.

At its best, though, it captures beautifully the slices of the Midwest that are strange and incomprehensible to outsiders. I saw some of my own childhood in this, and I had to laugh about how perfectly the Norwegian Minnesotans were depicted, not because they’re my people, but because I have a relative by marriage from that pocket of the Midwest and absolutely everything the book said, I’d heard from stories about her family and community.

So the central strength of the book–using a succession of different POV characters to capture as much of the Midwestern food traditions as possible–also becomes its central weakness, because it’s all in service of a narrative and ending that don’t really mean much.

27 - The Return of the Black Widowers

#27 – The Return of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov

  • Read: 2/15/20 – 2/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 27/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: An anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Waaaay back in high school, I did a term paper on Asimov for my American Lit course, but it was entirely focused on his science fiction. I didn’t know he wrote mysteries at all until I found this tucked away on a low shelf at a used book sale. Of course I bought it.

The wit and precision I remember from his other work is present here, and the cleverness, too. As individual stories, I have few real complaints, despite generally disliking mystery. These are much more puzzlers than they are whodunits, and most of the stories resolved with a ending, a revelation, that I found satisfactory. (I say most because some of them are highly academic, and you don’t have a chance of figuring it out if you aren’t familiar with the exact same canon of knowledge as the author.)

The problem I have with this is that putting together this many stories in an anthology is that it shows clearly how formulaic they are. The details repeat in a way that would make sense of stories published over months and years, but are completely redundant when read back to back. The structure of each story is brutally identical, and despite the small idiosyncracies of each man in the Widowers, they all speak with the same high-handed posh manner that made me think they’re British, even though a) this is set in the US, and b) they use none of the British slang that I would expect from male-only rich-people puzzle-solving dinners. They’re all horribly elitist, and it’s grating.

So what it really boils down to is that I like the style of the puzzles, they’re the sparkling gemstones in a terrible setting that detracts from their beauty. I can admire the wit and cleverness while hating that this is an old white boy’s club that makes it a point never to admit women.

28 - Fiona's Flame

#28 – Fiona’s Flame, by Rachael Herron

  • Read: 2/18/20 – 2/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 28/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The longer this went on, the less I liked it. In the first half, I was still thinking this could be a four- or even a five-star read, if it stuck the landing, but it all fell apart so disastrously by the end.

I have so much to complain about that I’m not even sure I can put together a review with coherent flow. Bullet point time!

The Good:

  • Even without having read the first four books in the series, Cypress Hollow is a town with a lot of personality, and this work felt very different from other “small town” romances I’ve read. Points for originality.
  • Both Abe and Fiona start out as quirky but believable characters, and believably compatible. There was a reason I was on board with this story early on, and it’s because they do have real chemistry at first. There are cute moments, and I did like Abe at the beginning, though it didn’t last.

The Bad:

  • Abe is hung up on his ex who left him at the altar eleven years ago, to the point where the first time he hops into bed with Fiona he calls her the wrong name. I’m not annoyed about this because it makes him a jerk, I’m annoyed with the author because it’s really stretching. Eleven years ago? Is he still pining for her or not?
  • Fiona is ALSO hung up on Abe’s ex, because when she’s prettied up apparently she looks enough like the ex to draw comparisons from random townsfolk. Which sends her off into an inferiority spiral that is just exhausting to read.
  • Abe’s ex then manages to get herself cheated on by her husband, the man she left Abe for, and in retaliation she blatantly tries to seduce Abe, but that plot line never goes anywhere, and no character ever seems to acknowledge her behavior. Abe doesn’t fall for it but also doesn’t call her on it, and Fiona, despite the inferiority complex she’s developed, is mildly annoyed at the time but never brings it up again, EVEN WHEN THE WOMAN LATER BEFRIENDS HER. Really, Abe’s ex just takes up way too much of the story.
  • Fiona’s intermittent “swearing” using entirely nonsense words isn’t cute and quirky, it’s just dumb. It makes her sound like a child learning to talk badly. They’re not even the same words, it’s a new one every time and they’re all awful. They chipped away at what liking I had for Fiona every time they appeared.

The Ugly:

  • The first time Fiona nearly died was understandable because of a semi-heroic rescue attempt and some extenuating circumstances. The second time? Definitely Too Stupid To Live Syndrome. And why does she need to nearly die twice? Isn’t that excessive? Is nearly killing Fiona again really the only way to erase the idiocy (see my point below) of the final conflict?
  • The central conflict that sets up Abe and Fiona talking–should we save the lighthouse or tear it down–is ignored for most of the book while they deal with more personal issues of personality, Abe’s ex, family drama, etc. Then at the very end it’s trotted back out for one last showdown where BOTH leads act like irredeemable idiots, no better than viciously mean children, and I’m supposed to believe a) they got that worked up over the lighthouse only to have it not matter at all to them anymore after Fiona nearly gets killed again, and b) that either of them can forgive the horrible things they said to each other in front of half the town?
  • Knitting is a central theme of this series, and I’m keenly aware of this because many, many years ago when I was a die-hard knitter and was much more involved in the online knitting community, I “knew” the author as a knit blogger. When I saw this book available for free and recognized the name, I grabbed it on that strength alone, because her blog was charming and personable and I got kind replies the few times I left comments. But this book has NOTHING to do with knitting, until very late in the story when someone tries to make Fiona learn to knit again after doing poorly at it as a child, so the constant chapter-intro knitting quotes from the fictional town’s fictional knitting goddess supreme felt wildly out of place. Had I read the first four books I doubt I would feel as strongly about this, but when the individual books are designed to be able to be read as stand-alones, this kind of tonal clash doesn’t work, and can’t be carried on the backs of the other books being more knitting-related. This one isn’t. This one barely has a thing to do with knitting for 95% of the story and that five percent that touches on it can’t support the weight of cutesy thematic chapter openings.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #6)

23 - A Secret Affair

#23 – A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh

  • Read: 2/5/20 – 2/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 23/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a three-word title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a romance
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What started off with an interesting and original-to-me premise became bogged down in stilted repetition and the stifling confines of Regency propriety, the endless litany of who is where and who is riding in whose carriage and who is attending what ball and who is related to whom.

This is my third Balogh novel and definitely my last. They’ve all gotten two stars from me, and despite how much this author has been recommended to me in the past, clearly we’re not gelling.

I did have higher hopes for this one, based on concept. I’ve never really seen the “it’s just a fling” trope in a Regency setting before. But once the lovers hop into bed together, it all goes downhill, and I’m not saying that as a sex-starved reader who just wants smut and should probably be reading NA romances instead of Regency.

I’m saying it because all the sex scenes after that were either short and summarized, or glossed over with a fade-out from the scene, or in one case, interrupted. If the primary vehicle that these two lovers have to get to know each other is lust, because they’re lovers but not in love, why isn’t there much lust?

So of course, with this trope, the point is that eventually they realize they’ve caught feelings. That definitely happens here. But the banter it should be happening through also gets less present and less interesting as the novel slowly wends its way along. It takes both characters multiple chapters and repeated internal monologue to convince themselves/admit to themselves that they’re falling in love. Both characters use precisely the same language in the process, both suffer the same doubts, and both have the same qualms about admitting their growing feelings to each other.

Essentially, for all their seeming differences of gender, power, social standing, and personality, the narrative treats them for a good chunk of the book like they’re the exact same person.

That isn’t the only place where the story suffers from excessive repetition, either. During the climax, when the fate of the romance hinges (seemingly) on the outcome of a judge’s ruling on the sentence for a mentally handicapped thief, the story of what the thief did is told by one character to another several times in a chain of “I know this but now I’m telling it to you,” and the story is almost word-for-word each time. They should be similar, yes, but not exact, not when one factors in things like character voice, and the Telephone effect of words or small details changing. The author is clearly aware of how a tale can grow and change in the telling–it’s referenced in gossip among the ton but not in this little tale, which everyone has memorized word-perfect, and I have to read about six times over ten pages.

I KNOW! I KNOW WHAT HE DID! STOP TELLING ME BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO INFORM OTHER CHARACTERS! SUMMARIZE IT OR GLOSS OVER IT OR SOMETHING!

Thanks to used book sales and the number of times Balogh was recommended to me, I do actually own one more book of hers, but I’ll be donating it back to my library’s book sale room unread, because after three bland and mediocre reads, I think it’s safe to say I’m unimpressed with this author.

Pantomime

#24 – Pantomime, by Laura Lam

  • Read: 2/7/20 – 2/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 24/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book I mean to read in 2019
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In looking to other reviews to help me gather my thoughts, I completely missed the boat on the “twist” that, when the book was newer, thought was either brilliant or the worst thing to happen in the LGBTQIA+ sphere ever. (Though my copy is secondhand and from the original printing, so I have the nonsense misleading blurb on the back, and boy howdy, it’s bad.)

I can’t know for sure what my experience would have been if I had started the book not already knowing that Micah and Gene were the same person. I’ve always known this book was about an intersex protagonist, because once the hype started for it, that’s usually the leading reason for recommendation–the representation. We just don’t get a lot of books about intersex people.

But I hope I would have figured it out long before the narrative states it plainly. The mere fact that Gene’s chapters are all clearly marked “Spring” in the header, while Micah’s are “Summer,” should be a huge clue that Gene’s chapters happen first and aren’t necessarily going to intersect with Micah’s as if they were two separate people. And about a dozen smaller things, but that was the super-obvious one for me.

All that aside, what did I think of the book knowing the big secret ahead of time? It’s a really mixed bag. I appreciate all the care and delicacy that went into crafting Micah/Gene and his experience living as both genders. It was a quick read that didn’t ever get snagged on anything confusing or befuddling. But the setting was bland “generically magical circus vs. fantasy aristocracy with obviously Victorian social values.” Hey, guess what, I’ve seen that before, quite a bit actually, and the incredibly small hints of magic and mythology that should have made this world more interesting were few and far between.

Worse, I have issues with the weak love triangle. Using love interests of different genders is a great way to have Micah explore what living as male means to him and if/how that affects his attraction to others, when as Gene (s)he was only supposed to be attracted to and eventually marry a boy. So I can appreciate that. But at the same time, setting up a love triangle as a choice between genders does play into some negative stereotypes about bisexuality, and Micah is clearly attracted to both Aenea and Drystan; while that’s understandable for Micah, it’s also part of a pattern I’ve seen in YA where bisexual leads face that same love triangle because it’s an easy way to show they’re bi, even while it also reinforces the ideas that bisexual people are indecisive and might drop their love interest to be with someone of the other binary gender simply because. I can see that’s not the case here, but as part of that larger pattern I can’t exactly be happy about it.

Also I generally don’t like love triangles, and this one ending with the death of one of the love interests means Micah didn’t have to choose, the choice was made for him, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The cliffhanger ending raised the stakes a huge amount in very short space, a leap in pacing and tension that I don’t feel the rest of the book prepared us for. Micah is in very little danger for a very long time, and then having the biggest threat to both his chosen way of life and his actual life come from inside the circus basically without warning, rather than the outside threat we’ve been expecting, doesn’t really feel right to me. The foreshadowing for Bil and Frit is pretty weak, so the climax was less of an inevitable surprise as it was being sucker-punched with a plot twist out of almost nowhere.

I’m giving this its third star completely out of respect for its sensitivity in portraying an intersex YA protagonist, but the rest of the book is two stars at best.

25 - Beauty is a Wound

#25 – Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan

  • Read: 2/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 25/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in the southern hemisphere
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a great first line
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with four words in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 90.

I picked this up because, hey, Indonesia! I’ve never read anything about Indonesia or by an Indonesian author! Won’t this be fun! And I definitely want to be a better world reader. But this is not the book for me.

I wasn’t put off at first by the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” quoted on the book flap because I dig absurdist humor and allegory, so the idea of grotesqueness was okay…until I actually started to read it. In those first 90 pages, there’s more rapes than I can list, more bestiality than I wanted or expected, and some light incest thrown in for extra flavor.

Even if this is all integral to the plot, deeply important to the symbolism, I simply don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read about a man sexually abusing sheep and chickens. I don’t want to have basically every female character I’ve met raped, even if the scenes aren’t graphic. In some ways, having them raped in a single declarative sentence is worse, because it’s so mundane, so every-day, that it doesn’t even need to be described. And every woman (so far) is mostly characterized by how available for sex she is, and nothing much else. Every male character is mostly characterized by who or what he has sex with…so I guess that’s equally awful?

In the end, even though I find all of that distasteful to read, the real failure of this work for me is the absolute lack of character development. By telling this in a magical-realism style with a fairy-tale-thin characters, I can’t connect with anyone enough to care, certainly not enough to sit through the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” that saturates every page.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #3)

8 - The Age of Innocence

#8 – The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  • Read: 1/14/20 – 1/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 8/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed
  • The Reading Frenzy: read a book set in New York City
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF around page 90. I skimmed a bit farther, but that was really where I stopped paying full attention.

When I started, I was immediately enchanted by Wharton’s wit and snarkiness. I was aware the book wasn’t full-on satire of the time period, but that it was critical of the social structure and ideals and unwritten rules of the idle rich of New York City. And as far as that went, I was on board–her observations were sharp and amusing. That’s why I gave this a second star despite not finishing it.

But I was bored. It took me three days to read those ninety pages, because I would tell myself I was going to read, sit down, read a chapter or maybe two, and come out the other side exhausted and wanting to do anything else but read. The endless details about who was related to whom, about the sorts of furniture and china they had or the food they served, the number of times Newland intercepted a “look” from May and instantly decoded it to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean. I’ll give the man credit for being a sort of proto-feminist who has high ideals for the rights of women and recognizes his gut reaction as wrong, when he tries to apply them to May and finds himself disgusted. On one level he despises the society around him, yet it’s also granted him a great deal of privilege that he doesn’t do anything to reject. He could have been a truly interesting character and I wish I’d been able to slog my way through the tedium to find out.

But at the rate I was going it was going to take me another two weeks to finish and I just don’t care that much. Too much of it bored me to keep reading for those small slivers of great language and wittiness.

9 - Break the Rules

#9 – Break the Rules, by Claire Boston

  • Read: 1/17/20 – 1/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 9/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I know I sometimes ding “office” romances for basically never having their characters be at work, but this book proves it’s possible to err in the other direction.

They’re always working or talking about work. Near the beginning sometimes they’re talking about scuba diving instead, and then after they get together they take breaks from talking about work long enough to have some sex, and then sometimes an external conflict comes up in the form of his brother and her best friend being impulsive and inconsiderate jackasses. Oh, and the tedious and heavy-handed foster-sister setup to briefly raise awareness for the political and social strife in many Central American countries, which is true but so out of place in context with the rest of the book, where it doesn’t inform anything about the plot or even do all that much to give Bridget personality as her backstory.

But 75% of the book is about being a safety manager at an oil refinery. I signed up for a romance, thanks, could you give me a real romance? Because this isn’t one. There’s attraction that gets their relationship started, sure. Then the realization that he’s her new boss cools things down, but he gets pushy (which I did not like!) about making a relationship happen anyway. Finally, somewhere around midway through, he accepts “no” for an answer and they agree to remain friends. (Which absolutely should have happened earlier if I wasn’t supposed to think Jack was a jerk. And he was mostly nice other than that, so I think he was not supposed to be a jerk.) But then Bridget almost immediately goes back on her decision, and then circumstances force them to move in together, and then disaster happens at the plant and Bridget proves herself capable and saves the day. Which was the real climax of the story, not the culmination of the thin romance. Have I ever leveled the criticism at a romance that I think it needs more sex scenes? I think that’s a first, but I do want more sex scenes, because every time the scene cut away from or glossed over their sexy times, I was denied an opportunity to see how they treated each other, how they connected. Because it wasn’t happening at work, where they were trying to play it cool for everyone else’s benefit.

This is a “romance” where the personal vindication/validation arc of the heroine took over the entire book and left very little room for actual romance, or anything else, really. Though I do question why she’s best friends with Tanya who never seems to do anything worthy of having friends, and is a constant source of irritation for Bridget, from the big stuff like “oops I got married and I’m moving out so I guess you should live with your boss” to the little “this is my party so you have to wear the dress I pick out and have your hair straightened because I say so even though I know you hate sitting in salons doing nothing for hours, do it for meeeee.” Tanya isn’t a person, she’s three external conflicts in a trench coat.

10 - The Black Tides of Heaven

#10 – The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang

  • Read: 1/18/20 – 1/20/20
  • Mount TBR: 10/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by a trans or nonbinary author
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I am underwhelmed.

I don’t think this story knows what it wants to be when it grows up, because in the small space it’s allowed, it takes on so many weighty topics that none of them get the serious treatment they deserve. If it’s about gender identity, then why weren’t the consequences and potential difficulties of “choosing” a gender after being raised gender-neutral as children explored in any depth? If it’s about politics, then why is the rebellion only in latter half of the story, barely explained, and foreshadowed by nothing? If it’s about this cool world that the author has built to accommodate a society that raises their kids gender-free and uses elemental manipulation magic, why is all the world-building so bare-bones that I literally don’t understand half of it? If it’s a personal story about Akeha’s journey through life, why so we skip so many years of it and then pick up at a different age without making any attempt to fill in the gaps and show us why he is the way he turns out to be? If it’s about his moral victory over his mother/the Protector, well, then why is she the lamest, most mustache-twirling “evil because the story says so” villain I’ve seen recently?

This novella is attempting to do way too much in far too small a space to get any of it right. Any of the things I mentioned could be the central focus of a story, but in trying to do it all at once, every aspect is left half-finished, and I’m just here with a giant cartoon question mark floating over my head, wondering what the point was.

11 - Station Eleven

#11 – Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Read: 1/20/20 – 1/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 11/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in a country beginning with “C”
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a green spine
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it and think highly of it despite some flaws.

Most impressive to me was how seamless, how effortless, the time-jumping was. I was flung between pre- and post-apocalyptic scenes, interviews, character changes, everything, and never once was I confused about where I landed or why I was sent there from where I started. One of the things I hate most as a reader is being confused by anything I feel should be clear right away, and I will ditch books that handle their structure poorly on this front. Station Eleven, in that sense, is an absolute masterpiece.

I found the tone and atmosphere unusual and captivating. This is a very quiet, peaceful apocalypse compared to others I’ve read. It can be most directly contrasted in my experience with The Stand, because both use a super-flu style virus to wipe out 99% of humanity, but Stephen King focused a lot of narrative time on the immediate and often violent fallout of “the aftermath,” those deaths that came not from the pandemic but from the collapse of society immediately following it. Mandel chooses to do little with this time, even glossing over it in some of her character’s memories. What we do see of it, in Clark’s POV, is perhaps the most genteel end-of-the-world possible. It isn’t that she does not acknowledge violence happens–the knife tattoos, the guns in the hands of the prophet’s people and what that results in–but it’s mostly off-screen, distant. That heightens the little violence we do see, a simple but effective tactic to make us care for the characters involved.

If anything, though, that’s where this falls short of absolutely perfect for me. I never quite engaged with the characters as much as I wanted to, perhaps because so much of this was focused on the world and not the people in it. There’s a great reverence for objects, for things, especially the ones that tie the various timelines together (the comic books, the paperweight, airplanes) but I sometimes felt like the narrative preferred those over the characters. One example is the tendency to reference members of the Traveling Symphony by their instruments–at first I thought it was a clever way to have the large ancillary cast such an outfit would require, without burdening the reader with too many names. And it is. But it’s also a wedge driven into the story that creates artificial distance. Most of the Symphony members who are crucial to the story do have names, except, eventually, the clarinet, who given her importance in the end probably deserved to have one as well. Another more pervasive example is that we spend a great deal of time following Arthur’s life–his final night bookends the story–but I never felt all that attached to him, and of the characters within his sphere, I liked Miranda far better, and Kirsten is our main avatar of the new world, so why don’t we spend more time getting to know her?

The other minor flaw is that it did, at times, strain my suspension of disbelief. Not with the seeming coincidences that pepper the story–all the questions I had about “how does that happen” got explained eventually through character actions in the past–but usually with simple logistics. How likely is it truly, that every single person stranded in the airport in Severn City is free from the virus? I can accept that the airport itself wasn’t contaminated, it’s not a major transport hub. I can accept the lamp-shaded “this is how lucky Clark was to survive” section. But everyone else from all the other planes that got diverted there? None of them had been exposed at that point?

So with those strengths and those flaws, it sounds like I’ve written a nice, balanced three-star review, but I still love this book and give it five. I love the way it made me feel while I was reading it. I love how unusual a take it gave me on the end of the world, and how a need for entertainment and community survived, and how beautifully sad it was in parts and how beautifully hopeful it was in others.

12 - Sing Your Heart Out

#12 – Sing Your Heart Out, by Crystal Kaswell

  • Read: 1/23/20 – 1/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 12/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a while this looked like it was going to be interesting, a cut above your usual college/New Adult smut romance, but the wheels fell off around 60% and it was just fight, sex, fight, sex, fight, sex, make up, happy ending.

Listen, I know NA romance is supposed to have a lot of sex, it’s all about the smut, but this was still excessive. Up to a certain point in the story, the sex meant something. It showed Meg and Miles connecting emotionally even though they had agreed this was a friends with benefits scenario. And the reason I thought it was interesting was that it was clearly Miles, not Meg, who was catching feelings first–this setup usually leans heavily on the heroine falling love with the distant, closed-off hero and eventually getting him to admit he’s invested too.

But not Miles. Miles is the best boyfriend-who-won’t-use-that-term ever. He’s depicted for most of the book as a real standup guy, compared to his caught-in-the-act introduction to the heroine. He’s not flawless–he does keep a big secret from Meg, and his need to have someone rely on him for support while not sharing equally of himself is definitely messed up–but he’s generally more of a person and less of a horrible mess than Meg.

Meg, who is the worst part of this story. She’s so smart that it’s her last name, thank you, very clever. But she’s only a brilliant bookworm whenever the plot demands that she use studying as an excuse to avoid Miles (which is far too frequently, might I add, that got repetitive fast) and the rest of the time she’s a hopeless ditz with no common sense, no real emotional depth, a tragic backstory that was a substitute for a personality, and no backbone. Miles, for all his flaws, is generally very clear on what he wants and what he’s going to do to get it; Meg changes her mind constantly about everything except her desire to get into medical school. When she tries not to get involved with Miles in the first place, he’s so hot and so into her that she caves; when they’re fighting and she tries to shut the door on their relationship for more than five minutes, she caves. She goes from virgin to practical sex addict in no time at all, and she allows her libido to make bad decisions for her constantly. The last third of the book is a train wreck of constant orgasms instead of plot.

At one point this was looking to be a three-star book, despite its many flaws. It didn’t take long to drop to two, and the final act puts it solidly at one. It’s bad and I don’t recommend it to anyone, even smut lovers, because honestly after a while even the sex scenes were boring.