This Week, I Read… (2020 #30)

#113 – Buzz, by E. Davies

  • Read: 7/30/20 – 7/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 101/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is a plot that never had the potential to be more than okay, made worse by poor construction.

The quick and easy complaints: Leading with a sex scene as prologue when the characters haven’t been introduced is not going to get me interested. A character spending most of a chapter doing absolutely mundane things that don’t advance or even relate to the plot is not going to get me interested. Randomly diverting to one of the lead’s brothers for a POV is going to irritate me, especially when the lead just had a chapter he spent doing absolutely mundane things that I don’t understand why I had to read about. So why didn’t the plot point in his brother’s chapter happen then instead? Why did we constantly have to see important things through a side character’s perspective when nothing much happens during the lead’s POVs?

A slightly more complex complaint: Did we spend so much time with the minutiae of Noah’s work as an art curator so that he didn’t feel less developed than Cameron and his almost-hockey career? Because Noah’s job at any given point was either boring or explained poorly–I never got a sense of what he did or why it was causing him so much stress. He would say he was stressed but then a single phone call would clear up the problem; or he would whine that he wasn’t going to have space for everything he wanted because the big, bad (I don’t really know how to describe his antagonists here–building owners? angry stupid rich people? who did he answer to, anyway?) didn’t give him enough space. But then later he’d turn around and need to commission something new from a different artist…why do you need more art if you’re already worried about space for what you have?

Finally, as a romance this story fails the “why aren’t they together now?” question at nearly every stage, because the couple is together for most of the book, and there’s nothing really to keep them apart. There’s no real tension in their relationship, because they’re so open and honest with each other about nearly everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see men talking about their feelings, whether it’s m/m romance or not–but the only “obstacle” they encounter late in the story is Cam hiding his almost-hockey-career. From Cam’s perspective, it’s not even framed as a lie, just as an “I haven’t told you this yet” because a) they’re not serious yet, and b) he’s enjoying the relative anonymity. Noah finds out accidentally from Cam’s brother, sits on that knowledge for a chapter or two, then immediately forgives Cam without any fuss when he confesses. So, again, no tension. Cam’s ex is a total piece of trash who obviously isn’t going to storm back into his life, no matter how the brother worries Cam would take him back–obvious, pointless red herring. And there’s never any reason to suspect Cam is going to return to hockey and leave Noah behind, so the ultimate question of relationship success is merely “are they compatible or not?”

Which the narrative made it clear very early that they are. Their happy ending was inevitable–this is a romance, after all–but it was never once truly threatened, so I never had a reason to get invested.

#114 – In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

  • Read: 8/1/20 – 8/3/20
  • Around the Year: A book about a non-traditional family
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book about friendship
  • Mount TBR: 102/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Oh, boy, this is going to be messy. Unpopular opinions ahead!

What did I like about this? Luke is a treasure. He is best boy. I cannot fully express with mere words how much I love this child and need him to be happy. He is the only reason I finished this book.

As for the rest of it, I can give passes to a few things it attempted to do but failed to achieve, and I dislike the rest.

I’m always harping about the missing b-word, so credit where credit is due, Elliot eventually grows comfortable enough with his sexuality to actually use the word “bisexual.” Several times, in fact. I don’t mind that it took him so long because it’s obviously part of his coming-of-age arc. I’m less impressed with the fact that he is, by far, the one with the most active sex life, because while it shows that it’s possible for someone to learn and grow from failed relationships, even that young, it also plays into the promiscuous, flighty stereotype. The text does attempt to address this in the later stages with Elliot bracing for someone to reject him for admitting he’s bisexual, but it’s little more than a lampshade acknowledging that he fits the stereotype. As a bisexual person myself, I’m honestly conflicted about this, because there’s some good and some bad about Elliot as bi rep.

I think that pales in comparison to his place in the story as the outsider with a clear savior complex. While it’s not “white savior” in the classic sense, because everyone in this book is white, it’s impossible not to view the various fantasy species as Other when so much of the plot revolves around inter-species tension, whether it’s on the societal or personal level. But here comes Elliot, the snarky bratty pacifist who’s so much smarter than everyone else, he’s going to prove to this entire fantasy world that war isn’t the answer and his way is soooooo much better. The fact that nearly everyone in our world would agree–war is awful and we’d be better off without it–doesn’t mean he isn’t tromping in to impose his thinking on inferior (to his view) cultures. I can agree with his moral viewpoint without endorsing his actions or attitudes.

Also, I don’t like Elliot as a person. I can’t simply label his meanness as bullying, because that implies he’s seeking some sort of power over the people he mistreats, and he mostly isn’t. He’s just a deeply unpleasant person who takes literal years to realize other people have feelings too, and his behavior for 70% of the story is disgusting and cruel. I can tell I’m supposed to like him, because oh look he’s a sad boy with a bad home life and he’s unwanted and unloved and that’s why he’s the way he is…but I stopped falling for that trick years ago. I’ve had enough people in my life who were constantly, offhandedly cruel but somehow expected me to understand that they didn’t really mean it, they were just joking, hey why are you so offended. But that’s not even the case with Elliot, because we’re inside his head, and he’s not joking. He really does think everyone else is stupid, and even by the end of the book when he can grudgingly admit that some people aren’t so bad, I still didn’t like him.

On a smaller but still dissatisfying note, Serene got tiring quickly. The whole “elves are sexist but in favor of women” was a joke that started out decent but didn’t last through the whole book, and it’s not empowering for me as a woman to have a female character being as much of a raging misandrist as some real-world men are misogynist. It’s not a subversion, it’s just a reversal, and it’s not interesting for long.

So there are my issues with the story. I also have issues with the writing itself. I appreciate the effort put into showing how characters are feeling–especially Luke, who gets most of his characterization through displaying how angry or not he is with whatever insulting thing Elliot’s just said. The slow burn of this romance is telegraphed through four years of schooling and over four hundred pages–that’s the other thing that made this read at all bearable for me.

But the rest of the plot is thinner than a steamrolled penny and has pacing issues out the wazoo. If I lost focus for even a second and accidentally skipped a paragraph, the characters who I thought were in the library might suddenly be in the middle of a battle. Fights started out of seemingly nothing. Conversations usually seemed to start somewhere in the middle with no context. Scene breaks might cover thirty seconds, or months. There was no real structure beyond “this part of the book is this year of school and Elliot is this age” and the knowledge that time does indeed proceed forward, not backward, not sideways, as there’s no time travel. Events that most other books would emphasize were breezed past so we could have more time with Elliot being cranky–instead of those events being opportunities for him to grow as a character through his actions, they’re wayposts, mere plot points the story has to have but doesn’t want to linger on, so we can get back to the “good” part, the constant teenage angst.

I might have loved this when I was a teenager myself, but as an adult, I have no patience with it. Even knowing that this humor is supposed to be genre-mocking, at least partially tongue-in-cheek, most of it didn’t land for me, because as hard as I tried, Elliot never grew more funny or likable.

#115 – Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

  • Read: 8/3/20 – 8/6/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo (Keep It Simple version: set in Japan)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set on an island
  • Mount TBR: 103/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout this novel, moments of emotion I connected to. I have been depressed in my life; I have been alone; I have questioned my worth as a person because of my mental illness.

But if the character I was most interested in, who I most sympathized with, was Naoko, who quite obviously was never going to survive this story, then I don’t think this book was written for me.

This work is deeply misogynistic, but what I’m having trouble with is separating the misogyny that’s realistic/expected for the time and place, and thus appropriate for the story as a work of historical fiction, from the misogyny that’s a part of the author’s worldview. Yes, this book has a male protagonist, Toru, surrounded by complex female characters who are all important to him in some way and drive the plot forward. Generally that’s a good thing, but here, all of the women are portrayed as badly damaged. Naoko is beautiful and pure(ish) and lovable, but also struggling with an unnamed but obviously complex mental illness that isolates her from Toru. Midori is cute and fun and much more available (despite having an offscreen boyfriend for most of the book) but also emotionally manipulative and sometimes downright abusive. Reiko generally functions as the wise mentor character, as much as possible while still acknowledging that she has her own issues, but then at the very end she’s out of the care facility and sexually available to Toru, in a scene that I both saw coming from miles away and yet still can’t quite believe actually happened.

When you boil this story down to its bones, Toru himself might not view all women in terms of their sexual availability; he tires of meaningless sex with random women quickly, he decides to wait for Naoko and thus refuses Midori at first, and with Midori herself, they’re friends long before sex enters the picture. So Toru doesn’t fare too badly with me for his treatment of women, and the mistakes he makes along the way are understandable given his circumstances. He learns; he grows.

But I can’t help feeling that author sees women that way, because ultimately if there’s a named woman in this book, she’s got to perform a sexual act with the protagonist at some point. Maybe they serve another purpose in the story (Naoko being symbolic of Toru’s past, Reiko as the mentor, Midori as the future or at least its possibilities) but none of them escape the need to be sexually available to the protagonist to justify their place in the story. Reiko bothers me most in this context–I can understand why Naoko and Midori are viewed in terms of sex, they’re the two spokes of the past-future false love triangle. But why did Toru need to sleep with Reiko? It doesn’t further his arc, he would have “chosen” Midori in the end anyway. It doesn’t further hers, because if it does then that means sex made her a “real” person again after her long isolation and that’s just gross, thanks I hate it.

I almost put this book down long before any of this twisted sex-death dynamic came to light, because there’s a short list of famous works that are always red flags to me when I see them referenced, and The Great Gatsby is front and center here early on. If a creator draws on that (or a few other select titles) I’m almost guaranteed not to enjoy the work they made because there’s a fundamental disconnect between what they value and think is good, and what I value and think is good. I kept going in this case because it was clear that reading literature was part of Toru’s characterization as the young college student, and it didn’t necessarily predict that the entire work was going to be tainted by association. And since it’s been a long time since I was forced to pick apart Gatsby sentence by sentence for my high school English class, I don’t immediately see parallels between the stories that make any sense–this isn’t derivative of the classic or leaning on it thematically. Yet in the end, I’m wishing I had paid attention to that red flag, because ultimately I’m drained by this and honestly believe that I would be better off not having read it, despite those brief flashes of brilliance and connection I had.

This is a depressing work dealing with heavy topics in such a way that I didn’t gain any catharsis from it. It takes a rather grim view of mental health, despite individual characters doing their best to heal or stay strong in the face of illness; Naoko’s suicide was both predictable and inevitable. The lack of resolution in the ending leaves me unsettled in a way I don’t enjoy.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #27)

#103 – Sphere, by Michael Crichton

  • Read: 7/10/20 – 7/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 93/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with the night sky on the cover (or a black cover)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Given that I saw the movie once, twenty years ago, and remember not being impressed, I was prepared to be disappointed by this. I recalled a few key events of the plot, but not the ending, and of course I didn’t know what got changed or cut for the adaptation anyway.

To my page-turning delight, I was not disappointed. For a good chunk of the book, I can honestly say I was enthralled. Give me unreliable narrators, mysterious technology of unknown origin, and lots of action, and I will be glued to the page. It’s been a while since I read a thriller that was actually thrilling.

But this isn’t flawless, and some I can forgive more than others. Crichton’s writing style has always been more adequate than good, and this one in particular is heavy on dialogue and military jargon that hasn’t aged well. In fact, this book is so reliant on then-current technology for its setting that a reader who was not alive in 1987 might be mystified by some of it, and god only knows this plot wouldn’t work half so well with 2020 technology. It’s still good sci-fi if you also consider it historical fiction of a quite recent time period.

So that’s reasonable in my eyes, but the character issues…those are dicier. Part of the reason this feels so heavy on dialogue is that a great deal of the conflict is character-based, which requires more development than say, Jurassic Park. Not that it’s not a fantastic book/movie for other reasons, but those characters are pretty thin. Here, though, by the end those well-developed characters (relatively speaking, for a Crichton novel) are broken back down to incredibly simple archetypes as part of demonstrating how they would break under stress–the hyper-intelligent black man becomes paranoid that the two white characters are teaming up against him because of his race; the white woman is convinced she’s a constant victim of sexism throughout her life, culminating in the remaining man trying to wrest control from her; that one remaining man, a middle-aged white psychologist, cannot conceive that he might be the one at fault and is quick to diagnose the others as the problems.

All of it is reasonable, sure; it could happen that way. But it all felt simplistic, reductionist. And because of the events leading up to this flattened view of the characters, because of the pacing which had a bunch of solid action before a meandering and philosophical climax, I did feel a bit let down by the ending. Not in what happened, precisely, but in how it unfolded. The beginning was a big of a slog to set up the mystery, the middle was fun and strange and sometimes pulse-pounding, but the end was cerebral and reflective, lacking some of the tension I wanted.

#104 – The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

  • Read: 7/11/20 – 7/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 94/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have so many issues with this that I’m not even sure how to make a structured review out of them. I’m usually pretty good at that.

It’s too long and too slow. Lots of padding. Some of the padding I actually liked–sure, the descriptions of Janus Rock and how lighthouses work didn’t need to be as fleshed out as they were for the story to function, but at least they were interesting to me. The plot did not justify all the extraneous POV characters who took control for a few pages to little purpose, nor did I want to read the history of every person who had ever had even the most tangential connection to the main characters, especially the kid.

The first half and second half felt like different books. The first half is centered on isolation and grief and family and the lighthouse; the second half is “this is where everything goes wrong and now everyone’s life is constantly miserable forever.”

The ending is unsatisfying. It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it provides no clear message and gives no closure.

None of the characters felt sympathetic to me. The narrative sure spent lots of time explaining everyone’s motivations for their selfish actions, but failed to make me feel anything about them other than bewilderment or disgust. No one was great, but Isabel was the worst–I could tolerate her at first by reminding myself that her selfishness was born from intense grief, but when they got found out and she turned on Tom in a fit of ridiculous melodrama, I couldn’t pretend anymore. Her argument was basically “You didn’t help me keep committing this crime so clearly you never loved me or our fake daughter and I will hate you forever!” Am I supposed to feel bad for this woman? Because I barely did to begin with, and after that point in the story I definitely didn’t.

(As a side note, strangely enough, I was actually hoping this might be good because I have the movie tie-in cover, and somehow, despite his popularity, I’ve never seen a movie starring Michael Fassbender. I hear he’s great, but the only thing I’ve seen from his entire career is 300, and he had such a small part, and also I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I’m not watching this movie. Even if it’s better than the book, that still doesn’t mean it would be good, and since I didn’t like the story at all…)

#105 – Like Falling Stars, by Avalon Roselin

  • Read: 7/14/20 – 7/16/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is outside my usual reading tastes–I rarely read middle-grade anymore and I’ve had a bad run lately with fairy-tale-like books–but it was one of this month’s selections for the indie-author book club I belong to. I ended up with some strongly mixed feelings, so let’s start with the good stuff.

I liked a lot about this. Structurally it’s basically a slow-burn friend-mance; I recognize a lot of story beats from a typical romance, though friendship is the end goal here, as is carefully and tactfully pointed out from time to time. And that’s a better take on the young(ish) girl/immortal-and-much-older man dynamic that never seems to go completely out of style. Faeries and humans are different enough, and Nicolas himself isolated enough, that it’s more believable that Ann is opening him up to friendship and not romantic love.

I love that Nicolas is a crafter/artist. He sews, he paints, he bakes, he candy-makes. (Yes, I made up that word for to get a rhyme. What can I say, this is a pretty lighthearted read.) He’s stuffy and stiff-necked and insecure, while also being intelligent and yes, kind, when he’s motivated to be. His fumbling early attempts to be a good host are adorable, and everything related to the in-universe book Caring For Your Human was utterly charming.

Ann I found to be more challenging to know and like as a character. In the end, there’s some justification for that, and clues to her history hidden within the issues I had with her, so I can’t say much without spoiling that completely. But the very vagueness of her amnesia made her difficult to pin down, unpredictable. I can appreciate the craft involved in her portrayal, but retroactively it doesn’t really make me more comfortable with her or her role in the story. (Also, she treats everyone she meets like they already know she has amnesia, even when she doesn’t tell them, and every single one of them takes it completely in stride. I’m trying to chalk that up to “this is a fairy tale” but that threw me whenever it happened.)

Which leads me to the things I didn’t care for as much. Ann is one step up from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in function, and I don’t like that dynamic in general, but especially when 90% of the other characters are male…seriously, where are the women in Faerie? There’s the Queen, she’s important, and there are some random girl faeries at the Yule party. (I don’t recall any really being mentioned earlier on at the fall festival.) All of Nicolas’ friends/former friends are male–his predecessor was female but she’s long gone. The town librarian is male and has a boyfriend he constantly mentions. So the only other woman of importance in the story is the witch…who is not the greatest person at any point in the story for a number of reasons.

Yeah, sure I love that the book is queer-inclusive, but it rings a little hollow if the only queer relationships shown are m/m, even when romantic relationships aren’t the point of the story. Why don’t any of those random female faeries at the Yule party that Ann makes friends with for about ten seconds introduce their girlfriends? On top of all of the important friendships in Nicolas’ past being exclusively male relationships, this felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth. It feels like male relationships are being prioritized (aside from Nicolas’ growing friendship with Ann–but hey, her friendship “fixes” his other friendships, so it’s still kind of about men.)

So Ann does have an arc of her own, which means she’s not fully MPDG, but if half of her purpose is to discover who she is, then the other half is to make Nicolas less of a jerk through the power of friendship. I don’t think it’s the greatest look, especially for a younger target audience, that the heroine (who has a murky backstory for reasons) is constantly spending a great deal of her emotional energy trying to better the life of the hero who has a rich and complex backstory complete with lost friendships and long-held grudges, who is part of a richly detailed and complex society, and what’s more, who has power in that society. That imbalance between the development of their characters, while understandable eventually for Plot Reasons, made me uncomfortable the whole way through.

My last complaint is that this book felt longer than its actual run time. It meanders through the plot at a relaxed pace, and the narrative style often errs on the side of wordy and complex, which I think is strange for a MG novel–usually those are written more simply, with straight-forward grammar and structure.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #26)

#100 – Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 7/1/20 – 7/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 90/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a 5-star prediction [holy crap was I wrong about that]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Given the nature of the first book’s ending, I expected many things from this book. I expected Breq to take her shiny new ship and shiny new officers and go to the system where Lieutenant’s Awn’s sister was and get involved deeply in politics there and muck things up in an effort to eventually make them better, while figuring out how to stymie the Lord of the Radch’s next plan for civil war with herself.

I expected all of that, and I got it. What I did not expect was that it would bore me half out of my mind.

What this book did not give me was any sort of emotional connection to any character, least of all Breq herself, whom I was so heavily invested in before. As her identity as an AI is no longer a novelty to be explored by the text, in this story her near-emotionless state of being is a dull slog as she batters her heavy-handed way through one transparent social justice issue after another. It’s not that I don’t think someone should do their best to fix things like domestic abuse, extreme poverty and its attendant social isolation, and wage slavery–Breq has power and consistently attempts to use it for good–but there’s no personal stake in it to show me why she’s invested, because the personal stake I thought she was meant to have, the sister, had almost nothing to do with anything and definitely wasn’t involved in ninety-five percent of the politicking. It’s a variation on the white savior trope, shifted to accommodate that no one in this universe is actually white; but no matter everyone’s skin colors, the point stands, because Breq is an outsider with sweeping power who marches in, decides to fix everything, doesn’t do enough to consult with the actual people she’s “saving,” and messes up along the way. (She does get called on it and allows one of her lieutenants to set up a consultation office, but doesn’t do anything directly except to back off slightly herself. No matter how many people say to her face that she’s mishandling things, she’s still convinced she was right to get involved because Justice is Good.)

At points it was actually painful for me to read how thinly and obviously all of these terrible injustices could be fixed so that Breq could move along to her next objective. Let’s just stack every intractable social issue in her way so she can knock them over like dominoes! Breq can fix anything!

And then at the very end, we get back to the “real” plot where the Lord of the Radch is presumably amassing an army of stolen ancillaries in secret behind an unused gate in an empty system where no one ever goes, except maybe it’s not her? Maybe they should probably deal with that but the book ends without a tangible cliffhanger or any clear forward momentum for the final book? Maybe this was just a killing-time side trip that took up way too much space because the actual “mystery” of what’s going on behind that gate couldn’t possibly fill more than fifty pages and something had to take up the other 300?

After how much I adored the first book, this was such a terrible disappointment. I have the final book and I’m probably still going to read it for completion’s sake, but it will be a while before I can muster the energy because now I’m no longer excited about this series in the slightest.

#101 – The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

  • Read: 7/5/20 – 7/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 91/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with an “-ing” word in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a translated book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I tried to like it. I even tried to like it for its own sake, and not because I have fond memories of the first movie. (I’ve seen the second several times, not because it’s good–it isn’t–but I was just the right age in the years following its release to have an adolescent crush on Jonathan Brandis. Ah, I’ve made myself sad now.)

But this is just clunky, pedestrian storytelling at best and slogging stupidity at worst. This happened. Then this happened. Then Atreyu did this. Then Bastian did that. It was almost tolerable until the midpoint, while the story had some clear momentum and a goal in mind, but the second half is a directionless mire of Bastian becoming a terrible person. I might have appreciated the balance of symbolism there (Bastian saves Fantastica, then Fantastica in the form of his friends Atreyu and Falkor “save” him in return) if Fantastica in the form of AURYN wasn’t the very thing that was ruining him in the first place. What am positive message am I meant to get from that? Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Thanks, got it, not sure what it’s doing chained around the neck of a childhood fantasy hero. Bastian’s redemption isn’t even well-written, it just kind of happens; he only gives up AURYN after it holds no more power because he has no more memories for it to take. That’s not showing him to really be making a choice to set aside power, is it?

Even more than its garbled message though, I take issue with the style. It’s a fairy tale to the nth degree, where nothing has to have any kind of explanation or make even the slightest lick of sense. The “world-building” consists of a small set of rules that are constantly overturned for plot convenience. (Does Fantastica have borders? You’ll get four different answers depending on which part of the book you’re reading.) Events don’t lead to each other with any kind of pattern or logic, it’s all just “check out this cool place where Bastian climbs a big tree” and then “now he’s in a desert but it’s all different colors and there’s a death lion” followed by “now there’s a bunch of knights and a tourney for some reason” and then “watch him wander aimlessly while alienating his friends.” Everything that could have been wondrous to me was spoiled by the boring, repetitive language used to describe it, all telling, no showing. (Which, to be fair to the author, is generally the style of fairy tales and not a criticism I’ve reserved for this work alone.)

Sometimes I can look at a work for a younger target audience and say “yeah, I may not like it much as an adult but I would have LOVED this then.” But not in this case. I would have been as bored with this book at ten as I am at forty.

#102 – General Winston’s Daughter, by Sharon Shinn

  • Read: 7/8/20 – 7/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 92/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Original 2015 rating: 3 stars, no review. (I didn’t start reviewing every book I read until 2016.)

I’ve lowered this to two upon rereading. Whatever charm I saw it in the first time around has mostly vanished under the weight of the Imperialism for Dummies layout of the story. Sheltered and wealthy girl travels to a foreign country occupied by her nation’s army, learns that colonizing places is bad and of course the natives don’t want them there, falls out of love with her pro-empire army officer fiance and then in love with another officer who’s only in the military because he’s a foreigner from another subjugated nation and it’s basically the only decent career path open to him. Think England and India, because I sure did, though this is all fantasy; you could make a compelling argument that Aeberelle is a hybrid of Victorian England and 1940’s wartime USA, which I got a strong vibe of from the constant parties thrown for young women to flirt with all those handsome officers. Xan’tai isn’t culturally like India (in fact very little is said about its culture to draw any sort of real-world parallel with) but fits the pattern of older colony whose people become somewhat accepted into the home society, though never regarded as anything but second-class citizens.

The nation where the story actually takes place, Chiarrin, doesn’t closely resemble any culture I know about at all, but that doesn’t detract from the story.

So, as a work of fantasy, this feels thin, probably because it spends most of its runtime inside Averie’s head dealing with her teenage flights of emotional fancy and the growing pains of realizing her country is a racist bully. As a romance, it’s even thinner, because she has to spend half the book falling out of love with her fiance before she can “realize” she’s in love with other man, and he’s just not well-developed enough for me to believe that. Do I like Ket personally and would I want to get to know him better? Sure, the few personality traits he has are ones that appeal to my tastes. But most of his actual screen time is being politely stoic about all the racism around him, including the unintentional stuff from the heroine, and then saving her occasionally from scrapes she gets into.

If you feel like I’ve been writing a one-star review for this book so far, I can’t blame you. Centering a YA fantasy-romance on a white girl starting to unlearn her racist ideas and fall for the “exotic” hero who rescues her from danger…it’s pretty bad. (And yes, the text does call him “exotic and appealing” once.)

But there are a few good points as well, mostly in isolated plot moments that stand out as unusual compared to my other reading. The breakup scene between the heroine and her fiance was actually kind of brilliant for being a mutual decision portrayed as sad and full of regret for what could have been; even if the fiance is a pro-colonizing moral trashfire, it’s clear that he’s emotionally invested and really heart-broken–he would have been a good husband who cared about the heroine. There’s a serious plot twist late in the book that I won’t spoil, but knowing about it for this reread, I was looking for the foreshadowing I missed originally and I’m impressed with how it’s present, but it can all be adequately explained in context, so the surprise really is surprising. And the heroine’s characterization carries her right through to her happy ending; she’s compassionate and impulsive through and through, and that informs how she decides to move forward with her life at the end, when events have freed her from what would have been her life if she had married as originally planned, and she pursues her foreign lover. It’s clear she’s changed over the course of the story, but the axis of that change is intellectual, not emotional–she hasn’t had her personality beaten out of her by the events of the book. She’s just trying to be a better person now.

(I could write probably another five hundred words on whether or not her choices in the ending qualify her as a white savior or not, but at this point, does it matter? It’s clear I’m not recommending this book to anyone, despite my general love for Sharon Shinn. This one’s not even close to her best work, and though I haven’t read everything of hers–yet–I’d say it’s probably in the running for worst.)

This Week, I Read… (2020 #25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Read: 6/27/20 – 6/29/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A history or historical fiction
  • Mount TBR: 88/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #19)

The Bone Witch

#70 – The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco

  • Read: 5/13/20 – 5/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 66/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book that features a ghost, ghost hunter, vampire, vampire hunter, or zombie
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I think I would very much like the story this wanted so badly to be, but I don’t care much for the story that it actually is.

At the conceptual level, it’s got a lot going for it. Let’s have dark geisha mages! Let’s have our protagonist be a rogue necromancer plotting to take down the incredibly flawed system of her world!

But in the end, I don’t buy it. There’s too much focus on the world-building, especially in the constant descriptions of everyone’s kimono sorry hua, but also in smaller but just as irritating ways, like how the eventual reveal of the enemy hidden in their midst is a total ass-pull that relies on cultural cues and missteps that the reader couldn’t possibly know ahead of time because most of the world is just names on a map at the beginning without any real thought behind them. Sure, it looks like elaborate world-building to have all these places and all this royalty, but really, this novel is a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.

I see what the dual timeline/POVs were trying to do–showing Tea at the height of both her power and her darkness in the short chapter breaks, while telling us the story of how she got that way in the past through her own perspective–except that by the end of the book, it’s all just elaborate setup with no payoff. I don’t know why Tea is “evil” now–though I’m not sure evil is the right word, because wanting to destroy a presumably corrupt and ineffective world system isn’t strictly evil, it’s just revolutionary, literally speaking. And I’d be on board for a rogue necromancer revolutionary, except that this novel did. not. tell me how she got that way. There’s a huge gap between where Tea’s “past” story breaks off and where she is in the “present.”

And it involves the weakest love triangle I’ve ever seen. She literally asks one guy out on a date at the end of the book (the one we know she’s had a crush on the whole time) only to resurrect someone else entirely and call him “my love.” She hints very early on to the nameless narrator of the chapter breaks that she loved two men, so it’s not like I didn’t know there would be a love triangle, it just waited until the final pages to actually show up. And it’s dumb.

This disappoints me that much more because where the story left off, I mostly do want to find out what happens next. Does she raze the world to the ground with her seven magical beasts? Does she become a horrible dictator in the process, or a goddess of destruction, or a vengeful raging maniac? These are interesting questions I don’t usually find myself asking about the female protagonist of a YA fantasy novel. But if finding out is going to mean wading through 400 more pages of fashion shows, I’m not going to bother.

71 - Ancillary Justice

#71 – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 5/17/20 – 5/20/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to Maximilian Hell, the noted astronomer and Jesuit Priest who was born in 1720 [set in space]
  • Mount TBR: 67/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I’ve been disappointed by a lot of modern sci-fi over the past few years, but this is solid gold and I loved it.

It took a little bit of getting into–I can’t be sure if the beginning is actually too slow-paced or if my focus was lacking, which has been an issue for me lately. The first hundred pages weren’t dull, but they weren’t as gripping as I expected, either.

Something clicked, though, soon after that, and I read the rest of the book in just over a day. As I read more books in general and more varied types of books, it’s becoming rarer that I can say “I couldn’t put this book down” but here it’s true. I resented having to go to sleep with sixty pages to go, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I haven’t read any sci-fi that examines gender like this, nothing since The Left Hand of Darkness, and while I felt echoes of that foundational work here, it wasn’t simply retreading the same ground. I think it gains something from coming the issue from an AI perspective; I know enough about modern-day machine learning that I can imagine teaching an AI to identify the gender of an unknown individual reliably, with acceptable accuracy, would not be an easy task. At first I found it a slightly uncomfortable experience not to know the “true” gender of a character (except for those few who were, at some point, referred to in a language that had gendered pronouns, showing Breq to be correct or incorrect about her assumptions) but before long I had adapted, just going with it that everyone was female and that was fine. (I skimmed other reviews briefly, and some people are definitely fixated on properly assigning gender to the characters, especially the two involved in a romantic relationship–“which one is the man and which is the woman?” But I had no problem with the idea that they were both female, and wouldn’t have any issue if they were both male either. This book is very queer-compatible.]

Beyond the gender issue, though, there’s even more to say about identity and artificial intelligence. At what point did the experiences and personalities of Justice of Toren and One Esk diverge enough to be considered separate? How can a single individual fracture and become an enemy to herself? How does identity intersect with personal freedom or societal conformity, and how much personal freedom is even possible as an AI under a brutally strict regime with a dictator who has the power to modify the ship’s memories?

I was fascinated by everything and look forward to the next book a great deal.

The Murmur of Bees

#72 – The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia

  • Read: 5/20/20 – 5/21/20
  • Mount TBR: 68/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book set in Mexico
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%.

Too many POVs, not enough story. There’s no way this was going to hold my attention for hundreds of pages more, when one-fifth of the way through there’s absolutely no trajectory to the plot. I’m struggling to even predict what the plot could be, there’s so little groundwork laid aside from some vague-but-ham-fisted foreshadowing. So far the many changes in narrator have introduced me to most of the members of the family this story is (apparently) about, but in spreading itself so thin across so many characters, there’s no momentum, nothing for me to be interested in enough to keep going.

And then I set it down after reading an almost entirely unrelated, tangential sequence of chapters about how the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the town…but not through the eyes of any of the characters I’d already met. It’s about somebody else who goes to the graveyard when he’s sure he’s dying, only then he recovers, and when he returns home he accidentally frightens his mother to death, but then the rest of his family and, later, the church, hail him as a modern Lazarus.

First, what does any of that have to do with what little story we actually have been given prior; and second, I personally found the chapters about the epidemic had an almost disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek tone to them, minimizing the suffering and death, treating it as dull and humdrum, in order to set up the story of the “resurrected” man. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so bothered by it if I had read this last year when I got it, but now, with how the world is currently, it turned my stomach.

Regardless of that, I doubt I would have finished the book, because it felt scattered and tedious.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #18)

68 - Steel's Edge

#68 – Steel’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 5/8/20 – 5/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 64/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Given my reaction to all the other books in the series, I didn’t expect this to be so good. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say “I didn’t expect I would love it this much.”

I’m a sucker for wounded people finding solace in love, I guess.

Even more than the romance itself, which is awesome, this novel also gave so much closure to the rest of the series. Every bad guy is accounted for, everyone whose arc wasn’t finished gets to finish it, Richard gets some quality family time, Charlotte is introduced and put through the wringer and gets her found family in the end. I did have to put this down to go to sleep last night, but you’d better believe the first thing I did this morning was make myself breakfast and sit down to finish it.

If I wanted to be nitpicky, I could find quibbles. Sophie’s story was important but still a tad underdeveloped, maybe. We saw a fair bit of George but very little of Jack. While Charlotte and Richard weren’t as rushed as his brother and his lady love in book three, it was still kind of fast–though I buy it, in this case, because Richard is a very different type of man in a very different situation. It just worked for me better this time.

But those are small things in the wake of the huge smile I had on my face finishing the epilogue. I loved this, and I love that the series surprised me with such a great ending.

69 - The Complete Cosmicomics

#69 – The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino

  • Read: 5/9/20 – 5/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 65/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read an anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I am boggled, though mostly in a good way.

I found this a quite difficult and cerebral read, not at first, but increasingly as the stories began to seem less like “stories” and more like esoteric philosophical tracts and eventually complex mathematical proofs. The anthology starts innocently enough with a tale full of absurd humor about going to the moon for its milk, so I did not suspect that by the end I would be thoroughly confused.

That’s not entirely the book’s fault, though, because had I known just how experimental this fiction would be, I might not have chosen to read it during a worldwide pandemic that’s stressing me out and destroying my concentration. I know I’m not the only one having difficulty focusing on reading–I just read an article about it yesterday–but this book certainly requires that focus, that curiosity and questioning and interest. I just couldn’t summon it as much as I needed to–by the end I was sitting down and telling myself “Just get through one story, then go do something else.” Not my preferred way of reading.

So it’s a challenging book. For all that, when I “got” it, I enjoyed it. The early stories often relied on absurdist humor coupled with a sort of deliberate cognitive dissonance–the narrator could be a human, or they could be a single cell, or they could be a fish just crawled from the water to live on dry land for the first time in evolutionary history, but the tone and expressions and idioms were still human, so sometimes you had to remember it wasn’t necessary a “person” speaking, or that space and time didn’t behave the way we perceive them or the way you would expect them to. Things got weirder from there, with a story about falling infinitely through curved space, in pondering the eventual intersection of parallel lines via non-Euclidean geometry, becoming a metaphor for a threesome; with a single afternoon car ride being overwhelmed by passion in the form of extensive blood/salt/seawater metaphors; with a story about the mitosis of a single-celled narrator being likened to falling in love, but not with another, but also not with yourself, but also not a vague sort of cosmic, universal love. (That one in particular bent my brain a little too far out of whack.)

I love the idea of it, or rather the ideas, the weird bent on philosophy via biology and other sciences. But my poor beleaguered brain wasn’t up to some of the more difficult concepts and twists and pages-long paragraphs of endless pontificating.

Ideally, I’d like to come back to this in a year or so and give it another try, to see if it makes more sense (or at least is more enjoyable in whatever level of nonsensicalness it still holds for me) when I can give it the attention it deserves.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #17)

65 - The Dragon Keeper

#65 – The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

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

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

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

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

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

66 - Fate's Edge

#66 – Fate’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birchbark House

#67 – The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #16)

60 - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

#60 – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

  • Read: 4/23/30 – 4/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 59/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring time travel
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At the heart of this is a really cool concept–the deliberate time loop–that I love and wish I could read more about. Only, I’m not going to keep reading the series, because Jacob might be the most irritating male YA protagonist I’ve read in recent years. It didn’t make me like him that in his “normal” life he was so resentful of being the child of a wealthy business family that he actively tried to get himself fired from his job by being the worst employee he could possibly be.

Over the years at my various adult jobs, I’ve worked with teenagers who for various reasons don’t want the job they have (usually because their parents are making them work, though, not because they’re rich jerks,) and they don’t deserve books written about them. They deserved to be fired for being the disruptive little punks who make everyone else’s jobs harder.

So I didn’t start the book off on a good footing with the most important character, and the rest of the book didn’t really improve my opinion of him, especially the “I have nothing in my real life to keep me there” attitude. Dude, you still have parents, and they care about you, and lots of people don’t have that, so maybe stop being a whiny entitled douchebag for ten seconds.

The mystery of what/where/how takes far too long to get off the ground, though when it finally does, I will say the atmosphere is engaging–I do feel like Cairnholm and the children’s house are real places I could visit (if I wanted to) and the author never forgot the importance of time of day and weather for setting a scene. The barrage of peculiar children thrown at us with brief explanations of their powers and even briefer indications of their personality, though, could have been handled better. (I know from other reviews that I’m not the only one who got a strong X-Men vibe from this.) Also, I’m a huge fan of romance, but not when it’s Jacob getting entangled in a weak romantic subplot with his dead grandfather’s ex-girlfriend, thank you, time travel. Could have done without that. He even confronts her at one point with how he’s realized she sees him as a stand-in for his grandfather, and that cools her off a bit, but then a page or two later they’re kissing, and I was like, “Well, I guess this is happening now, they’re both idiots.”

But the biggest disappointment for me, even more than not liking or relating to the protagonist on any level or not wanting the bad romance or not liking the pacing, was the simple fact that I don’t feel like the photographs add to the story, when that’s supposed to be the fundamental underpinning of this style. The description in the narrative of the photograph almost always came first (I can only recall one time it didn’t, towards the end) and by telling me what the subject of the picture was, by describing it in words for me, I built my own picture in my head (you know, what reading is) and then turned the page to see a photograph or three that looked very little like what I was imagining, and it took me out of the story every single time, having to accept that I’d imagined it “wrong.” So, I don’t know, put the pictures first? Start the chapter with all the photos that are needed for that chunk of the story, let them intrigue me, let me wonder about them, then tell me organically as the story unfolds why they’re relevant? Because the way this is presented seemed utterly backwards to me, and that, more than anything else, is what has killed my desire to keep going with the next book, no matter how cool the time loop concept is.

61 - Wasted Words

#61 – Wasted Words, by Staci Hart

  • Read: 4/25/20 – 4/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author you’ve only read once before
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name
  • Mount TBR: 60/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Okay, I’ve never read Emma. I did see the ’90s movie adaptation, but not since the ’90s, so my memory of the plot is basically “Emma is an interfering busybody who eventually wises up and gets out of her own way.”

So this retelling got that 100% right, even if there are smaller plot details that don’t line up, honestly I wouldn’t know.

In some ways this is a difficult book for me to rate, because on a personal level, it was too relatable. I am not Emma-the-meddling-matchmaker, but in the past I was very much Cam-the-anxious-girl-who-is-terminally-insecure-about-relationships. I am high-strung. I have been treated for both depression and anxiety. I catastrophize at the drop of a hat. It’s a deep and deeply personal character flaw of mine springing from my mental illness, and I hate Cam for it the same way I (try not to) hate myself for it. We always dislike people (fictional in this case, but it still holds) who show us the worst of ourselves, the parts we either try to hide or simply won’t admit exist. Well, I’m perfectly aware of this flaw of mine, and having it shoved in my face wasn’t pleasant.

At the same time, it did make her sympathetic (to me, obviously not to other reviewers who can’t stand her) so it’s a really strange relationship I have with this character throughout the story. I don’t like her, but somehow also love her, because she’s so relatable (again, to me, for very specific reasons.)

So if Cam is too much like me, then Tyler is too perfect. Seriously, he never does anything wrong. He’s the most standup of standup guys, he’s warm, emotionally available, thoughtful. Certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s ninety feet tall, muscular, and handsome, but those typical romance-hero attributes were there not so much to make him a shallow, cardboard Romance Hero, but to be reasons that Cam thought she wasn’t good enough for him. The real Tyler is his personality, the caring man who keeps trying to read different books on Cam’s recommendation because she’s so passionate about reading and he wants to see if he can be too. He would still be my new book boyfriend even if he weren’t a six-six former football god.

He’s incredible. And that’s the problem. I get why Cam doesn’t feel good enough for him, because the story makes her incredibly flawed and him basically flawless. The only thing he does “wrong”–and this is an utterly forgivable wrong–is to cut off Cam in their fight towards the end by drawing an emotional boundary. He’s done with her wishy-washy-ness because it keeps hurting him, and he doesn’t want to drag himself through that again. Does it suck that it’s a misunderstanding and she’s not communicating well and she’s actually trying to explain why she’s a complete disaster so they can get it out in the open and maybe move past it together? Yes. But is he justified in saying “enough’s enough, I can’t do this anymore” when he’s reached his limit of getting dragged through the mud by her constant insecurity and doubt? Also yes! So he still really isn’t doing anything wrong.

Again, I don’t remember Emma well enough to know if the same is true of her own love interest, whose name I don’t even remember. So this fundamental imbalance between horribly flawed heroine and utterly perfect hero could be a holdover from the original, but whether it is or not, it kind of undermines the very story it’s trying to tell, that Cam is “good enough” for Tyler and just needs to believe it of herself, when the story as presented shows she’s demonstrably a worse person than him, whatever her good intentions.

I still really enjoyed reading it, flaws and all, and I’m sure I’ll come back to the good parts when I need a pick-me-up, but I do really wish Tyler had had a flaw or two to even things out between them.

62 - Girl Gone Viral

#62 – Girl Gone Viral, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 4/27/20 – 4/28/30
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in 2020
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It was awesome and I loved it. I think this is my favorite Rai romance novel yet!

I listened to this audiobook while I was ill, and basically did the first seven hours almost continuously one day, then as soon as I woke up the next morning I lay on the couch and listened to the rest. As far as the audio goes, I liked the female narrator just fine, and the male narrator was AMAZING but that’s mostly because he has the deep, gravelly-but-soft voice I like best, so your mileage may vary. On to actually talking about the content!

I’m pleased to see I was right in my hope after The Right Swipe that Katrina gets her story told next, because I liked her then, at least as much as we were given of her. Here she shines, an even better anxious-style protagonist than Sadia from Wrong to Need You, my previous favorite novel by this author. (Also nice to see Gia turn up, will we get her story someday? That would be fun!) Katrina has already taken the first steps on her long road to recovery, but this section of her journey is still plenty bumpy and interesting. I loved her, and while I don’t generally look at romance heroines as aspirational (they can often be pretty far from it!) I identified with her more than usual, and she makes me want to work harder on myself.

Jas is a damn fine hero for this story as well. Part of me was just screaming “You had me at bodyguard romance!” There’s an inherent yearning in those, with the combination of close quarters and safekeeping and devotion. But Jas goes beyond the base level of the trope by also being an incredibly conflicted but thoughtful man, who has a character arc about his own identity vs. his family’s expectations and disappointment, one that perfectly compliments Katrina’s arc about self-improvement, battling mental illness, and rising above past abuse.

One of my major complaints about this novel’s predecessor was that the individual character arcs of the leads didn’t mesh well and completely overshadowed their romance arc, but here in Girl Gone Viral, all three story lines fit together perfectly to form what’s honestly the best romance I’ve read so far this year.

63 - Fake Out

#63 – Fake Out, by Eden Finley

  • Read: 4/29/30
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an Australian, Canadian or New Zealand author
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This was really a mixed bag for me. Fake dating is a trope I generally enjoy, but the setup here was really stretching my disbelief, and also made Maddox out to be a complete ass. Damon was much more likeable to me (though part of that might be their respective narrators–I didn’t like Maddox’s much at all, especially how fake his female-character voice was, on top of Maddox himself not being a decent human being at the start of the story.)

I did like how open Maddox eventually turned out to be towards his orientation, and how he’s not sure about his label at first, though he does eventually warm up to the term “bisexual.” Part of his resistance to it was that he had a false belief that you need to have a 50/50 split between attraction to men and women to qualify, and he didn’t, but he educates himself past that. What I didn’t like? The “education” is really ham-fisted for the reader as well, and throughout the book we’re tripping over random bits of homophobia and heteronormativity, and there’s only the slightest, off-handed admission that trans people exist and that bi people are allowed to be attracted to them.

It’s trying to be inclusive, and it mostly is, but there’s still a lot of mess that could be cleaned up in that regard.

As for the actual love story, I really like that this fake relationship didn’t turn into a real one too quickly, especially not at the event itself that sparked the whole thing. I like that the two of them had to work for it and that the book spanned months instead of weeks (or even just days, as romance novels sometimes do.) Even if Maddox continued to irritate me in a lot of ways right up until the end, I did want to see him and Damon get their HFN ending, and they both get a fair bit of personal growth along the way to get there.

So it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. It was a little messy. And I don’t think I care about going on with the series, because I don’t like either of the side characters involved enough to be invested in their setup for the next book.

Also, slightly unrelated but disappointing, I really thought I was clever when I figured out that Maddox’s aunt was scamming him with her medical treatment, only she wasn’t. Seriously, in every single scene, she always gets someone else to pay for her cab or her meal, it happens repeatedly and obviously. She’s constantly described as a free-spirited hippie type who makes her living as a traveling psychic, which already makes her a scammer to anyone who doesn’t believe in psychics. She stays rent-free at Maddox’s place while he crashes with Damon. Maddox offers to take her to appointments and stuff but she always declines. You know, like she’s lying about the entire thing to take advantage of him and her clinical trial doesn’t actually exist? But then in the later parts of the book, she actually does seem to be sick, and that red herring gets dropped like it never existed. It was weird and off-putting to have this elaborate ruse playing out in the background and have it turn out to be 100% on the level.

64 - Lost Lake

#64 – Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen

  • Read: 4/28/20 – 4/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 61/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a character with vision impairment or enhancement
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s been quite a while since I read Garden Spells, but this novel brought back that same dreamy feeling, the possibilities of magic and hopefulness and love, the gentle tide of age and things lost to the past.

This didn’t wow me the same way, partly because this style isn’t a new experience now like it was then, but also partly because this felt far less focused. More characters are sharing the spotlight, and while I liked them all well enough, I would have preferred to focus more tightly on fewer of them, to get deeper histories, to get more emotional development. I suppose for a novel that’s as much about saving a place as it is the lives of the people within it, it’s okay that the lake is as much a character as any of the people, but the richness of the setting does come at a cost.

At times I felt there also wasn’t really enough tension to keep the story moving forward, because neither romance subplot is particularly gripping, and the overall plot of saving Lost Lake is a meandering path that spends most of the book hung up on a single character’s indecision, rather than some dire happening that needs to be dealt with now.

All this means it’s a very soft, comforting, easy read, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but I don’t think that aura of gentleness necessary had to be exclusionary of any tension at all.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #16)

55 - Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

#55 – The Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

  • Read: 4/16/20 – 4/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 55/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a black and white cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I seem to take issue with books that put their apparent protagonist in the title but then don’t bother to make the story about them. This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by the expectation that if a book is titled for a character, that the book should actually be about that character–I slammed The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender for precisely the same issue.

Johannes Cabal is not the protagonist, he’s the frame story surrounding a bunch of vignettes about the people who come to and suffer from his evil carnival.

The story is about those people, and it’s about the carnival. It is only tangentially about Cabal, and he’s not even the most interesting character in his own story line–that honor goes to his brother Horst, who despite being a vampire, is a better human being than Johannes ever has been. (A fact that Horst makes tediously clear during their final confrontation.)

But disappointment from the misleading title aside, could this structure have produced a good novel? Possibly. Only it didn’t, because the interest curve throughout the entire middle was almost entirely flat for me, with a notable dip for the one chapter devoted to little Timothy’s school assignment detailing his weekend, which was a phonetically written nightmare to the point of painful reading, and boring to boot. The rest of the stories weren’t quite that bad, but they were mostly humdrum, and they present a quandary about the larger plot that I’m not sure is solvable–the book seems to race by, not feeling like it takes the whole year Cabal has been allotted for his wager, yet including more vignettes to fill out the space would only lengthen the tedium for the reader.

The ending didn’t really save it for me, despite being about Johannes again, despite culminating the year of drudgery the carnival went through, because I wasn’t invested in Johannes, because I wasn’t impressed that he managed to trick Satan, and because the reveal of his apparent motivation for retrieving his soul failed to be the grand romantic gesture I think it was supposed to be. In making that motivation a surprise, in cloaking his real reasons behind a drier and more plausible excuse this whole time, I think it made him a weaker character and a less relatable one.

On a more positive note, there is one thing this book does well, and that’s tone. The atmosphere of this setting is unmistakable and pervasive, and though it owes something to its forebears–the acknowledgments cite Ray Bradbury for quite obvious reasons, and the viewing of evil and Hell throughout is strongly reminiscent of Good Omens with a slightly less tongue-in-cheek vibe–it does still manage to stand on its own as distinct from the pieces it pays homage to.

But in the end, I am not invested and will not be continuing the series.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

#56 – The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

  • Read: 4/18/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book featuring an LGBTQIA+ character or by an LGBTQIA+ author
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a banned book during Banned Books Week
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in London
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What a disappointment compared to the other Oscar Wilde I’ve read.

I knew the vaguest outlines of the story going in–just the concept, really. I actually hadn’t had the ending spoiled for me, amazingly enough, so I hung on until the end even though I had stopped enjoying myself before the halfway point. (Not that I didn’t figure out the most likely end for Dorian ahead of time, and I was pretty close to right.)

But all the wit and humor I expected, even in this dark tale, were absent, or came in the form of racism and sexism. Product of its times, and all that, but the antisemitism, while relatively mild and confined to a short time frame, is impossible to miss; and the misogyny is deeply grained into everything about this story. At first, I thought the attitudes about women (as well as all the philosophies about life I didn’t agree with concerning the blessedness of youth and beauty) were confined to Lord Henry, who was very clearly not a good person and was not meant to be respected as one. But the misogyny also rears its ugly head in the extremely casual treatment of Sybil Vane and her ultimate fate. Women in this story are disposable intrinsically, beyond anything I can forgive as simply being in-character for the reprehensible Lord Henry as the corrupting influence.

I simply don’t remember this much misogyny being present in The Canterville Ghost, and I doubt I’d find it if I went back and looked.

While I can appreciate the queer subtext, and I can appreciate the deconstruction of the importance of youth and beauty, I can’t endorse the whole package it comes in. There’s too much wrong with it from a modern standpoint to call it “good,” no matter what sparks of genius lie within the mire.

(Also, did the entirety of Chapter Nine need to be a tedious and extensive catalog of everything Dorian became obsessed with during the years of his fall? Every jewel he ever bought, every tapestry he ever admired, every foreign musical instrument he purchased for outlandish sums, every crazy or sinful historical figure he ever wished to emulate? It put the plot of an already stretched-out story on hold for far too long.)

57 - Craving for Love

#57 – Craving for Love, by Violet Vaughan

  • Read: 4/18/20 – 4/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 56/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF midway through Chapter 12. I have read some really bad romance novels in my time, but this might just be a new level of ridiculousness.

I’m going to outline what I read to illustrate just how scattershot and full of holes this “story” gets.

Chapter 1 – Heroine nearly crashes her car twice, busts the headlight, gets home, gets tipsy, calls her ex to help fix the headlight, seduces him instead.

Chapter 2 – He stayed the night. She makes him breakfast before he has to go plow the snow, falls back asleep, and when she wakes up decides she isn’t leaving town today after all, she’s going to stay and go skiing with her ex. She considers having a quickie in his truck in the slopes parking lot.

Chapter 3 – They go skiing. They go back to her place. He fixes the headlight. She asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to have my babies?” [the reason they broke up, last summer apparently, not even recently, was because he doesn’t want kids] He says, “I love you” and leaves. She breaks down.

Chapter 4 – Jump to three days into her drive to Colorado from Vermont (though it doesn’t really say how long that is after Chapter 3–did she leave the next day?) Stops at a gas station, looks through a realty magazine to find a local realtor, makes an appointment. When she gets there, she says “I need a job and a place to live,” asks about cleaning jobs, offers references, continuing, “I can start tomorrow, and all that I ask is that you help me find a place to live.”

a) Realtors aren’t temp agencies or help-wanted ads. Their business is not to find people jobs.
b) What was her job before in Vermont? It was never mentioned before she left.
c) Yes, their job is to SELL you a place to live, not to recommend the boardinghouse his secretary (assistant? receptionist? not clear) happens to run. ISN’T THAT CONVENIENT.

Scene break, then she’s cleaning a bathroom in a rental unit because she magically has a job now, and we meet her new friend/coworker, and apparently some time has passed because she says it’s nice to be getting enough sleep at her new place because of the curfew. (Yeah, it’s a female-only boardinghouse, no drinking, no smoking, no guys, with a curfew. I didn’t realize this was the 1940’s.)

Chapter 5 – Dinner with her new friend and the friend’s husband. HERE WE MEET THE NEW LOVE INTEREST. Who is a surfer-dude-turned-ski-instructor, and he likes kids, and we know he likes kids because there’s a sickeningly cute scene with him and the two kids of their friends. Also, he’s their godfather. Surfer invites her to go skiing.

Chapter 6 – They go skiing. He’s impressed enough that he introduces her to his boss and now she’s magically got a job next winter as an instructor instead of a cleaner. That was easy, wasn’t it? They keep skiing, get hot chocolate, hang out, and exchange numbers so they can go skiing again.

Chapter 7 – Second ski day (date?) but Surfer brings friends, one of whom is an obvious Jealous Woman Who Wants Him So Don’t You Dare Make a Move on Him. All the other friends are super hyped that the Heroine and Surfer are hitting it off, though, because “he needs a girlfriend.” At the end of the day, they kiss.

Chapter 8 – Gloss over a few weeks of kissing but nothing more vigorous in the physical department, Heroine is getting antsy. She heads over to his place with wine and a sexy outfit with plans to seduce, but in a scene so badly written it’s embarrassing to try to describe so I won’t, suffice it to say, things go badly for her while he thinks everything is A-OK.

Chapter 9 – Heroine is semi-avoiding Surfer for a bit, but then her ex shows up in town (of course he does??) and they all run into each other on the slopes. She’s happy to see Ex, but then when Surfer tries to kiss her in front of him (and the class of kids he’s teaching) things get weird. Heroine takes Ex out for a meal afterward and finds out he’s already dating again too, though his girl’s still in Vermont, but it might be serious enough that she’d follow him to Colorado if he gets a job there. Heroine helps him with a place to live by giving him the realtor’s information.

Chapter 10 – Surfer gets super drunk because he’s so pissed about Heroine’s betrayal about the kiss and her ex, she goes over with fast food for him. He drops the L-bomb but says she doesn’t have to say it back yet. She sleeps over without them sleeping together.

Chapter 11 – Chaste birthday party/sleepover with Surfer at their friends’ house, because they’re watching the kids while the couple is away on an anniversary trip.

Chapter 12 – AN AVALANCHE KILLS THE HUSBAND ON THEIR TRIP. A few pages to deal with that, then a scene break where a month has passed since his death, and Heroine decides to take her friend/the widow out on a picnic.

Yeah, that’s where I stopped reading. The book is 36 chapters long, and one-third of the way through, there’s a gratuitous death of a minor character. This isn’t a romance, it’s a soap opera, with drama for the sake of drama, quick scene changes, no coherent theme, no character arcs, just PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT with no break to let anything develop. It’s ridiculous.

58 - The Perks of Being a Wallflower

#58 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

  • Read: 4/19/20 – 4/21/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a neurodiverse character
  • Mount TBR: 57/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I can certainly see why so many readers have identified with this book and why it’s so beloved, but it left me really cold.

The best thing I can say about it is that Sam is amazing and we should all be so lucky to have a friend like that in high school. (If I were her, I would not have put up with Charlie’s nonsense for as long as she did.)

There are a lot of worst things I could say, because my two major problems are both fundamental, base-level issues. First, that the narrative style is flat and childish, beyond even what I would expect from young man who (obviously) has difficultly communicating his inner life to others. The letter-writing was aiming for “fifteen years old and unsophisticated emotionally” but actually came across as “seven years old and simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to express himself.” It made what could have been an engaging story pretty tedious.

Second, this story is trying to do far too much. I’m not saying no one’s life is this messy in reality, but in just over two hundred pages, we’re getting every ’90s after-school special crammed into a single book. We open with Charlie reeling from a classmate’s suicide; he sees his sister physically abused by her boyfriend; he witnesses a rape at a party; he watches one of his best friends betrayed by his secret gay lover, then later allows the friend to kiss him multiple times even though Charlie himself is not attracted to men; he smokes, he drinks, he has a really bad trip on LSD; he has a chance to have sex with his female best friend, at her initiation, but it goes terribly wrong. Oh, yeah, then the ending reveals Charlie himself is a victim of molestation by a family member, in case there wasn’t enough going on.

Most of those issues individually would be serious enough to be the primary thematic element of a novel, but here we’ve got them all shoehorned in the same one so that none of them has a chance to breathe or develop. The rape in particular pissed me off, because once Charlie tells a friend about what he saw, he finally figures it out, that what he witnessed was rape, and he says it out loud, and the friend agrees….and that’s that. There are no consequences, there’s no action taken even though Charlie saw a crime committed, it’s just a learning experience for him, a moment of realization on his road to deeper emotional maturity. That nameless girl’s pain and humiliation don’t matter except that they taught the male protagonist something.

Even if that one thing were forgivable to me (which it’s not, but even if it were) the rest of the book isn’t much better or more nuanced in how it handles these serious life issues. And what’s worse for me personally, reading this as an adult twenty years removed from high school but reading about the time period when I did go–I was a freshman only a few years after this book is set–dragged up a lot of emotions from that time in my life, mostly unpleasant ones, but in the end didn’t offer me any real catharsis to resolve those feelings.

59 - The Duchess War

#59 – The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 4/21/20 – 4/22/20
  • Mount TBR: 58/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

What? I rated something by Courtney Milan fewer than five stars?

I still loved it, don’t get me wrong, it just lacked something for me compared to the other books of hers I’ve read so far.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what, precisely, because it’s not any less well-plotted, or lighter on social justice issues (I was quite surprised this one was about unionizing! in a historical romance!) It was well-paced, and I even appreciate that the marriage of the leads doesn’t signal the end of the story, which is a common HEA ending. No, in this one it’s just a step in the journey, and it’s perfectly understandable that the characters have more issues to resolve even once they’ve tied the knot.

I think part of it is that the supporting cast felt weaker than usual. Lydia’s best-friend-ness and Oliver’s half-brother-ness were pretty standard and thin, and Minnie’s great-aunts didn’t have a lot of personality.

But really, I’m hunting for the reason I was less than 100% satisfied with what was still a solid romance I enjoyed reading. Off to put the rest of the series on my TBR.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #14)

Fool's Fate

#50 – Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 4/1/20 – 4/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 50/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a tome (500+ pages)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I would say that this feels like a fitting end to Fitz’s story, because he gets his happily ever after, except that I know the series isn’t done with him yet. I don’t know what happens in the last set of books, but I know they exist. When this was published, it must have felt like a solid happy ending, though–it wraps up almost everything left hanging about Fitz and the Fool and the Six Duchies chunk of the larger story that spans all the books so far. In that, I am satisfied and have no real complaints about the plot.

I am, however, miffed at the incredibly slow pace of this novel, even for a Hobb epic fantasy tome. Compared to those that came before it, the first half drags and drags and drags. It’s the reason this took me eight days to finish, despite being interested, despite wanting the rest of the story. This 900-page monstrosity of a novel could have easily been at least 100-150 pages shorter, and everything I would cut comes from the first half.

Did we really need that much detail and repetition of Thick’s seasickness and cantankerousness? Did we really need half-page-long paragraphs where every sentence uses the words “ice” and “cold?” Did we need to go through the sea voyages almost day-by-day to wallow in Fitz’s and Thick’s misery?

That section could have been tightened up a great deal without losing anything important. It took me six days to slog through the first half of the novel, and two days to finish it, because that’s where the good stuff was–the Pale Woman, the Black Man, the dragons, the culmination of the Forging subplot from the original trilogy, Nettle and Molly and Burrich. You know, the people and plot lines I actually care about far more than constantly reading about how cold and wet and miserable Thick is.

(I don’t actually dislike Thick, if anything by the end of this book I like him more. I just think he’s given far too much screen time, stretching out the most boring part of the book to ridiculous proportions.)

I’m going to keep going–of course I am–but I hope future installments will be pleasingly epic instead of bloatedly so.