24 Jun

Reading Challenge: May/June 2018

I set my 2018 Goodreads Challenge for 24 books because 2 books a month seemed achievable even in a disaster situation. Since they count every type of “finished,” including “I’m not reading another page of this dreck,” I was done for the year in April, according to them!  🎉 🎇 ✨ 💪 💃 🐙 🎆 🎊 🌟 But if you’re going to do that, you might as well count samples I looked at and decided not to continue, so I’ve imposed my own criterion of all-the-way finished. Going by books I’ve actually read all the way through, I’m at 23, so the official victory parade will have to wait just a teeny bit longer.

Links go to Amazon and are affiliate-coded. I buy all my books and have no involvement, professional or personal, with any party named below.

May 2018

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty: I had this on my wish list, snapped it up when it was on sale, and started reading immediately because I was excited about it. Nahri is a teenage  (I was startled to read halfway through that she’s 20 — for a streetwise con artist, she’s extremely… unseasoned) orphan in Cairo with a gift for healing and a talent for grifting. During a ceremony to exorcise a spirit she doesn’t believe in, she attracts its attention and accidentally summons another. One attacks her; the other rescues her. Her mysterious origins will be revealed.

‘Scuse me, I have to bake some bread upon which to smear all this jam of mine.

Unfortunately, once Nahri is removed from Cairo, there’s no evidence of the cunning personality set up in the early chapters. When they lose their mode of transportation, Dara (her rescuer/captor) tells her to put her thief skills to work and steal some horses. Next thing you know, they have horses and other gear, but the acquisition is skipped in favor of sitting around camp after the fact. We don’t see Nahri doing anything interesting after leaving Cairo. Things just sort of happen around her, and she reports them — except on the many occasions when she’s not where things are happening.

Nahri’s story is periodically broken up by Prince Ali’s POV. He gets to do things, but he’s not why I’m reading this book, so I found his story intrusive despite being more dynamic. After the first Ali interruption, when we return to Nahri, we’re told she and Dara have been on the run for a week.

… it had been the most bizarre, challenging week of her life…

That sounds interesting! Too bad we didn’t get to see any of it! And actually, when she reflects on that week, it sounds like they spent seven days flying on a carpet and sleeping on the ground and nothing else happened, so “bizarre” and “challenging” could be construed as exaggeration. Seven uneventful days sucks all the urgency out of being chased by murderous spirits. One day, fine, you’re staying ahead of them. Seven days with no action? Color me dubious about the danger level.

Nahri periodically gets glimpses of Dara’s memories, which are tragic and interesting. To recap, this is a story with a female protagonist, whose POV gets interrupted by a dude with a more interesting story than the one she is currently experiencing and who is a vehicle for sharing the more interesting story of a second dude, while she takes the most boring road trip ever to a place she doesn’t want to go but is going because a dude told her there’s no other choice. A tale of female agency this is not.

The interest level picks up a little by the halfway point with a couple of attacks and some near-sex and reaching their destination, but half a book is too damn long for the interest level to pick up. Snoozing through half a book doesn’t inspire trust that the rest of it will be worth my while. I swore to myself at 30% I’d power through and finish because I just want to finish 24 books so I can relax about reading, but by 55%, I decided powering through was an act of martyrdom, which is not my jam. DNF.

Honestly, at this point, I was scrolling through my Kindle menu with dread. What won’t make me sad or mad? Maybe I should read an old favorite? But what if it’s me and I ruin an old favorite because I’m in a hypercritical funk? I can’t even pick a genre I’m in the mood for because I’m not in the mood for anything. For lack of a better strategy, I picked the oldest unread book in my library.

The Wedding Bargain by Victoria Alexander: Pandora Effington is a member of a large, eccentric family. She calls her parents by their given names, has been given her own money, and never intends to marry. In some fashion I can’t recall two days after reading it, she ends up in a wager with Max: if he passes her test and becomes her hero, she’ll marry him; if he fails, he has to marry a woman of her choosing, whom she initially intends to be her timid friend. She assigns him the twelve labors of Hercules, which are obviously not possible in their literal sense, so he has to come up with clever alternatives. Everyone around them ends up rooting for and assisting Max, except his friend, who has an embarrassing history with Pandora and volunteers to help her make sure Max loses and isn’t stuck with her forever. There’s a lot of conflating jealousy with love, which is troublesome, but that yuck factor is somewhat mitigated by awareness that forcing someone to marry because of a bet would be a dick move and both parties intend not to enforce the terms upon victory. It’s not deep enough to stir any strong feelings, it’s not particularly memorable, and I imagine the blood pressure of someone concerned with historical plausibility would ascend to dangerous levels, but it was cute. (There’s a quality flag on Amazon because of the number of typos, but traditional publisher HarperCollins evidently has better things to do than clean up their product.)

Since lack of elevated expectations seemed beneficial to my reading experience last time, I went for the I-bought-this-five-years-ago-and-have-no-idea-what-it-is strategy once more.

The Bride Says No by Cathy Maxwell: DNF. These are ebooks, so I don’t get a back-cover description to orient me. And, really, that shouldn’t be necessary. The story itself should orient the reader. I quit at 15% still not sure who the main characters were, and if I’d guessed, I’d have been wrong.

The prologue is in the POV of a young Aileen, about to leave for her first Season in London, as she says goodbye to her younger sister, Tara. Chapter 1 begins in the POV of an older Aileen, returned home to Scotland after an abusive marriage and a divorce granted due to her adultery. By conventional wisdom, Aileen should be the heroine of this novel because she’s been in charge of the narrative.

However, shortly into Chapter 1, we switch to the POV of Tara, who has come running home after her own Season in London, three days before her planned wedding. She’s had second thoughts and jilted her groom. She wants to rekindle her romance with the horse trainer she rejected before she left, and lo! Raury happens to be on the scene. In fact, Chapter 2 puts us in his POV, and then in Tara’s POV again, and then Chapter 3 is Tara’s POV again. Okeedoke, we have a guy and a gal with a fraught relationship now in charge of the narrative, so they are obviously the main characters.

Problem is, Tara rejected this horse trainer because she wanted somebody better, went to London, agreed to marry a guy she has no real complaints about, and then jilted him three days before the wedding to run home and ravish the horse trainer she previously rejected because he wasn’t good enough for her. In other words, she’s an asshole. While she’s been gone for years, Raury’s broken heart has mended, as it should, and he too is engaged to someone else. Now, if he jilts his fiancée to hook up with Tara, he too is an asshole. Fuck both of them. I’m not reading that book.

PROBLEM IS, according to the description, which I have since checked, THIS ISN’T THEIR BOOK. This is the story of Aileen and the guy Tara jilted. Aileen, who barely had a chance to speak about anything other than Tara before we started faffing about with Tara and Raury, and this guy who’s more than 15% late showing up for his own book.

Secondary characters should not dominate a book. There should be no confusion about their status as secondary characters. The first quarter of a book, particularly, should focus on establishing reader empathy with THE PROTAGONIST, whom I couldn’t even identify in this book without a cheat sheet after reading 15% of it.

The now-eldest unread:

The Ruin of a Rogue by Miranda Neville: Anne is an heiress and quite familiar with the ways of fortune-hunting nobles. Marcus is a con artist who happened to stumble in a minor title with no money attached to it. He finds Anne enjoyable company, which will make wooing her until her guardian bribes him to leave her alone less of a chore. Anne finds Marcus enjoyable company, as well, until she overhears him telling a friend of his scheme. Thereafter, she sets out to bankrupt the bastard with the expenses of squiring her about and becomes deliberately less charming to be around. When Marcus gets word he’s inherited a dilapidated house in the country, he RUNS from London to get away from the wretched creature Anne has become. Too bad for him she’s still angry and also needs to use her acquaintance with him to repel the boor her guardian has approved to be her future husband. Accordingly, she pursues him to the country. Shenanigans ensue.

The role reversal between predator and prey amused the hell out of me. There was a great sense of equity in their mutual like, mutual dislike, mutual resumption of like, mutual realization this union isn’t going to happen—nobody went on and on believing the relationship was one thing after the other person had a change of heart, which is refreshing.

The main problem I’ve had with every Neville book I’ve read is that she creates “naughty” characters who… aren’t. Her scandalous widows and womanizing gamblers could pass for well-behaved debutantes and vicars if not for the periodic reminders that they’re allegedly terribly wicked. Marcus doesn’t become a better man—he’s always the kind of guy who would repair a tenant’s roof in the rain because it’s the right thing to do. In his head, where it’s not just for show, he’s terribly, terribly concerned about the appearance of impropriety. He doesn’t learn to be a mensch over the course of the story; he just sort of abandons his one bad habit of profiting from seducing unsuspecting women we’re told about in the first chapters and performs as his typical, good-hearted self.

The deeper I think on that, actually, the shittier it seems. “He’s a great guy! Except for exploiting women for fun and profit. But otherwise totally lovable!” Oh, well, if it’s only women he’s harming, who cares? He saved a male valet’s life and fixed a male tenant’s roof and checked on a male servant’s wellbeing in a storm, so he’s a hero!

Overall, the good and bad average to meh. The scenarios are fun to a point, but there’s a lack of feeling. I like rogues, but I need them to actually be rogues, not angels with one easily shed bad habit. And if they’re angels with one easily shed bad habit, I need that habit to not be singling out women as targets.

ADDENDUM: Now that I’ve finished (this is what I get for commenting as I go along…), I have to downgrade from meh. It’s non-optional that the hero/heroine in a story saves the day. They can’t stand around twiddling their thumbs while some random person who was mentioned for the first time a couple of pages earlier solves the problem. It’s an immensely unsatisfying copout when protagonists are rescued from plot quicksand by deus ex machina rather than using their assets to actively achieve resolution. It’s particularly a copout when it’s made clear the hero of this book and the hero of a previous book had the same thought about how to solve the problem, but it might be construed as “bad,” so the job is dumped on a throwaway character who just happens to be a distraught woman who just happens to show up at the critical moment without an invitation or prior knowledge of the situation and just happens to be walking around with a weapon at the time, as all highborn ladies are wont to do. Furthermore:

Spoiler Ahoy!
Casually covering up a murder isn’t exactly moral high ground compared to committing murder, so it’s interesting to me that this was the option chosen to preserve the “honor” of these two men.

June 2018

Once again pulling from the back of the library.

A Wedding in Springtime by Amanda Forester: The story begins with Eugenia being presented to the queen while the Lord Chamberlain is farting. She’s valiantly trying to maintain her composure, but a man nearby, William Grant, is also struggling to keep it together, and she can’t hold in her laughter anymore. Apparently, the queen has no sense of humor and laughing in her presence about an absurd situation is NOT DONE, so Genie is ABSOLUTELY DISGRACED. (Slow news day in the gossip rags, I guess.) Obviously, her social life is over, so there’s nothing to be done but quietly marry her off to the first man who will have her. Seems a tad melodramatic, but when a story begins with uncontrollable farts, I’m going to assume it’s not meant to be taken super seriously and go along for the ride.

I put this down for a week so I could work 16 hours a day, and I came back to the POV of somebody named Penelope, and her woes of being a spinster, and her acquisition of a position as a dowager’s companion after chewing out that lady’s grandson for abandoning her, followed by the POV of the dowager’s grandson, who tells his obvious-sequel-bait friends he wants his grandmother out of the house in preparation for his upcoming nuptials to *checks notes* another woman named Louisa because something bad happened with his mother and grandmother under the same roof, and then a mysterious stranger’s POV for something about spies and Napoleon. I thought somebody had gotten into my Kindle while I was away and put it back on the wrong book, but then chapter 5 switched back to Eugenia. Chapter 6, though, was Penelope’s again, and that is where I tapped out.

WHO THE HELL IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? PART II. According to the description, Eugenia and William Grant are the leads. Oh, is he also the friend who (in the grandson’s POV) offered to seduce the dowager’s companion to help get her out of the house? *checks notes* Yes. But he abandoned the proposition when he found out Penelope was the ugly, unmemorable sister of her family, so there’s that. Maybe if we’d been in his head for more than a minute way back in chapter 2, he’d seem like less of an asshole by now, but obviously all these other people are more relevant than the hero’s character development and the ROMANCE in this ROMANCE novel.

The oldest-unread strategy is not going well at this point, so let’s try a recent acquisition that I was excited about.

A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert: Ruth is autistic, which is unambiguously stated in the text, so no armchair misdiagnosing is required. She makes her living as a web comic artist. All of her friends are online. She has towers of comic books stacked in her apartment, which she prefers to leave only for Sunday dinner with her mother and emergency tampon runs.

I do not meet enough diagnostic criteria to qualify for a diagnosis of autism, but there’s some symptom overlap with my conditions and many of the social ramifications of having any mental health issues are shared, so there were many occasions in which I strongly identified with Ruth, such as having to plan conversations in advance and not answering the door because anyone she would want to see knows to schedule a meet in advance and the joys of having an unexpressive expression to which people assign whatever wrong meaning suits them at the time.

Her new neighbor, Evan, is NICE — to everyone in need, not just to a woman he wants to get in the sack. His love language is food. He’s horrified to learn Ruth lives on toast and instant noodles, so he brings her shepherd’s pie, lasagna, Bolognese… Shared meals turn into three-hour conversations. For someone who has to script conversations, a partner who makes communication easy is MAGICAL.

People who would say to someone in real life “that’s stupid, why would anyone act like that” (you know who you are) will no doubt hate this book because the existence of people like Ruth (and me) offends their delicate sensibilities. But if you’re sick of happily ever after, even in fiction, being a perk reserved for people whose sole flaw barely rises to the level of a quirk, this book is a rare and precious example that you don’t have to be >90% “normal” to deserve love. You can be 100% you, warts and all, and a decent human can take the time to know and love you as-is.

At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran: For those who like history to be prominent in a historical romance, this one takes place amidst the 1715 Jacobite rising. Nora Colville’s father has been impeached and driven from England, and her brother is arming Jacobite rebels. Adrian Ferrers is sent by King George to stake out the Colville estate and grab the brother upon his return. Everybody’s a backstabbing bastard. Court is not presented in the fun light it typically is but rather as the scene of vicious political maneuvering where a good nature will get you eaten. The history is, shall we say, relevant to the story.

Nora and Adrian had a love affair six years ago, which was not allowed by her family because he was Catholic. Her brother and father nearly killed him and stuck him on a ship, and by the time he was able to get back to Nora, they’d married her off to someone else. Upon yet another reminder that his faith brought him nothing but misery in this country, Adrian renounced it and ingratiated himself with the power players in government to protect what little he had left. Now they’ve flung him back toward this woman who lies at the heart of the ruthless man he’s become. Her loyalty to her brother, who is going to get her killed, enrages Adrian because, of course, he still loves her. Ultimately, Nora has to choose whether blood or love deserves her loyalty more.

Duran puts her characters in ugly circumstances in which it’s not possible for them to play nicely with one another. They will hurt each other, and it will mostly not be an accident. (In this one, he tortures her with sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique, and it’s rightly referred to as torture. She poisons his men and turns him over to rebels. He forces her into marriage by an unscrupulous parson. It’s not pretty.) But they both have reasons for being as they are, as if they are real human beings living in a world that shapes who they must be at their core, in ways they can’t simply pivot from in rejection of the old to make way for happily ever after. Because they feel like real people in real dire situations (her books are also in-depth history lessons in events an American public school education doesn’t even mention), I’m compelled to stick with them even when they’re behaving despicably because I know they’ll right themselves eventually. The best analogy I can come up with (which admittedly isn’t good) is a teething child — they’re nothing but screams and drool-rashed chins, but they’re in pain and not in control of what’s happening to them, so you cuddle them and let them rupture your eardrums at close range until the point breaks through and relief comes at last.

If you want a lighthearted, fun lark of a romance, pick a different author. If you need to see awfulness and despair transform into love and happiness to bolster your hope that bridging such a great chasm is possible, that’s Duran’s specialty.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells: Murderbot! The governor module that controls the behavior of the robot protagonist is broken, so she (not gendered in the story, which is told in first person, but she feels like a she to me, for the purposes of this post) could theoretically just slaughter all the troublesome humans. Instead, she prefers to keep her rogue condition on the down low by performing her security duties as would be dictated if she were still required to follow orders while she binge watches the space equivalent of Netflix.

The exploration company for which Murderbot is providing security services has received bad data likely to get them killed. Murderbot has better files than the humans do, and it occurred to this reader long before it occurred to Murderbot (because I’m always looking for treachery and even Murderbots are more trusting than I) that the reason for this is her lack of interest in installing the mandatory updates sent by a malignant outsider. Thus, being rebelliously lazy saves the lives of the people she’s supposed to protect.

I’m not a sci-fi fan in general, but what’s not to love about a socially awkward, quietly insubordinate, couch potato robot who’s pessimistic when she can be bothered to rise above apathy? (Hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite put my finger on who it reminds me of…)

The Restorer by Amanda Stevens: Amelia Gray specializes in graveyard restoration. She also sees ghosts — and ignores them because giving them attention gets their attention and makes them hungry for more. When Amelia was nine years old, her father gave her a set of rules for dealing with ghosts (which boil down to “DON’T”), which she has always followed… until a murder victim is disposed of in the graveyard she’s currently restoring and she’s thrust into the middle of a police investigation. Her interest in the homicide detective assigned to the case extends to the ghosts haunting him, and her curiosity has consequences. In short, she should have listened to daddy.

There’s a lot to like here. Each setting — restaurants, homes, archive room in a university dungeon, each individual graveyard — has a real sense of place and personality. The characters are well defined, so even as the cast sprawled, I had no difficulty keeping track of who was who (which is often a problem for me when characters have no more substance than their names on the page). The restoration, the mystery surrounding the murders, and the paranormal element were all interesting.

The fly in the ointment was the budding romance. (This is not a romance novel but a series in which there is a love interest. They don’t get together in this book. Amelia, in fact, bolts while trying to get it on.) I had a lot to say about how the tone of the attraction was jarring in contrast to the surrounding story and seemed out of character, but I’m going to opt not to armchair quarterback it. Suffice it to say I felt the “romance” was the weakest part of the book. The lack of the guy’s POV to demystify why he also was behaving in a way that seemed inconsistent with his character might be a factor. I just couldn’t buy that these two people in this situation would have any difficulty at all keeping a professional distance, so it seemed forced.

The other ointment fly is the worst formatting I’ve seen in a trad pubbed book. The first paragraph of a section is normal, and then everything else is indented from both sides so the lines are short, with a ragged right margin.

Picture of Kindle screen showing irregular margin settings.

I had to change my font settings to “compressed” to reduce eye fatigue from rapid returns. And then there are quote sections that are further indented from both sides, so you get entire epitaphs that are one or two characters per line.

Photo of Kindle showing one or two characters per line of text.

For the length of a four-line inscription, which means half a dozen screens of vertical reading, which makes the reading experience unnecessarily difficult. How hard is it to have someone look at a book before sending it out into the world and say, “Hm, this looks bad and needs to be fixed before it gets into readers’ hands”? Yes, the content of the book is the point of the book, but creating unnecessary barriers to the frictionless enjoyment of that content isn’t doing it any favors.

Subhuman by Michael McBride:  A team with diverse areas of study (seismology, crop circles, forensic anthropology, cryptography, etc.) is brought to Antarctica by a grandpa-in-Jurassic-Park figure to investigate what he found in a lake beneath the ice sheet. We get several chapters to set up the various specialties of the characters, several of whom have encountered the remains of human-like beings with elongated skulls. They’re all summoned to an established research operation in Antarctica where more such remains have been discovered, and they immediately(?) figure out how to open a giant underwater pyramid. They keep encountering evidence that modern (within the last hundred years) humans have gotten this far before them and DIED HORRIBLY,  but science seems to compel people to keep looking until they find the thing that makes them DIE HORRIBLY.

In contrast to the book above, I had trouble keeping track of the characters. Despite being in their POV with their names at the start of their chapters, they weren’t distinct other than their careers, and I couldn’t tell them apart without that functional context. If you gave me a list of names, the only one I would be able to attribute to a character would be Richards because rich, jovial, bad judgment is a dead ringer for dinosaur granddad and made an impression. Maaaaybe Roche, after the midpoint, since he took the lead, but I’d have to check his intro chapter to confirm his “job,” so that doesn’t really meet memorability requirements. I prefer strong characterization in tandem with an interesting plot, but if I had to choose, I’d rather have an interesting plot with bland characters than interesting characters who don’t do anything (see the first book in this post), so I was willing to play along, particularly since it’s the sort of book in which most of the characters are going to DIE HORRIBLY, anyway.

There are things left unresolved at the end (it’s a series, after all), but unlike, say, The Hobbit movie, the survivors at least reached their damn destination to provide a closure point for this individual installment. Will read the sequel, Forsaken.

The last week of the month won’t be conducive to reading, so I’ll wrap it up ONE BOOK SHORT of my victory parade.

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