24 Dec

Reading Challenge: November/December 2018

We made it to the end. Congratulations to all who survived. A moment of silence for the books we lost along the way.

Since I (mostly) kept track of my reading this year, there are stats below. Product links go to Amazon and are affiliate coded.

November 2018

SNAKE AGENT (Detective Inspector Chen #1) by Liz Williams: An occult police detective with a demon wife investigates a missing ghost girl in futuristic Singapore, and the investigation leads him all the way to hell. Sounds cool! But again, that sense of detachment I’ve come to associate with a British style was proven correct. (Again, not ALL Brit-penned books are this way, but when the detachment is noticeable enough to prompt an investigation, I’ve found British authors each time.) I’ve been described as “calm,” “collected,” and “robotic,” depending on how little the observer likes me, but inside, I’m a howling mess of emotion, and when I read fiction, I’m looking for somewhere to direct that mess. If your demon wife gets in a fight with a demon slayer, runs away into a dangerous city, and is dragged back to hell by another demon, I need more concern than “I’m sure she’s fine, I’ll just carry on about my business, and perhaps we’ll meet up when my investigation takes me to hell later.” She’s not a BADASS kind of demon, or she wouldn’t have needed to escape from hell in the first place. She’s in DANGER. Some emotion is called for but not delivered here. If I don’t care about the characters (because they don’t care about each other), I can’t care about the crime or the procedural or the world. I ended up DNFing somewhere after the halfway point due to lack of emotional investment. If you like the dry British style, you might have better luck.

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle: A counterpoint to Lovecraft’s egregiously racist The Horror at Red Hook. Set in Jazz Age New York, where the racism is more monstrous than the Great Old Ones. I enjoyed the first portion in mediocre musician/arcane book trafficker Charles Thomas Tester’s point of view, but when he “stepped out” and the story was left in Detective Malone’s hands, I wasn’t able to form a new attachment to a character I’d come to dislike.

AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor: Twelve-year-old Sunny—an albino black girl born in America and living in Nigeria—learns she’s one of the Leopard People, a group with magical abilities. She and three near-age peers form a coven and work on leveling up their abilities before their elders send them to take down a serial killer. This isn’t something the meddling kids took upon themselves—they were SENT. It was mentioned that these children were not the first choice for this task and that others had been sent before them and perished, but I honestly still don’t understand why none of the numerous adult mages got together and dealt with the situation before inexperienced children were given the assignment. They each have a mentor. There’s an INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL. There’s not a shortage of adults or a higher value on their lives if they can waste their best on to-the-death sporting events. I apparently missed the part where this wasn’t deliberate grossly negligent child endangerment, and I couldn’t get over that hurdle to continue with the series.

CRUEL BEAUTY by Rosamund Hodge: A Beauty and the Beast take that’s not obnoxiously derivative. Daddy made a deal with a Demon Lord so Mom could conceive; Mom had twins and died; Daddy’s least favorite twin now has to marry the Demon Lord and try to kill him for a secret society. Problem is, Nyx (the heroine) doesn’t have much loyalty toward Daddy or his secret society (wonder why…) and the Demon Lord (Ignifex) is kind of rad, in my estimation. Her first act upon meeting him is to punch him in the face, and he’s delighted by her spirit. She’s hostile and interprets their meals together as him laughing at her, but it’s plain to me he’s just enjoying her company. He neither rapes her nor accepts her offer to acquiesce to her wifely duty. His demon day job is bargaining, and she sees him at work one day. The guy SEEKS OUT the demon to make the deal—Iggy doesn’t target people to lead astray. The guy wants a woman’s husband DEAD so he can have her—in other words, he’s a selfish, entitled asshole hiring a hit man in order to get a woman who chose to marry another. Iggy warns him there will be consequences and offers him ample opportunity to back out. Nyx begs the guy to run away. The selfish, entitled asshole says, “Nah, I’m good, kill him so I can get laid.” So Iggy does his job and gives him what he wants. Nyx is outraged and unimpressed by Iggy’s assurance that the now-dead man was a wife-beater with pox that would have killed him soon anyway and which he has passed on to his wife, who will be dead soon anyway as a result, who will now pass on pox to the selfish, entitled asshole, who will be dead soon as a direct consequence of his own meddling with the natural order.

THIS IS MY JAM. (Please refer to my fondness for djinn who grant wishes to the letter, not the spirit, as a teachable moment about not being a selfish, entitled asshole—or at least not being smart enough to make a wish that compensates for multiple ill outcomes.) Now, Nyx being the product of such a bargain creates a certain bias against the demon she’s grown up believing is responsible for her mother’s death and her father’s poor treatment of her, which is totally understandable, so I can’t hate her for not catching on right away. (I was irritated that she so quickly buckled to her sister’s zealotry and “family duty” after she’d fallen in love with Iggy, but stories would all be very short if everyone did what I think they should right away.)

Nyx falls under the heading of “unlikable heroine” because she’s bitter and capable of meanness, and a fair number of reviewers believe that makes her unworthy of love—WHICH IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE LOVE STORY. She’s all alone and no one cares for her because she’s nothing but a sacrifice to a cause, so of course she’s bitter and also SAD! And then she meets someone who’s DELIGHTED by her and doesn’t judge her and loves her just the way she is. Sorry, folks, but if you’re bland enough to be a palatable love interest to absolutely everyone, having someone love you isn’t an accomplishment. When your sole purpose in life is to die murdering a villain and he says “you’re amazing, I love you, I’ll do anything for you,” that is a fucking TRIUMPH.

If you want MORE young women married against their will and sent to live in creepy houses with moving rooms until they break curses, I also recommend THE SEVENTH BRIDE by T. Kingfisher. (I read it last year, so no “review” around here.) No romance in that one because the dude is entirely awful, but lots of female bonding and a hedgehog familiar, dammit.

She stepped back onto the white road. It was still white, and it still glowed under the moon, and the cobbles were still as rounded as old skulls, and the leaves still looked like splashes of blood across the stones, but Rhea felt better. She was still going somewhere terrible, but she had a hedgehog, dammit. From The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS: HEARTWARMING TALES OF EPIC HUMILIATION by Aisha Tyler: I first became aware of Aisha Tyler on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and immediately developed a massive platonic crush on her because she’s funny and gorgeous and fearless and infinite other adjectives that I will never be and therefore must bring into my life via other people. The stories she tells in this book are entirely consistent with my impressions from watching her hosting and standup. I laughed. I cringed. I marveled at how lucky she is to be alive because being fearless is DANGEROUS, y’all. Though I’m not inspired to be more adventurous at the expense of life and limb, my crush has not diminished in the slightest.

THE READER by Traci Chee: Here we have a world in which there was a “burn the Great Library” situation (I think—there are clues to that effect, but it’s not explicitly stated), only one book survived intact, and it’s currently in the possession of a teenage orphan who uses her memories of forbidden childhood letter lessons to teach herself to read it while she’s being hunted by mysterious parties who want to either possess or destroy that one remaining book. Magical abilities to see the past and future and manipulate physics develop as she studies the book more.

This is another story with multiple unconnected points of view that are all over time and space, which I’ve complained about several times this year, but this one was able to keep me engaged trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. “Are these people her parents as youngsters? Is there a point to these pirate stories? Ooooooooh, those other people said something about making a weapon that never misses and this kid never misses even with a weapon he’s never used before so did someone do a Bad Thing™ to him? Is this similarly named person the same person as that one?” (One yes, two unanswered, one no.) That being said, POV ping-pong is far from my favorite narrative technique even when not executed horribly, and in the latter part of the book, bad people were WAY too eager to explain everything (active conflict disappeared as a result, making the part that’s supposed to be the most intense skimmable), so I won’t be continuing with the series.

December 2018

THE BONE WITCH by Rin Chupeco: At age 12, Tea disrupts her brother’s funeral by raising him from the dead, thus discovering she’s a bone witch. Bone witches perform important services for the kingdom, but nobody really wants necromancers around, so a mentor takes Tea from her home before the torch-and-pitchfork squad takes roll call, and she enters the world of the asha—witches who have various areas of specialty. She spends two years learning the ropes as a servant of House Valerian before another accidental dead-raising prompts a promotion to apprentice to get her powers under control before she causes a disaster. This backstory alternates with brief chapters of Tea at age 17, when she’s living in exile and raising daeva (this world’s monsters) for a vengeful rampage, heightening curiosity about what path led to that end.

Some asha are warriors, but the bulk of their education is devoted to being charming at court to win the favor of the nobles they will serve (and possibly wed) via lessons in dance, music, and etiquette. Their manner of dress is also exceedingly important, and these lavish descriptions are what made me struggle to maintain attention with otherwise interesting characters and worldbuilding. If you don’t have aphantasia, you might delight in the intricate details of who has what embroidered on their clothes and adorning their hair and how that reflects their character, but I can’t “see” any of that, so this large amount of description processed as wasted pages. Clearly a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” but it might also cause the story to drag for those who crave brisk plot progression. There’s no action until after the 70% marker, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, this may not be the book you seek.

And then it completely unraveled in the final 10%.

Spoiler Ahoy!

At the conclusion of the big monster battle, Tea says she knows who the mysterious villain is. Cut to a while after her homecoming and a Murder, She Wrote kind of confrontation with every character showing up and the villain thoroughly explaining her evil plan and A HORSE BURSTING THROUGH THE WALL TO SAVE THE DAY. Apart from that being exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, none of this seemed set up at all and was at odds with several things I clearly remember. Oh, and 17-year-old Tea’s undead boyfriend is a surprise twist contrary to what was indicated throughout the book, including immediately before he was revealed! You know how later M. Night Shyamalan movies are all twists for the sake of twists, like nothing matters because WTF is even going on anymore? The last 10% of this book is like that.

I won’t be continuing this series either.

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse: Postapocalyptic fantasy with Native American characters battling monsters on their ancestral lands. Some people have Clan gifts, and Maggie’s is killing. This makes her an excellent monster hunter but not fun at parties and also frequently raises the question of whether she’s one of the bad guys, which is a question I often enjoy exploring (except when the “hero” is obviously an irredeemable douchebag and the answer is “yes, you’re bad and I hope you die soon”).

I like Maggie, who is prickly and isolated and resilient. I like the post-flood setting. I like the Navajo folklore. I like that most of the other characters populating these pages are complex enough to be both helpful and harmful, depending on their own goals and motivations at the time.

What I don’t like is that the love interest shows up early, remains a constant presence, and sets off all my deceitful, manipulative warning bells. He repeatedly displays “these are not the droids you’re looking for” powers of persuasion that come in handy sometimes when dealing with human obstruction, but he’s also really pushy with repeated “let’s be friends and sleep together if you want,” which is gross when it’s coming from some dude you just met a few hours ago who doesn’t have mind-control powers and only gets more gross when he has proven ability to make people do what he wants. If you have mind-control powers and aren’t a villain, you should be super careful not to use them for nefarious purposes like forcing people to befriend and fuck you, and my tolerance for moral ambiguity in the case of even attempted consent violations is nonexistent. I don’t care if it’s not something he can turn on and off at will. He can still say, “Hey, I have mind-control powers, so don’t make any sudden decisions about our relationship, m’kay?” This guy gives no such warning. In fact, when asked directly how he managed to talk his way out of one crisis, which would have been a perfect opportunity for a decent person to come clean, he blows it off as merely having “a way with words.” My intense dislike of Kai ruined the book for me, since there’s no break from him once he makes his first appearance. He does, however, have a fan club who can’t get enough of him, so if you’re less sick of men’s bullshit than I am and the rest sounds good to you, you might very well love this book.

I know this is a lot of “well, YOU might like it,” but it’s impossible to look at a post containing so many popular, well-reviewed books and not acknowledge my opinion is the outlier. I’m well aware I’m intensely bothered by things that other readers either like or don’t notice, and you should take that into consideration, as well.

WINTERSONG by S. Jae-Jones: Fantasy rooted in European folklore of the goblin king. Liesl is the classic “unspecial” child. Her father’s a drunken failed musician, her mother works hard to run their inn, and her superstitious grandmother is generally perceived as senile, so the care of Liesl’s siblings falls to her. Her brother has a bright future as a musician, while her musical education is reduced to his backup accompaniment because she’s a girl. Her sister is vivacious and beautiful and betrothed to Liesl’s childhood friend/crush, and Liesl is tasked with keeping her out of trouble (i.e., the kind of trouble involving men who covet vivacious and beautiful girls). I can relate to being responsible so others can shine at the expense of the responsible party’s own prospects, so I’m on board for this.

As a child, Liesl played in the woods with the Goblin King and maybe entered into some vague agreement to marry him that a lawyer would tear to shreds because she was, like, five. She grew up, took on her responsibilities, and left those playdates behind, banished to the far recesses of her memory. The Goblin King, however, has not forgotten their bargain. He takes Liesl’s sister and says she has until the next full moon to get her back—that is, if she still wants her sister back. Liesl spends the next three days passed out in the woods until someone finds her and takes her home, where NO ONE REMEMBERS HER SISTER. Her brother is leaving to pursue his musical career, so Liesl doesn’t have to look after anyone and has plenty of time to devote to her music. Her childhood friend/crush is no longer smitten with her nonexistent sister and directs his attention to Liesl (until she kisses him passionately and he’s horrified because she’s plain and not supposed to be a slut “like all those other girls”—what an ass). Life is kind of better without her sister, but that’s part of the Goblin King’s game, and Liesl snaps out of it because she’s not a terrible person and gets to work fetching her sister. She sacrifices something dear to her to gain entry into the goblin underworld, which is right where the Goblin King wanted her all along.

This is similar to the Hodge book discussed above in that the jerky guy is trapped in jerkdom rather than being a jerk wholly for lulz, but he’s more predatory about it. I don’t recall him offering Liesl the option to join him before he abducted her sister, and then he has the nerve to make a big deal about requiring Liesl’s choices to be voluntary. Dude, you really should have thought of that before you ABDUCTED HER SISTER. None of her decisions after that will ever be untouched by your manipulation. He seems sometimes to be utterly baffled about why she’s less than loving toward him, and I don’t know if he’s that dumb or if it’s a failure of the writing to connect the emotional dots.

The most intense and complex relationship in the book is between Liesl and her music. There’s a scene after a mortifying rejection by her new husband in which she flies into a destructive rage and transcribes all that emotion onto her torn wedding dress with a charred stick in the form of a song, and it has more sexual tension than when she was grinding on the the GK.

There’s some “ORGASMS WILL KILL YOU” business that I’m too tired at this point to unpack in all its female-sexuality-oppressing glory. Maybe it’s part of the traditional GK schtick (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never even seen Labyrinth…), but I’m not feeling it in 2018. If you don’t want her to wither and die because you’re taking from her, have you considered GIVING BACK TO HER IN EQUAL OR, HERE’S A CRAZY IDEA, GREATER MEASURE? You don’t get to withhold emotional nourishment and then whine about how much it hurts you when people starve to death from lack of love.

This book doesn’t have what I’d call a happy ending. There’s a sequel in which everything may work out, but this one left me frustrated and unsatisfied rather than excited to get the rest of the tale, so I won’t be continuing with that one, either.

I’m a standalone reader in a series world, and conditions are dire.

And now, time for

BOOK MATH!

Here’s a link to my Goodreads Challenge if you want to see all the books in one place.

Here’s the archive of my “reviews” posted on this blog if you’re interested in what I felt like saying about 2018’s reads.

Total Books Recorded: 71
Finished Reading: 56 (79%)
DNF: 15 (21%)

I would have DNF’d several more in the first half of the year if I hadn’t been anxious about my self-defined challenge goal of finishing 24 books. The second half of the year, goal accomplished, I was NOT into persevering for its own sake.

Average Books Per Month: 6.5
Average Days Per Book: 4.7

I devoted all my leisure time in March to a video game rather than reading, so I didn’t include that month in calculating these averages. If you discount the DNFs that brought down the average duration, this is consistent with my sense that I can comfortably read a novel a week in the time I have available for reading.

Genre breakdown
27% Fantasy: 19 (DNF 2, 11%)
17% Historical Romance: 12 (DNF 5, 42%)
14% Urban Fantasy: 10 (DNF 2, 20%)
13% Contemporary Romance: 9 (DNF 4, 44%)
6% Paranormal Romance: 4 (DNF 1, 25%)
6% Horror: 4
4% Science Fiction: 3
4% Writing: 3
3% Memoir: 2
3% Anthology/Collection: 2
1% SF Romance: 1
1% Fantasy Romance: 1
1% Self-Help: 1 (DNF)

My genre calls are subjective. Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, for instance, was kind of a gut check that probably could have been resolved by further subdividing, but I didn’t want to get that granular and it’s my list, so you takes what you gets. It felt right to put modern-day YA fantasy under Fantasy although modern-day adult fantasy went into UF. Robots obviously went into SF, unless there was ALSO magic, in which case they went into Fantasy. Historical paranormal romances got filed under PNR because shapeshifting dragons felt more relevant to classification than the time period. And so forth.

My DNF rate suggests I’m super critical of romance. Because it’s “my” genre, I expect better from it, much the same way you expect your kid to rise above average. Also, it’s been an illuminating couple of years for male-female relations in real life, and I’ve reached the point where, at the first whiff of an abusive man in a book, I want him to die, preferably painfully. I might get that wish in SF, fantasy, or horror, but romance assholes are bulletproof, so there’s no point reading any further. I need the primary conflict to be something other than “this guy is an asshole,” and since either that’s becoming more prevalent or I’m becoming less tolerant, it may be time for another hiatus from reading romance.

Target Age
Adult: 62 (87%)
Younger: 9 (13%)

Diversity (or lack thereof)
Queer Main Characters: 4 (6%)
POC Main Characters: 18 (25%)

Female Authors: 47 (77%)
Male Authors: 14 (23%)

There are fewer authors than books because I liked some authors (7) enough to read more than one book by them. I left anthology authors out of the count because I’m lazy.

I can’t calculate LGBTQIA+ authors because not everybody broadcasts that information.

Authors of Color: 14 (23%)

As you can see above, I devoted the last 45 days of the year to bringing this up. Until halfway through November, it was only 9 (16%). I’d like it to be closer to 40% to better reflect real-life modern American demographics, but the overwhelmingly white publishing industry doesn’t facilitate natural occurrence of that ratio. That’s work I have to consciously do as a reader if I’m serious about supporting diversity in publishing.

Obviously, there’s room for improvement in most areas. (I’m happy to limit men to 25% or less.) I put every book through the same vetting process before I buy it, but I need to put more effort into FINDING more diverse books to undergo that process, since my passive discovery methods are overwhelmingly showing me the same limited selection.

Favorites of 2018

Books read this year about which I have strongly positive feelings in retrospect, in no particular order:

THE BROKEN EARTH TRILOGY by N.K. Jemisin

KINGS OF THE WYLD by Nicholas Eames

LIVI TALBOT SERIES by Skyla Dawn Cameron

SEA OF RUST by C. Robert Cargill

CLOCKTUAR WAR DUO by T. Kingfisher

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

I liked other books, but skimming through the year’s reading, these are the ones that evoke the most favorable memories, the most powerful emotions, and/or are likely to be read again. Everything else I considered including was distinctly a lower tier of like and therefore didn’t make the cut.

Unread

I didn’t re-read the Dark Tower or the Joe Pitt books or my favorite Johanna Lindsey this year, and I feel like I cheated myself out of an important self-care ritual in pursuit of some imaginary reading trophy.

My anxiety disorder makes goals a source of stress, so turning reading into a “challenge” is not a good idea for me. I kind of like having the display participation provides, but I might set my goal at 1 next time and relax after my week-one “success.”

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