26 Mar

Reading Challenge: March 2019

In a word, this month was rough. Five books. Four DNFs. I’m going to play video games during reading time for the rest of the month to cleanse my palate.

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TIME SALVAGER by Wesley Chu: In a far distant future, Earth is a toxic wasteland and humans have to use time travel to raid the past for resources. There are, of course, strict regulations about what can be taken and when so the theft doesn’t disrupt the future, and only a select few are authorized to do the job. James Griffin-Mars is one such time traveler, and the nature of the job has begun to take a toll.

I bought this book digitally, so I didn’t have a description to refer to when I started reading, and I certainly didn’t remember it from time of purchase a month earlier. I looked it up because, after six chapters, I still had no idea what the plot was supposed to be. The book description suggests making bad decisions for the heart/other organs of a woman and struggling for survival:

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

However, by the time I DNF’d at 14%, there had been absolutely no hint of this plot, including introducing Elise. He went on one heist that defined the worldbuilding. He had some downtime that established what his present is like and how he lives in it. Fine so far. Then there was another heist with no relation to the described plot, some more downtime,  a dream sequence, and a lengthy interlude in the point of view of one of the people who hunts down time travelers who break the rules. All of this felt like filler, which is what prompted me to look up the description. The the mission I assume starts the above plot isn’t even mentioned until Chapter 7, and I feel like it could have been moved up to Chapter 3 or 4 if filler had been cut and anything important buried therein integrated into the tightened timeline.

I might have given the story more time to see where it went if not for pervasive editing gripes that made reading feel like work. It read like one of the unpolished drafts I get in my inbox, and I expect better from Tor.

SHADOW BLADE by Seressia Glass: It’s revealed in the prologue that Kira Solomon can electrocute people with her hands, as she accidentally did to her adopted sister, which got her returned to the Gilead Commission’s training facility from which she came. It’s revealed in Chapter 1 adult Kira can also learn the history of anything she touches, which is useful in her day job as an antiquities expert. An old friend/father figure brings her an ancient Egyptian dagger to investigate. He fails to meet her for their scheduled appointment to discuss her findings, and she discovers him dead in a nearby alley, murdered by the “sinister Shadow forces” the Gilead Commission trained her to fight. She suspects his murder has everything to do with the dagger, and she wants to find her friend’s killer.

DNF’d again at 14%. This was a higher grade of editing gripe. The sentence construction was fine, but a lot of the details were vague (which is impressive, considering how little detail I generally want) and I found myself frequently asking “What?”, “Who?”, and “Why would you do that?” for things that could have been easily clarified during the editorial process.

Kira had seen death in many forms. She’d seen ritual animal sacrifices and animals disembowel their prey as they tore into still-living flesh. This… this was worse, much worse. Evisceration of a human victim was horrifying, even for a Shadowchaser.

That’s it. That’s the description of the crime scene, in full, that precedes her dropping to her knees and trying not to barf in the next sentence. Lack of explicit detail about the carnage might be a blessing to some, but what’s there simply isn’t enough provocation to justify that severe reaction. Half a page later:

She’d forgotten about the blood pooled and drying about the body. So much blood, soaking into the scattered debris and cracked asphalt.

How could she forget something that—according to the words absent from the page—she never noticed in the first place? The instant she glanced into that alley, we should have gotten a snapshot of the bloody scene. Every observation after that should be a closer inspection of the stage that’s been set, not out-of-the-blue information bombs about the scene we’ve been in the middle of for several pages.

Regarding her dead friend, she thinks he “had neatly filled the void Nico’s death had left.” This is the first mention of Nico, and it’s a full page (that has nothing to do with Nico) later before he’s given any context. That whole page of confusion could have been avoided by a slight change to “the void left by the death of Nico, her first handler.”

Slowly she climbed to her feet, then ripped the left sleeve from her blouse to wipe the blood from her trembling hands.

OR—hear me out—instead of turning a white silk blouse into ripped-up rags, maybe wipe your dirty hands on your BLACK CARGO PANTS, which will hide stains and also can be laundered. Don’t worry—she rips off the right sleeve a couple of pages later for symmetry, as you do.

She followed a trail of magic from her friend’s hotel to the alley where she found the body. She called Gilead to clean up the site. She left to ask a psychic vampire/nightclub manager what he might know. When he proved unhelpful, she WENT BACK TO THE SCRUBBED CRIME SCENE TO LOOK FOR LEADS TO PURSUE HER INVESTIGATION.

The sooner she got back to the scene of the crime, the more likely the chances she’d find some sort of lead.

And that is where I gave up. Because if she had stayed at the scene in the first place instead of jaunting off on that little worldbuilding tangent, she could have touched everything to learn its history and picked up the magical trail that led her to the alley in the first place and been well on the way to finding the killer. It makes no sense for her to leave, particularly knowing the evidence is going to be cleaned up while she’s gone. The only reason to do it is authorial interference to make the investigation unnecessarily difficult. As is generally the case, such manipulation comes at the expense of making the character look incompetent.

(Putting the content warning above the book listing because the spoiler box cut across the book cover when positioned in the usual place. Sorry for the continuity disruption the shuffling may cause.)

Content warning for incest.

Plot-relevant spoiler about the content warning

The brother ran off to become a missionary after he had “lustful thoughts,” but there was no sex until they were told Catherine was a changeling—a Fae swapped for a human during infancy—so no biological relation. However, this information came from someone whose stated goal was to make her “pet missionary” sin one way or another, so it was obviously a bad idea to take her word for it. The sex isn’t graphically depicted. I didn’t think it was much more scandalous than Crimson Peak, so if you watched that movie without significant upset, this book shouldn’t disturb you more than it’s intended to.

Some reviewers felt this issue was sprung on them about halfway through, but I suspected when specifying the cause of a distance in the siblings’ relationship was pointedly avoided in Chapter 6 (and I suspected it had gone much further than it actually had at that point). Perhaps being a youth during the Flowers in the Attic era made me suspicious that all family relationships are massively unhealthy until proven otherwise.

UNDER THE PENDULUM SUN by Jeannette Ng: Catherine Helstone pursues her brother Laon to Arcadia, land of the Fae, where he’s been serving as a missionary. Upon her arrival, Laon is not in residence, leaving Catherine with no company in the creepy gothic manor except Miss Davenport (her guide, a not-quite-human changeling who grew up in London), Mr. Benjamin (the butler, a gnome who is the sole Fae convert to Christianity), and the Salamander (the reclusive cook with a tendency to set things on fire), all of whom are cryptically uninformative. Catherine spends her time deciphering the journals of the first missionary, who died, and trying to keep a door in her room that leads to nothing but dead air from unlocking itself. When her brother finally returns, there’s little time to catch up because they must prepare the manor for a visit from the Pale Queen (Mab) and her entourage, who will arrive soon to visit her “pet missionary” and meet his dear sister before deciding whether to allow them entry deeper into her realm to spread the good word.

I bought this book because I have strong feelings about missionaries, AKA religious colonizers, and I relished the thought of the Fae violently destroying them and their invasion attempt. Accordingly, I began reading from a place of antipathy for the human characters, including the protagonist. I became friendlier toward Catherine in Chapter 4, when she was discontented by her inability to answer Mr. Benjamin’s theological questions because she had been “whipped for impertinence” as a child rather than given answers when she questioned the same things (relatable), and I further warmed toward her in Chapter 5, when she was tempted to read journals she was tasked with returning to the Missionary Society, untouched, and “reasoned that Rev Hale had asked me to not read them so that I would know not to tell him that I had read them. He couldn’t possibly expect me to restrain my curiosity.” That struck me as such an Anne Shirley-esque line of thought, I couldn’t help but be charmed. (By the end, however, I came back around to viewing this as selfishness and arrogance.)

This isn’t a brisk, action-packed read. The first 20% is Catherine exploring the creepy house and learning what little she can about the world from her companions and old journals, which could have been boring, but the strangeness of the setting and the mysteries arising from deliberate ambiguity held my interest. The activity picks up then with her brother returning from his travels, quickly followed by the arrival of Mab, a masquerade and a brutal hunt, and the aftermath of the destruction wrought by Mab’s visit.

The writing style feels old-fashioned—as in du Maurier, not the Eighties. Contemplative and in the narrator’s head rather than a sensory, bodily immersion, which makes it kind of cold. That’s not my usual style preference, but again, it was done well enough to hold my interest.

There’s a lot of “othering” of the Fae, entirely in keeping with the missionary manifesto. Mab goes so far as to spell out to Catherine that those who are excluded supply the entirety of the in-crowd’s definition and purpose—they can’t hold themselves superior unless they’re looking down on someone else. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, what’s the point of joining the club?

I was periodically frustrated by Catherine and Laon responding to statements with the equivalent of “Huh?” Granted, the remarks to which they were responding were often beyond their understanding, but I wanted them to try to figure things out rather than demanding to be spoon fed. Then again, that entitlement to be catered to would be consistent with characterization, so that frustration may have been deliberate. They were also too quick to believe known manipulators and too slow to put together clues about the big mystery—again, possibly deliberate side effects of the naivete and generalized uselessness of their station.

The afterword made it clear the author and I were approaching the topic of missionaries from opposite ends of the fondness scale, but the story worked for me anyway. Though I didn’t get my wish to see them utterly destroyed or at least booted out of Arcadia, I did reach the end thinking “you fucking idiots” with hope that they would encounter much more suffering in the future as a consequence of their hubris. Since it’s my first fully read book in the past month or so, I’m going to put it in the success column of my tracker while acknowledging it’s not the type of thing I want to read all the time for leisure.

Since nobody escapes editorial beast mode this month, beware of periodic fishhooks in the eye such as “The cake was dry and clung to the room of my mouth” and “The flames coalesced into a woman with a serpent’s tale.”

HIS DARK KISS by Eve Silver: In this gothic romance, Emma Parrish accepts a job offer from Lord Anthony Craven (who was married to her now-dead cousin and is rumored to have murdered her) to be the governess for his son. Emma gets to the creepy manor and learns at least two of her predecessors died, which is obviously a high mortality rate for governessing. There’s a creepy tower she’s forbidden to enter without being given a clear reason. Anthony is cryptic and menacing, but he’s also hot and loves his son and Emma has her mother’s lust genes, so she’s horny for him from day one despite his proximity to an excessive number of dead women.

I got all the way to 64% in this one before subtle gripes piled up enough to prompt the decision to DNF. The prose is fine, but in the attempt to prolong the mystery, there’s a lot of avoidance of the protagonist saying the obvious thing that would clear up a misunderstanding immediately. For example, she finds a gown on her bed, assumes it’s a gift from him, and wears it to dinner. He’s upset about the dress and demands to know where she got it. Instead of saying “It was on my bed, if you didn’t put it there, who did?”—thereby communicating that she didn’t steal it and that somebody in the house is stirring shit—she just stammers her way through a vague denial that makes her look guilty as hell.

For another example, she snoops in the forbidden tower, where he keeps a head in a jar, among other things. She asks him why he has a head in a jar. There may be a perfectly valid forensic medicine reason for this macabre collection, as he is known to be a doctor, but his answer is “To remind me of my humanity.” Instead of saying “Not really what I wanted to know, Anthony, so I’ll rephrase the question—whose head is in the fucking jar and what are you doing with it?”, she just drops the subject, as if keeping a head in a jar is a normal thing normal people do to remind themselves of their normal humanity, and then they have sex as if head-in-a-jar didn’t cause a huge freakout a minute ago, and that’s where I quit because I discovered heretofore unknown strong feelings about the amount of time that needs to elapse between heads in jars and boinking.

Emma is the illegitimate child of a governess who got knocked up by a noble, and her mother started telling her at a young age men are bad news. Her aunts tried to sell her into prostitution, and she chose to come work for a reputed murderer rather than comply with her aunts’ plans. She’s far from obsequious when addressing her employer and social superior. She’s not characterized as a wilting violet the majority of the time, so it’s irksome that in these specific moments that could be forwarding the plot and the relationship, it doesn’t occur to her to say the obvious thing just so the mystery can remain mysterious and she can be the only one affected by it. It’s less glaring here than the authorial intrusion noted above, but it’s the same kind of decision to complicate the plot at the expense of the character’s discernment. Tougher problems are the answer, not dumber characters.

Furthermore, I know the heroine needs to be isolated in some way in a gothic novel, but in a romance, I need to see them working together. Someone who cares about you should take a keen interest in your not being murdered in the same fashion as several others under the same roof, not leave you stumbling around in ignorance and gaslighting you about nothing weird going on despite the body count. Not being sold on the romance when they consummated it is ultimately what did me in.

As noted with the previous book in the following series, this is Amazon exclusive in ebook form because it’s published by an Amazon imprint. Good news if you’re a KU reader. Tough luck if you like epub or libraries, although the paperback is available elsewhere. Just be aware that if you buy that from your local independent bookstore because you hate Amazon, they’re still getting money because it’s their publishing house. I don’t approve of the Amazonification of publishing, but I occasionally click the buy button without paying attention to exclusivity, so here we are.

KILLMAN CREEK by Rachel Caine: This is the second book in a series and even the brief description that follows will necessarily spoil the first one (reviewed here), so stop now if you don’t want to know how that story ends to set up this one.

Gwen Proctor—formerly known as Gina Royal, wife of serial killer Melvin Royal—is on the run from her ex, who escaped from prison at the end of the last book with the help of his sick fan club. She leaves her kids with an ex-military friend and a cop for protection while she puts herself out as bait for a kill-or-be-killed showdown with Mel.

I thought the first book was great. I got to Chapter 2 of this one and said, out loud, “Oh… nooooooooo… whyyyyyy.” It’s written in first person, present tense, as was the first, which is meant to create urgency and intimacy with the character in whose thoughts and emotions the reader is immersed. Except that’s not what happens because Chapter 2 is her daughter’s first person POV, and then Gwen’s sort-of boyfriend, and then her son, and so forth, and the cracks in first person grow big enough to drive a bus through.

  1. Goodbye immersion, since you’re yanked out of it every few pages to be plunged into a different vat.
  2. But the vats aren’t as different as they should be. A 14-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy, a grown man, and a grown woman shouldn’t sound samey-same. If the POV character wasn’t identified in the chapter heading, it would take a while to figure out which “I” is taking a turn because their voices aren’t distinct enough. For example, in the second chapter, the daughter thinks the word “represent.” It’s not a particularly mature, sophisticated word. I’d believe her bookish younger brother would naturally think it. But it felt too stilted for her to use instead of “stood for” anywhere but in homework. It’s hard enough to make four people sound individualized in dialogue. It’s nearly impossible to individualize entire chapters of thoughts, and even a pro like Caine can’t pull it off successfully.
  3. Gwen’s established characterization got lost in the shuffle. When the focus was on her, she was too paranoid to trust people she’d known a while and who had never been anything but helpful to her. Now, she immediately believes a stranger who “used to be” one of the bad guys, just because she (the stranger) says the group turned on her. It makes sense that they would do so under the circumstances, but Gwen used to not take anything at face value because people lie, especially when they are known villains. She learned at the end of the last book that all of her perceived safety had been orchestrated by Mel’s fan club so he could keep tabs on her, but she just follows this trail of breadcrumbs with nary a thought that it’s all a setup—while telling anyone who’ll listen that she knows her ex better than they do, which isn’t supported by any of her actions in this book.
  4. A lot of information gets repeated because the reader apparently has to know how everybody feels about the same thing. The repetition of things the reader already knows drags down the pacing and destroys the sense of urgency in what’s supposed to be a thriller.
  5. Other characters benefit tremendously from being viewed through one POV character’s lens. Imperfect children in their mother’s eyes? I’ll kill for them, too. In their own words? Idiotic brats with acknowledged blatant disregard for the safety of the entire household.
  6. One of the desirable effects of limited first person is that you never know  for sure whether other characters can be trusted because you don’t know what’s in their heads, which works really well for building suspense in mysteries and thrillers, as demonstrated in the previous book. That’s lacking here because we do know what everyone’s thinking. Something might be a surprise to Gwen, but the reader doesn’t get to share it because we’ve already been warned what to expect by the person springing the surprise.

What’s left is no intimacy, no urgency, and very little suspense. There was no scene that wouldn’t have been stronger if it had been Gwen (and the reader by proxy) being hit with a catastrophe and trying to figure out under pressure what the hell she’d missed—such as, for instance, in the first book.

This was a devastating disappointment following my high opinion of STILLHOUSE LAKE, where I liked Gwen as the sole narrator. I had what I think is a reasonable expectation that trend would continue in the sequel. I quit at 60% because I went from being totally invested in this family to thinking poorly of every one of them. The skeptical old small-town police chief seemed like the only not-an-obvious-villain who had any sense, and his appearance closely preceded my giving up because he made the stupidity that followed all the more egregious.

The third book comes out next month, and I’m glad I caught up with this one first so I know not to continue with the series.

4 comments on “Reading Challenge: March 2019

    • I’ve addressed the “trashing” subject before (short version: not liking a book isn’t an act of violence against its creator or anyone else who likes it), so let’s focus on the math.

      So far in 2019, I have DNF’d 16 of 30 books (53%).

      I have DNF’d 10 of 17 books by white authors (59%).

      I have DNF’d 6 of 13 books by authors of color (46%).

      As you can see, AOC are performing substantially better by my uncommonly intolerant standards of technical proficiency and storytelling, so I’m going to continue seeking out their stories.

      Thanks for playing, though. I eagerly await the inevitable “reverse racism” claim for saying white people aren’t doing as well.

        • Oh, I retweeted a white fragility checklist that hit every single thing that’s come out of the Rita debacle, and fragile white people are desperate to “all white people” me.

          At least I’m assuming the commenter is white because I have never heard a Black person express the notion that criticism = racism. Conflating “I don’t believe anyone would rip off the sleeve of a silk blouse to use as a rag” with “I don’t believe a Black woman could be a doctor” is a uniquely white “you’re just as racist as I am” deflection.

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