Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part II

4 May

I am almost on time with my final wrapup this month. So proud. Actually I had 3 instead of 2 for April (Part I and Dewey’s) so it’s okay that this is not bang on the first of the month. April ended up being a pretty great reading month: 22 books finished! Of course that was with the huge boost Dewey’s gave me. Last year I was regularly doing 20+ a month without readathons, I wonder what happened? Oh, I know: in 2016 I spent part of each day reading (as opposed to my usual, only-before-bed habit) and in 2017 I’ve been playing so many video games. The 100 hours I’ve sunk into Persona 5 could be, like, 40+ books read but what fun would that be.

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Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. Finished April 16th. Sometimes I’ll be really enjoying a book, and suddenly come to a part where you can see the seams coming undone. It begins to drift further and further from what I want it to be, until I wind up at a hot mess of an ending. Sadly, that happened with Perfect Little World: a book with a lot of potential that somehow manages to squander every one of its interesting premises.

I’ll start with the good, because I really don’t want to be massively negative about this. I gave it 3 stars, after all! And that is mostly because of how much I enjoyed the first 2/3rds or so. PLW is about the ‘Infinite Family Project,’ where ten families (9 sets of parents and one single mom, Izzy, our main character) raise their children communally. It sounds like a hippie commune, but it’s led by a child psychologist and funded by a billionaire. So it’s a really scientific commune! With a premise like that, you expect one of two things: a really annoying utopia, or a utopia-turned-dystopia narrative. Thankfully, PLW skirts the border between the two and gives us a story grounded in humanity.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not the wreck the reader (and the outside world in the novel) expect. Sure, there is tension and not all the parents get along. Sure, our main doctor has a host of issues from his parent’s bizarre choices when raising him. Sure, the woman funding the project is really, really old. But for the most part, it presents a nuanced and mainly positive spin on the idea.

However… I had a lot of issues. Many of them I could have overlooked had the ending not been so terribly trite, rushed, and sappy. For instance, our main character Izzy is so annoying. She’s perfect. Perfect grades in school (literally), she’s good at everything she does, she’s beautiful, she’s kind. Kevin Wilson tries to balance her away from being a Mary Sue with a tragic backstory (ironically one of the trademarks of a Mary Sue) and her strange sense of aloofness. Izzy doesn’t like being close to people. She comes off very holier-than-thou yet incredibly boring at the same time. But she’s a decent narrator when she is not talking about herself, so the whole book is not through this “woe is me, poor damaged but perfect girl” lens.

I think the moment I realized I was not going to love this book was when Izzy started falling for the doctor leading the project (this is not a spoiler, it’s mentioned in the prologue). I actually said “oh god really? We’re going there?” when it happened. It’s SO TRITE. Only single woman on the project, only single man, both are damaged by ~rough childhood~, of course they end up together. I though Izzy was actually going to get the “you know what? I don’t need a man” narrative which I would have really respected. Instead it’s so chick-lit-y and sappy and bleh.

The last half of the book feels very rushed. We get quite a few pre-IFP chapters with Izzy, and the intro chapters to the project itself are quite long. And after that, every year in the IFP is only one chapter, with some of them being quite short (like 20 pages short). It’s so rushed! We don’t get the in-depth look at either the children’s development or the parental relations. A LOT of these chapters are spent on Izzy at art school (a plot that goes nowhere because she doesn’t even want to be an artist, sigh).

And the ending! Oh god. It’s so sappy and wrapped in a bow. I was really disappointed in it, mainly because it doesn’t fit at all what we are told about the family & children. Literally makes no sense in its own universe, which is one of the worst things you can do with an ending.

I do think this book had a lot of potential. I think Wilson was too smitten with Izzy as a character, and needed to cut that cord badly. The book should have had a different narrator every year (we follow a different set of parents, for example) and should have been much longer (or the intro chapters should have been cut). Too much of this novel felt like useless fluff to the narrative, and we were left with so little meat on the bone.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone Illustrated, by J. K. Rowling. Finished April 17th. I mean, it’s Harry Potter, what is there to say? I got the illustrated versions of books 1 & 2 for Christmas, and it felt like the perfect time to read them. I actually haven’t re-read the first book in… many years! Let me tell you, I have re-read 3 through 7 dozens of times (no exaggeration) but I tend to skip the early novels on my re-reads. Mostly because they just don’t have enough meat on them.

But I was surprised at how much of Sorcerer’s Stone becomes important down the line. So many hints and nudges toward the final reveals. It’s clear that Rowling had a really tight gameplan from the very beginning. Still far from my favorite of the series, but I really appreciated it more this time around.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marlena, by Julie Buntin. Finished April 18th. I always find it hardest to discuss books I adored. If it’s a book I hate, there’s lots to talk about. If it’s a middle of the road book, it’s easy to point out both the flaws and the positives. But when I want to do nothing but gush? I find that a lot harder, since I want to avoid spoilers but I also want to do nothing but talk about how much I adored it. Which isn’t that interesting, usually. Yet here we are.

I am a sucker for the toxic female friendship trope. It’s usually done well enough, but I so rarely find a book that really nails that heady, teenage-friendship-gone-wrong feeling I am looking for. Last year’s Girls on Fire was close but no cigar, and I was a bit worried Marlena would be in that YA-trying-to-be-adult niche that just… it doesn’t work. Pick a side, don’t mix the two! Thankfully, Marlena is head and shoulders above pretty much every other book I’ve read in this micro-genre.

I think the thing that makes it so great is that our narrator, Cat, is telling her story as an adult. She is fully grown and reflecting back on her brief but bright-burning friendship with Marlena, her beautiful but troubled next door neighbor. Her life is still clearly affected by her months with Marlena, which is a touch I adored. So often characters go through trauma and then end up totally fine as adults (or have some stupid single flaw like ~can’t stay in one place~). Adult-Cat is an alcoholic, an issue that clearly starts when she begins drinking with Marlena.

While this is a book about teen girls, it is not at all fluffy or frivolous or lacking in depth. It tackles some really serious issues, and Cat’s adult voice adds a layer of gravitas to the tale. Plus, we know right off the bat that Marlena dies after Cat knows her for less than a year. This is a tragedy, pure and simple. There’s really no bright light in the darkness, and while the ending gives us a tiny glimmer of hope for adult-Cat it’s just bleak in general. At the same time, all the teenage dialogue and stupidity feels completely authentic. It’s really hard to write a book about teenagers without it feeling either childish or like an adult trying to be “hip” but Marlena is just… perfect.

I loved everything about this book. The writing was absolutely gorgeous, from the stunning opening line (“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”) to the poignant and bittersweet end. The characters are real and flawed and human. The story is compelling but never over-the-top or melodramatic. My only complaint is that I wanted it to be so much longer, I wanted my time in this story to never end.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Penric and the Shaman, by  Lois McMaster Bujold. Hugo Nominated Novella. Finished April 24th. The last Hugo-nominated novella! And for me, my least-favorite (though I did still give it 3 stars).

I think the most impressive thing about Penric and the Shaman is that it’s a sequel novella set in an already-established world but I went in blind and was never confused. The worldbuiling is handled so well, and there is enough recap of the main elements that I felt like I understood it by the end. I do wonder if that is tedious for a long-time reader, though! Are they just sitting there like “no shit there are 5 gods, move along now.”

It’s an interesting world for sure, especially the religion built around its gods. I always like when books do that (i.e Gentleman Bastards). There’s shamans, spirit walks, tons of animals, demons, priests, etc. But I wasn’t particularly riveted by the main plotline. It’s kind of a mystery–a murder mystery at first, and then a magic mystery. It becomes “how do the magic elements line up to solve this plotline?” Which I guess is a cool and unique device but… I just didn’t really care about the characters. Maybe because it’s a sequel and a lot of Penric & Desdemona character growth has already happened? They just felt a little flat to me.

It’s certainly not a bad novella, and I think I might have rated it higher if I hadn’t already read the rest of the Hugo novella nominees (which were all 5- or 4-star reads for me).

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Song of Susannah, by Stephen King. Finished April 24th. The penultimate Dark Tower book! And actually my least-favorite so far. That’s not to say I didn’t like it: I mean, I gave it 3.5 stars! But I found it too short and slow-paced. The entire 500+ pages take place in maybe 3 or 4 hours? It crawls through a very short section of time so not a whole lot could possibly happen.

We do get quite a few answers to questions that were raised in previous books, and there was one element in particular (that, apparently, is the most controversial aspect of the series!) I absolutely loved. But it just wasn’t as powerful as Wolves of the Calla or The Waste Lands, which were my favorites. So far. Fingers crossed I like the last book the best!

I think there is a common thread between all the books in the series I absolutely adored. They all feature the core 4 (Roland, Jake, Oy, Eddie, & Susannah) together. When they are separated/not together (like in Song or The Drawing of the Three) I like but don’t love them. Interesting!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Homesick for Another World, by Ottessa Moshfeg. Finished April 26th. I didn’t really love last year’s Booker-nominated Eileen, so it might seem a bit odd that I picked this up. But there were aspects of Eileen that I did enjoy (and, to be honest, I need to read a short story collection by a woman for Read Harder) so I decided to give Moshfeg a second chance.

First off: I think Moshfeg is incredibly pretentious and obnoxious as a human being, and I can’t help but let my perception of her affect my reading of her stories a bit. I kept finishing a story, thinking “okay so what was that about” and then realizing she probably thinks it was ~deep~ and ~meaningful.~ I had to actively stop myself from doing this because it was ruining the book for me. Pro tip: unless you’ve heard from others that an author is an awesome human, maybe don’t read interviews with them.

Like Eileen, these stories all focus on the sordid and dirty side of humanity. They are alternately disgusting, cringey, and gag-inducing. There’s a lot of poop and vomit and weird sex and eating disorders and drugs and squalor. But many of them seem more like chapters in a book than stories. They’ll start off interesting, and just kind of… end? Without anything really happening? It felt like reading a ton of opening chapters, but not in a fun If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler kind of way. It was boring and frustrating, which is not what I want from a story collection.

I’m being so negative, but I did not hate this. Moshfeg can indeed write, and I find her fascination with humanity’s disgusting side to be quite intriguing. Sometimes you find yourself identifying with a character and have to take a step back and just…. reconsider some of your life choices. There were a few standouts I will remember, but all in all this was a well written but poorly constructed collection I’ll soon forget.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Why God is a Woman, by Nin Andrews. Finished April 27th. This pose-poetry collection (isn’t it really more like flash fiction at this point? who decides what is prose-poetry? why is that even a category, if they are two separate things? so many random questions here) does what The Power really wanted to. It takes an inverted view of gender and uses this to discuss some very serious ideas & issues.

Why God is a Woman is a magical-realism “story” that takes place on an island where women are the dominant sex, and men sprout wings at puberty. The wings are obviously a metaphor for girls getting their period (the wings bleed as they come in, they have to wear cotton pads, it’s embarrassing and they are teased about it, etc) but they also are an interesting twist on women being the “flighty” sex. Almost every metaphor here works on two levels like this. There is a very obvious one and then a more subtle, insidious comparison to modern life and gender.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect collection. Some of it came off as a little too silly (like all the women in a town are named Angelina because they look like Angelina Jolie?) and some of it is a bit heavy-handed in its delivery. But overall I found this very enjoyable and it was basically what I wanted from The Power on a social commentary level.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The White Princess, by Philippa Gregory. Finished April 30th. So, Philippa Gregory is one of those authors who I insist I “just kind of like.” But I’ve read 11 of her books at this point, so who am I kidding? Some of them I unabashedly love (like The Constant Princess, which kickstarted my interest in historical fiction), some are bland, and others play a little too fast and loose with history for my liking. White Princess definitely falls into the latter category.

This is the story of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry Tudor and mother of Henry VIII. A very important historical figure! And we’ve seen her several times before in Gregory’s books (namely in the 3 they bunched together for the White Queen tv show). And there are some, ah, magical realism elements at play. Because, you know, maybe Elizabeth and her mother actually did have magical powers! It’s possible, right? But even giving her the “okay so there’s a weird death song they hear when a member of the family dies and they’re descended from a literal water goddess” thing, the amount of liberties taken with history are truly astounding.

For instance, there is no actual proof that Elizabeth had an affair with her uncle, Richard III. But here they were madly in love and she spends about half the book mourning him. And Richard of York, the prince who died in the Tower… probably died in the Tower. Yet here Gregory has decided that one of his many pretenders was actually the real Richard of York, smuggled out of the Tower in secret! And Henry Tudor rapes Elizabeth before their wedding, which there is NO HISTORICAL PROOF FOR. It’s kind of gross that it was included tbh.

So why 3 stars? Something about her books is like crack, guys. Historical fiction crack. I just can’t stop reading them, and I’ve actually read almost all of the Tudor/Cousin’s War books at this point. Might as well finish ‘em off, right?

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 71/200

Goal Books: 65

Impulse Reads: 6

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