Chum by Jeff Somers

chum

Standalone, Tyrus Books, 2013, 208 pgs.

Six friends, a little sister, and a couple of lovebirds get smashed at a wedding. Sounds like the setup to a joke, right? Or maybe some godawful summer movie, where everyone comes together in the end to learn some stupid life lesson. You’d be wrong, on both counts, though. This is the story of the year it all falls apart, instead. This group might only have been together by coincidence, really, might only have ever held on to each other by threads, but the scissors of stress and nerves can wreak havoc on even the most casual group of acquaintances. Secrets can destroy you, even when you really shouldn’t care enough for them to be able to. Relationships can splinter, even when they’re supposed to be flimsy as air.

I think I really need to stop trying to like literary fiction. Or, really, serious slice of life in general, since I’m not sure how experimental or envelope-pushing some of the things I’m referring to are meant to be. These just aren’t my genres, regardless of how intellectual I want to be, and any attempts I make never seem to go well. As much as it’s horrifically unfair to write off what I’m sure is a vastly diverse group of works based on the worst elements in the lot, it always seems like one of those worst elements pops up and ruins whatever book I’m reading for me.

This has happened in almost everything that’s not genre fiction that I’ve tried to read over the past four or five years, barring classics. Last year I got one bright spot in Geek Love, which I thought had actually well developed characters and good tragedy, but everything else I’ve had a stab at has fallen flat.

Chum may be one of the worst experiences I’ve had on that front, too. For every other lit fic piece that I’ve badly disliked I can at least pick out something that I thought was interesting or unique about the work. This, by comparison, feels like the blandest mixture of every horrible stereotype I have about this type of novel that could possibly exist. This…this is not going to be a good review.

So let’s get the one good bit out of the way first. Character voice is incredibly strong here. The book switches viewpoints every chapter, and I could always tell whose eyes we were seeing through within a couple of sentences without being told, even from very early in the novel. That’s a talent in and of itself, and it’s probably the only thing I thought worthwhile in this piece.

Unfortunately I also hated every single one of the characters behind these distinct voices. Usually having a cast comprised entirely of awful people means at least one of them will be interesting, but that didn’t happen here. Instead it was all of the smug, with none of the entertainment value.

The best way I can describe it is in the context of Seinfeld, because on one level this book reminded me a lot of that show. I’d actually like you to do a thought experiment with me along those lines. If Seinfeld is too outdated you can fill in a more recent show with a similar cast. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Arrested Development, maybe?

You know how you watch those shows in spite of the fact that everyone on them is selfish and smug and generally terrible? Or sometimes because of it?

Now take the cast of characters from whichever show you’ve chosen and strip them of any quirks that might make them interesting to follow. Throw out anything that gives them actual personality and replace it with the most generic of flaws. This one’s a disgusting womanizer! That one’s completely shallow! Then take away any sort of layers they might have. Any moments where you see the humanity of these characters, no matter how small, are now gone. Replace everything that might make them seem like a person with ennui and disgust for life. And then, as a final touch, make everything about the presentation absolutely unfunny.

Does that sound like anything you’d actually want to read?

I honestly felt justified in my hatred of these people, because all I got from them was how much they hated each other, their lives, and themselves. And as much as that was probably the point, that setup has never been anything that’s going to make me like a book. This is a novel filled entirely with disgust and loathing, so that’s really all I got out of it. That’s how it always works for me.

And I get where that sort of thing could have appeal, but the execution thereof needs to not be completely uninspired for me to give a piece that credit. The plot here is fairly plain, and the structural shenanigans put in place to hide the terrible event at the center of it don’t do enough to keep it from being predictable. The horrible bits seem mostly to be there to reinforce the point that life sucks and people are awful, rather than to eke any sort of emotion out of the audience. The prose is very, very wannabe Hemingway.

And, perhaps most damningly, in spite of the characterization being distinct and consistent, it’s still not that well done. If you’re going to write a cast populated with awful people who are dysfunctional together, you really need to be willing to go into how they work and what makes them tick. When you instead slap a cardboard stereotype into every scene, all that’s left is how hateful they are. I can sum up each of the characters in about three words: Pretentious Hipster, Sleazy Womanizer, Narcissistic Rage Machine, Nagging Girlfriend, Jaded Ball-Buster, Slut #1, and Slut #2.

Which is honestly another problem. The author seems to have some very strange ideas about how women act and think. I had this post running through my head from the very beginning.

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And that feeling was consistent throughout, even when we’re in the point of view of one of the supposed-to-be straight female characters. I know I at least can say if I catch my best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her, my first thoughts are not going to be about the other woman’s boobs.

As a measurement of how bad this can get, about halfway through one of our main four women dies, and we get a sort of stream of consciousness monologue from her as it’s happening, which is all about the men she’s slept with. Really? No, like, memories of her family or thoughts about her hopes and dreams? Not even any sort of day to day minutia, like what she had for dinner or how she’s angry at her boss? No internal life whatsoever outside of who she’s banged?

The women are treated both confusingly and awfully here. I can usually get over that if the novel gives me a reason to, but, well, you’ve read the rest of this review. The insult didn’t help me in connecting to any of this, but I honestly don’t think I would have regardless.

If I thought Eating Mammals was a good example of why I avoid literary fiction as a rule, this book kicks that one to the ground, stomps on it, and then spits in its face. It has claimed its throne as the Alpha of literary bullshit, and I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal. If a piece of Chum isn’t stereotypical, it’s hateful. And, to be quite frank, most of the book is both.

Libriomancer by Jim Hines

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Magic ex Libris Book #1, DAW Books, 2012, 348 pgs.

Isaac’s been out of the game, for a while really. He’s still a libriomancer, a book mage, and still a member of the Porter hierarchy that governs them, but his ban from field work leaves him spending most of his days working as a librarian and surreptitiously tagging books for other Porters to use. Until the day a group of vampires step into his rural, Midwestern library, obviously attempting to get at him and spouting off about some coming war. And when he tries to take this to his higher-ups in the organization, he finds out that half of them are dead and the other half don’t know what’s going on either. Instead of explaining, they give him emergency leave to go back to the field and tell him to figure it out. Unfortunately there’s more going on here than just angry vampires, and the things Isaac uncovers lead straight to the heart of the Porters themselves: what they exist for, and what they’re hiding.

It’s always amazing to me, the ways in which what’s going on with you personally can affect your enjoyment of a book. Our mental states, experiences, and the things happening around us have a far greater weight on our media intake than I think we often give them credit for.

Obviously rereading a book as an adult and suddenly loving or hating it when you didn’t before is a known phenomenon, but even within a couple of years, with no major life changes, I’ve had vastly different reactions to pieces on reread. And I can’t help but feel that has more to do with my strictly internal mental state than with any new things that have happened to me.

All of this is basically being a long way to say I had a hell of a lot less fun with Libriomancer than I typically do with Hines’ work, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the book or because of me.

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably the latter. This really, really should have been fun; it has everything about Hines’ work that usually makes me give it that description, and, on multiple levels, it’s very much a story built for people who love books. Like a lot of his other series, it’s sort of pulpy and tropey, in a way that’s as much loving as it is mocking. If the Princess series was a take on Disney fairytales and the Jig the Goblin series a riff on generic high fantasy, this was almost a play on the summer blockbuster formula. We literally start here with a disgraced, loose-cannon magic cop having to step back into the field to redeem himself.

And like the genre it’s playing with, and again, as is typical of Hines, there may be dark elements present, but the plot never gets bogged down in them. It remains fast-paced and hopeful in tone, creating a sort of breezy feel that should have been fun and easy to read.

Also, like a lot of Hines’ work, it’s sort of nerdy. I mean, it’s about a secret group of magic librarians who use the world’s collective love of stories and suspension of disbelief to pull every cool thing fiction has ever offered to the world out of books to use. What genre nerd wouldn’t love that? There are constant little references to everything from laser guns to magic swords, all pulled from classic series and all of which our hero Isaac is willing to geek out over as much as the audience.

In a world peopled partially by every popular type of vampire you can possibly think of, because sometimes magical diseases can also be pulled out of the books. Our opening scene has Isaac fighting a group of “sparklers.”

And those are just the things I enjoy specifically about Hines’ books; this also involves a lot of things that I enjoy in novels in general. There’s no easily established good and evil here. Almost everyone is a little morally shady and playing according to their own agenda, and even the main villain is very much a product of the same system our hero is. Speaking of Isaac, he’s far from a perfect protagonist; he’s a little too reckless and headstrong, but as much as that leaves him running straight into stupid situations, he’s also clever enough to usually pull it off. All of the characters are well rounded and unique; none of them ever just fade into the background of the work.

The plot keeps itself moving too. We barely know what’s happening at the beginning, and never fully understand until the end, so there’s more than enough suspense to keep things going. The fact that most of this is action packed (like I said, summer blockbuster) keeps you barreling from scene to scene, too. And there’s enough of a personal element, enough of a character journey for the leads at least, to keep it from just feeling like stupid schlock.

So all of this sounds awesome, right?

I had such a hard time getting through this book, though. It took me about two months, which is ridiculously long for me. I kept starting, reading five pages, and then drifting away again, and even after I’d finished it, everything still felt unsatisfying. For a work that seems tailor-made for me, from an author I know I like, this is incredibly odd.

So, two theories.

One is, this is somewhat different from Hines’ usual work. It’s not that his books have been all happy fluff, far from it, but usually the dark elements there are more plotty than philosophical. And a lot of the passages here do get very metaphorical and metatextual. His prose in this book is far more lyrical than his typical, plain-spoken style, things are left far more up to interpretation than in his other pieces, and he’s attempting to dig into some fairly meaty ideas about how the love of narrative shapes people, in both good ways and bad.

There are questions in Libriomancer about everything from how group dynamics can sometimes leave people to fall through the cracks, to how a widely read novel can create a mass media experience that is both the same and different for everyone who participates in it, to where the lines of personal autonomy begin and end for a character pulled out into the real world. The fact that there’s a lot going on here is objectively good, but it is a departure from his norm. I can very much see having liked his previous books while still having trouble with this one.

Or there’s the other theory, which is that Life was Happening (and the capitals are justified there) while I was reading this. I was very busy, leaving gaps of up to a week between putting the novel down one night and picking it up again, and I can’t say I was in a very good mood during any of it. I know very well that I forced my way through this book because I was trying to not lose too much time, rather than because I felt like reading. And there’s every chance that affected my judgement. Like I said, if I’m honest with myself, I think that’s probably it.

So yes, this is a little more description than review. I do have the second in the series, Codex Born, sitting on my shelf, and I am planning on reading it soon. If it leaves me cold as well I’ll let you all know. Until then, there’s enough here that I should have really been into, and circumstances were suspicious enough, that I can’t just write this off.

King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

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Red Queen Book #3, HarperTeen, 2017, 512 pgs.

Trading her freedom for her friends’ lives, Mare has been captured by Maven and been taken back to Whitefire Palace. While the Scarlet Guard and the newbloods plan, make new alliances, and gear up for the coming revolution, she’s once again forced to dance on someone else’s strings. She’s once again forced to play a role that will work against everything she wants to fight for. But all is not as well in Norta’s court as the Lightning Girl’s capture suggests. The growth of the Scarlet Guard and the revelation of the newbloods have shaken the Silvers, and tensions are running high. The young king’s harsh decisions are not helping the growing rift among his supporters, either. And even in a gilded cage, Mare has her cleverness, her will, and her hatred.

Again, spoilers for all three books of the series

 

 

Well, this went better than expected. I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to review this book, considering my disappointment with the second in the series. I mean, I knew I was going to read it, because I have a hard time letting go of a story once I’ve started it, but it feels somehow unfair to review a book you pick up even though you know you’ll probably hate it. And if Aveyard hadn’t somewhat redeemed herself here I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

I’m going to just put my main relief out there, considering it was sort of the crux of my last review for Red Queen. She has, for the most part, fixed The Maven Problem. Which is wonderful, because The Maven Problem was really the only reason I didn’t enjoy Glass Sword.

For those of you who don’t feel like reading all of that, my major problem with book two and, retroactively, book one was that it seemed like she was completely depowering her villain whenever her heroes needed a convenient escape route. This sort of thing is the epitome of lazy writing, and not only ends up making your narrative’s internal logic wholly inconsistent, it pretty much kills any sort of tension your plot has managed to build.

Here, though, she actually bothers to explain that there’s a reason her supposedly genius antagonist so often does contradictory and self-defeating things. To sum up: his mother, who had the power to mess around in people’s brains, had basically been rewriting his to make him more what she wanted since he was very young. So, for every action he takes, he’s unsure if it’s coming from him or from her; so there’s always a small part of him that doesn’t want to do these things, or is at least unsure enough about it that he hesitates.

And this piece of information almost single-handedly fixes the plotting of the series. It makes him more broken than stupid, which allows him to still be threatening, and it introduces yet another conflict with the question of whether he can be saved.

Given, it doesn’t fix absolutely everything. The execution here is still kind of sloppy, and this information probably should have been introduced in book two so the illusion of giant, gaping plot holes never even surfaced. The Scarlet Guard still dealt with him in an absurdly naïve manner in book one, given everything else we’ve seen of them. And our heroes are still going on about how brilliant he is, even while he’s doing self-contradictory things.

Still, “left us hanging for a book” and “has given her character an informed attribute” are paltry sins in comparison to “has completely defanged her villain and made her plot nonfunctional.” I’ll take either of the former any day.

That aside, if anything I’d say this third book has sort of the opposite problem that the second one did. There I thought that the character interactions were beautifully done, and it was the plotting that was completely botched. And even looking back with an explanation for the plotting, I’m still willing to maintain that it’s a little too formulaic.

Here, though, Aveyard has taken some major steps to move beyond the standard Hunger Games route, and a lot of what she does in this book seems like a genuine attempt to deepen the worldbuilding and politics of the series. We’re not quite at Game of Thrones-level machinations, but there’s more than enough to carry the story and make it feel like we’re moving beyond narrative shorthand and tropes.

And I can’t even say the characters are bad, here. A lot of the good things about the previous books remain, and it’s clear that she’s still willing to take chances with her characters, to risk people beginning to dislike them. Mare spends a decent amount of time here vengefully murderous, as well as a decent amount of time wondering if that makes her no different from the people she hates. Cameron and Evangeline, both of whom loathe our heroine, get viewpoints, and it’s made clear that their dislike of her stems partially from Mare’s faults, rather than solely from their own. Cal, at the end of this, chooses his own privilege over what’s right, potentially breaking our lead couple’s relationship beyond fixing.

Our heroes are never written to be fully justified in everything they do, and that’s a sad rarity that I really do appreciate.

That said, the characters are also nowhere near as meticulously realistic in their reactions to each other as in previous novels. Again, they’re not bad, but that was the major thing that impressed me about Glass Sword, and it feels like it’s mostly absent here.

The worst of it, unfortunately comes from Mare herself, who careens wildly between hating Maven and feeling pity for him. While I can’t say the ambivalence is unjustified there, the way it’s done reads less like the natural mixture of sympathy and revulsion you’d expect out of the situation, and more like an author trying to string her audience along a little farther on the possibility of a redemption arc.

I never like it when I can see the mechanics behind an author’s writing so easily, but I also can’t say that I don’t expect some sloppiness out of this series. It’s shown up in every book so far, from the predictability in the first to the lack of necessary explanation in the second. Here it’s mostly in some problems with telling rather than showing and in the branched viewpoints that obviously only came up in this book because Aveyard couldn’t figure out how to fit all the information she needed into just Mare’s perspective.

That said, the sloppiness is nothing new, and those little pieces where it’s not perfectly put together haven’t yet ruined the series for me. Who knows, though? Maybe the as yet untitled book four will come around and once again drastically change my opinion on whether or not this is worth reading. Right now I find myself once more having fun with the series, so until that point, Red Queen has my money.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

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Standalone, Moyer Bell, 1997, 144 pgs.

Well, apparently when I say “short review” this week, I mean that literally. I don’t exactly know how much I’m going to be able to talk about this one, because there’s not exactly much to really analyze here. I guess that’s okay, though, because this is a very short book.

As a diary-style travelogue detailing its author’s several weeks in 1970’s Britain, it’s a very odd book for me, too. Anything nonfiction is outside my usual purview, and while I’ve probably read a couple of travelogues for classes here and there, I can’t exactly say I remember any of them.

Its shortness and its genre are also the reasons there’s no summary at the top of this review; there’s really not that much to it. All you need to know going in is that Hanff published an earlier book of letters written between her and a London bookseller which became somewhat famous, and then went to London for a book tour, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. It’s very simple, really. I don’t even know if I’d say it has any sort of further meaning.

I couldn’t help but love this, though. Aside from being very witty, Hanff just has this joyous wonder about the entire experience which is instantly engaging. While on one level this is an outsider making commentary about a culture she’s not a part of, it’s not satirical. Instead it’s done with such love and humor that you can’t help but fall a little in love with everything you’re reading about as well. And that love and wonder is conveyed in such a unique and eccentric voice that, as scattered as it can sometimes be, you enjoy every little episode she talks about, down to her constant worries about spending too much money.

Other than that, though, I think I loved reading this just because on some level I connected to it: to what she values in life, to her thought processes. All of things in the preceding paragraphs were draws, from her great love of Great Britain, even when she has to take her martini making into her own hands, to the repeated refrain of “Well if X buys me dinner for the next several nights, I’ll have Y money left, meaning I can stay for Z more time” that becomes almost a running joke.

But I just don’t know if I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did if it hadn’t been the diary of a woman who clearly loves literature, who spent years learning to read it properly without being taught, and who seems very much like she’d rather be doing that than be at a party, because she’s so awkward about socializing.

Like, look at this quote, taken from a passage where she’s a little fed up with one of her hosts:

“My problem was that by this time the Colonel and I had already had thirty straight hours of Togetherness and I’m not equipped for it, not even with the best friend I have on earth, which he isn’t.” (pg. 72)

That’s pretty much the introvert’s dilemma in a nutshell, isn’t it? I felt a deep, soulful connection with Helene Hanff at that moment, and also laughed a lot.

About half of the book is her waxing poetic about Donne and Shakespeare, and the other half is her worrying about being in the limelight, about having to be Proper in front of people, or about putting her foot in her mouth. I can’t say I don’t feel both of those sentiments.

And that might be a lot of why I liked it; everything about it felt right to me. Even the book’s strangely wistful ending felt like it fit in a way I can’t exactly pinpoint. If I ever penned a travel diary, I can see it looking very much like this, though probably less funny. And if any of that sounds like something you might feel in your bones, I’d suggest giving this a read.

Sometimes when reviewing you can really get in there and dig into the mechanics of how the story and characters are built, how everything about a piece works together as a whole. And sometimes all you can say is that something charmed the pants off of you. This? This charmed the pants off of me on pretty much every level there is, and that’s really all there is to it.

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher

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Chronoptika Series Book #1, Firebird, 2014, 378 pgs.

An angry schoolboy searches for his father’s murderer. A desperate girl jumps back in time to attempt to stop the man who will one day rule the world with uncanny magic. One scientist from the 1800’s studies a strange artifact for power, while another from the modern day looks to it to save his lost wife. A boy captured by the fair folk plots to make his escape, a girl tries to protect the stranger she fell in love with, and a teacher follows his student into danger. And through it all runs the oppressive presence of the Obsidian Mirror. The Mirror can drag you back through time, open to you worlds that you’ve never seen. It can give you a second chance to put things right, find what you’re searching for, but it only works one way. If you make the choice to use it you may never get home again.

This is, to put it bluntly, a very strange book for me.

Given, this may be because, in general, Obsidian Mirror is actually sort of a strange book for Catherine Fisher. It’s not quite off to the extent that it feels like a novel written by someone else; there are plenty of her hallmarks here, written with her typical grace. There are also plenty of things that always made her writing pop for me that are just missing from this novel, though.

I mean, overall I think I liked it. I’m interested in the rest of the series, at least, if I can ever track them down out of what seems to be half in-print obscurity.

(As an aside, how? The final book only came out last year, and Fisher’s a decently known author.)

Like I said, though, this is a very strange novel for her. I’m not sure if it’s her as a writer trying out something different or if the mostly modern-day setting necessitates something other from her previous pieces, which were typically set in completely alternate worlds. We’re retreading a little too much for it to be the former, though, I think.

That sounds like a criticism, but isn’t really. Most of the retread here consists of things that drew me to Fisher’s work in the first place. We have the typical cast of angry young people, hopeless dreamers, and gruff mentors that I always like so much more than the perfectly good, perfectly righteous protagonists of other YA series. We have a nice central mystery set up; as per usual there’s something dark at the heart of this story that the readers aren’t privy to yet. We even have the same sort of in media res that started the last two series I’ve read of hers. Again, this is a good thing. It gets the action going quickly and I’ve always liked having to figure out the rules of a world on my own.

And beyond the typical things that I appreciate about her work, there’s enough new that’s good that I can’t just write this book off.

Our usual cast is fleshed out with the constantly cheerful teenager, Rebecca and the stoic but caring teacher, Wharton, both of whom are blessedly normal people who get dragged into the fantastical crazy. They’re character archetypes I’ve never even seen Fisher touch on, and they’re definitely products of the more modern setting.

And while I may miss the beautifully detailed, infinitely strange worlds of her previous pieces, Fisher doesn’t fare too badly writing what is essentially urban fantasy. Or, more specifically, writing any of the story types she’s pushed together here. The Victorian mad scientists feel convincingly penny dreadful-like, and the futuristic dystopia is suitably terrifying and horrific. Ditto the murder mystery, and the fairy story, and the tragic love angle. All of the genres she’s playing with here really do feel like their own individual entities with their own characteristics.

Which is, on some level, the main problem with the book. I like all the components here, but taken together as a whole this is far more disjointed than anything else I’ve seen from this author. As you can probably tell from that summary up there, I’m having a hard time even describing how they all connect. I’d normally say the choppiness is part and parcel of having so many different story types pushed into one place, but I’m not sure that’s actually the case here.

It’s not like Fisher’s never bashed competing ideas against each other to try to make them play nice before. Incarceron posited old-timey frippery and Mad Max anarchy as two sides of the same coin. Relic Master/Book of the Crow played what was, ultimately, straight science fiction as a fantastical quest to awaken lost gods and save the world. Her play with vastly different genres is a huge part of what makes her writing interesting.

But both of those series felt like fully-fleshed, cohesive worlds from their very openings. This is far more jumbled, and I’m not sure whether it’s because there are so many characters to juggle, or whether it’s because the lack of a new world for the author to flesh out means the lack of a single unifying conflict. Either way it’s honestly a little confusing; I feel like I only halfway understand how all the storylines and the characters in them fit together. There’s just so much going on here that it’s hard for everything to gel in the space of one book, even if, so far as I can tell, the ideas behind slamming it all together are sound.

Which, aside from Fisher’s consistently lovable characters, is probably the novel’s one saving grace. I get the themes she’s pulling on to bring all these disparate ideas together. What do fairy courts with human captives, Victorian mad scientists, and time travelers coming back to prevent future despots all have in common?

Well, on some level they all deal with time and our experience of it, with questions of what human morality means in the grand scheme of things, and with how those two problems work together in our experience of the world. They’re all genres that play around with the fabric of reality. Again, I think I see part of where she’s going with it. And these questions are the stuff of really unique, timeless works. If she can make all of the storylines function more as a single unit in the next couple of books, this series could turn out spectacularly.

For now, though, the lack of cohesion makes this first novel a little hard to read. The ideas are there, but the execution falls down at points.

2016 Year in Review

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Well, this sure has been a year, hasn’t it? Some good, quite a lot of bad, more interesting than I know what to do with, and regardless of everything, I have to agree with the consensus of “thank god it’s over.” Blogging has certainly not been as eventful as everything else in my life, let alone the world, but the opening of a new year is a good time to look back and take stock for anything, really. Reinforcing that I have managed to accomplish at least something always helps me to be able to pick at what needs work. And picking at what needs work always helps me to figure out how to plan for the future.

So without much more in the way of ado, here’s a look at the first year of this blog: what I did, what I need to do better, and where I want to go.

Books Read

I managed to read more this year than I did last year (progress!), and did well enough with my goal of less popcorn reading that I’m not disappointed. Because I actually have reviews for most of these, and am planning on writing them for most of the ones I don’t, this is going to be far more list-like than last year. The ones I don’t have reviews for yet will get a couple of sentences of overview, but again, expect forthcoming reviews on most of those.

1) Incarceron—Catherine Fisher

2) Saphique—Catherine Fisher

3) Geek Love—Katherine Dunn

4) Eating Mammals—John Barlow

5) Cruel Crown—Victoria Aveyard

I barely even mentioned these two novellas, I think, but I did like them. In spite of the major disappointment of the second novel, they flesh out the world well and provide voices to two characters we barely get to see in the main series.

6) The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice—Tom Holt

7) Glass Sword—Victoria Aveyard

8) Titus Groan—Mervyn Peake

I’ve mentioned this series several times as being one of the most difficult, unique things I’ve ever read, and that about sums it up. The second after this one, Gormenghast, is still in the process of being read; I wandered away from it and never quite made it back.

9) The Darkest Part of the Forest—Holly Black

10) Summer and Bird—Katherine Catmull

11) Lost Time—Susan Schmid

12) Born Wicked—Jessica Spotswood

13) Legacy of Tril: Soulbound—Heather Brewer

14) The Vorrh—Brian Catling

15) Forest of Memory—Mary Robinette Kowal

16) Ten Mile River—Paul Griffin

17) The Corgi Chronicles—Laura Madsen

18) Labyrinth—Kate Mosse

19) Obsidian Mirror—Catherine Fisher

This is one of Catherine Fisher’s more interesting books, with very good ideas and somewhat uneven execution. I’d love to read the sequels, if I can ever figure out how the British release translated over into the American.

20) Proxy—Alex London

21) Passenger—Alexandra Bracken

22-28) The seven main Harry Potter books—J. K. Rowling

I figure you know what they are, I don’t have to list them all. Much like the following several books, I am planning on finishing the discussions of these. Given, with the way I’m going, it may have to wait for next summer.

29) Libriomancer—Jim Hines

Possibly Hines’ most lyrical novel, but I’m not sure how well it fits on him. Given, my reaction may have been clouded by circumstance, there; more on that later.

30) Fangirl—Rainbow Rowell

Remember when I said this sounded like the song of my people? I may have completely underestimated how much it was exactly that.

31) The Duchess of Bloomsbury St.—Helene Hanff

I’ve never really read travelogues before, but this makes me want more. Witty, relatable, and surprisingly melancholy at times.

32) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

My inner fan is both jumping for joy and screaming in anger here, and I’m still unsure which one is going to win out. I have badly mixed feelings on this.

33) No Passengers Beyond This Point—Gennifer Choldenko

A little too kiddish and a little too stereotypical for me. Generally could have done without this one.

34) Indexing—Seanan McGuire

Fun, interesting, and clever as hell with its meta. I’ve been meaning to read Seanan McGuire’s work, and I’m glad this was my first.

35) Chum—Jeff Somers

Suffice to say, I really need to stop trying to be that person who likes literary fiction.

Lessons Learned and Goals for Next Year

First and foremost…three posts a week is way too much for me. The resulting burnout from attempting that may not have been the main reason for the gigantic, three month gap in posting, but it was a major part of my losing momentum in the first place. I can see myself working my way up to two posts a week if things do manage to stabilize, but for now I think getting back to weekly is a large enough endeavor.

And finding the time to write is going to have to be another work in progress for me; I can’t just set aside huge specific chunks of time like I did when my work schedule was more stable, so I think I’m going to have to learn how to work throughout the week in small bits and pieces. That’s never been something I’m good at, at least as far as writing goes, but if I want to update regularly twenty minutes of writing somewhere each day is going to have to happen. With the way my schedule is I can’t do the thing where I write Sunday/Monday, edit Tuesday, and do the final polish on Wednesday anymore.

I’m also learning that I need to do something more in the way of promoting if I want more of an audience. Whether that’s doing community events or memes more often, or just being more active in seeking out and responding to other people, it needs to be something. As far as readers go I’m fairly content to let things move slowly, but I started doing this partially because I miss talking about books with people. So far as I’m small enough that discussion isn’t happening, this is somewhat counter-productive.

In other blog goals, I definitely want to try to do more with the couple of post series I stared, especially Forgotten Fantasy. One post in the category isn’t much at all, and while they do take a lot of work I want to be better at actually getting those together.

As for bookish goals, I’d definitely like to continue to try to read more and read difficult. The entire point of blogging, and discussing, and list-keeping is, for me, to get back to something I’d loved and lost between college stress and work stress. I want to work my way back into feeling like I’m actually a reader, and continuing to push myself is possibly the only way that’s going to happen.

That said, I did come back to this after a large pause, which is also something I’ve always had a problem with. I think I’ve proven to myself that this is something I actually want to do, which is half the battle for me.

So on to next year! May things continue to move forward, and may any setbacks be far more minor than this years’.

Cover Photo by Stephanie McCabe on Unsplash: sourced from Pexels

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

passenger

Passenger Series Book #1, Hyperion, 2016, 486 pgs.

Etta Spencer feels like she’s nothing sometimes. She’s quiet, shy, and anxious, and has almost no friends except for her violin teacher, Alice. She can’t even seem to catch her distant, glamorous mother’s attention half the time. But then, on the night of the most important violin recital of her life, Etta watches her one confidante die, gets dragged through a hole of light by a strange, snotty girl, and winds up in Revolutionary Era New York. There she meets the terrifying, scheming leader of the Ironwood family, Cyrus, and the kind and noble former slave, Nicholas, who has some connection to his family. There she finds out she can travel through time, like they can. As it turns out, her mother had reason for her distance. She’s one of the last members of the Lindens, rival Traveler family to the Ironwoods, and consequentially so is Etta. And Cyrus Ironwood has plans for both of them. Etta’s only chance for freedom may be a headlong chase through every time period she can get to, but she’s running blind, with no plan, no idea of what she’s actually searching for, and no knowledge of who she can really trust.

Novels like this are why I’m hesitant to give up on books early.

If I had only read the fist fifty pages of this book, I would have walked away thinking I absolutely hated it. It has all the hallmarks of something that’s just not for me: an aggressively pure lead, a heavy romance element that pops up before character development can really set in, and a lot of social commentary on a past era that never manages to shake its Twenty-first Century lens. Instead, as I worked my way through the novel, I found myself liking it more and more and can even say I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Not that this was perfect or anything. All of the things I listed up there? They’re still major problems for me, and when I say I started to like the book, I mean less that I ended up loving it and more that it gave me enough of what I wanted that it managed to compensate for the parts of it I really didn’t.

Actually, for those of you that have read Passenger, I can break what I liked and what I didn’t down really simply into neat chunks by character. Here we are, the tl;dr version of this review: Dear Ms. Bracken, more Nicholas and Sophia, and so, so much less Etta, please.

For my money, most of the problems I have with the novel come down to its lead. Etta is syrupy goody-goody, perfectly sheltered, and yet somehow endlessly resilient. She’s anxious and shy! But she never backs down from a fight and always stands up for what she believes in! When you try to shove all of those traits into one character they never actually feel like a real person to me, just some idealized emblem of goodness. Sweetness and light meets warrior spirit, in a way that says, first and foremost, “I was trying to write a role model.” And characters that are written to be role models first aren’t only inhuman, they’re usually boring to me.

I know it’s a genre thing, especially in YA, but it’s something I always, always dislike. And I particularly dislike it in the context of a girl from the 2010’s time traveling back to yell at the poor, backwards people of the past for not fighting their own oppression better. To make this clear, at one point Etta gets mad at the former slave, who bought his own freedom and is now working his way toward owning a business, for not standing against racism more. Because he took the high road and refused to rise to obvious, drunken bait.

I get the appeal of an outsider character confronting the prejudices of a specific place and time, but you have to be careful with it. Something like that seems less like fighting racism and more like yelling at the black guy for not being born post-Civil Rights.

And to its credit, Passenger does seem to realize this on some level. There are a couple of times over the course of the story where Etta gets smacked in the face with how lucky she’s really been, enough that it seems like her sheltered judgment is supposed to be one of her faults.

But that Twenty-first Century lens doesn’t only come from the character, unfortunately. When the lead of a novel manages to pass for a well-bred lady from the 1700’s solely by being stupidly girly in public, it’s obviously coming from the author, too. Who needs to, say, learn French or piano, when you can just bat your eyes a couple of times?

It isn’t only this book. The thing where modern fiction portrays the people of the past as complete morons who couldn’t possibly think of stepping outside their societally proscribed roles crops up a lot in genre works; I can name at least three other examples off the top of my head. It’s a constant annoyance to me, though, so between that and the Etta’s portrayal as though she’s supposed to be better than everyone else, there were parts of Passenger that were always going to grate.

But, like I said, I did end up generally liking this book, and that’s partially down to the strength of its supporting cast and secondary lead. It’s no secret that I like my broken birds and tragic assholes, and it takes a while for the characters I’m actually interested in to either show up or start showing that side of themselves. Once they do, though, they’re all wonderful.

Nicholas, our male lead, is both amazingly complicated and wonderfully conflicted, wanting to do what’s right but completely willing to lie to himself about what that is. It’s rare to see that kind of self-delusion in a heroic YA character, and I very much appreciate him for it. His deal with the devil early on was the moment I knew I was going to be alright with how the novel was going to progress, and his journey after that was a lot of what made the book work for me.

Crabby, bratty Sophia is pretty much female Draco Malfoy and a character type I always enjoy. Etta’s mother, Rose, while still mysterious seems like she’s going to have a darker side that makes her far more fun than her daughter. And even the villain, Cyrus Ironwood, is very well done: incredibly smart, overwhelmingly threatening, and with enough complexity to make him sympathetic but nowhere near enough to justify him. I’m picky about my villains, and if Bracken keeps him as canny as he is here, the rest of the series should be a wild ride, because a competent villain usually means a nice, tense plot.

Which is another of the novel’s strengths. Our author is unafraid to throw her characters into awful situations without a safety net and force them to make their own way out. She’s also unafraid to leave the characters with no clear answers and with allies that are only sort of on our heroes’ side. Aside from a couple of glitches and unexplained motives, the plotting did its job and kept me wanting to read.

In fact, pretty much all the parts of the novel that weren’t Etta left me wanting more. The time travel mechanics in the series are beyond interesting, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of them in this first book. I still want to know how they all work. Ditto the way the major Traveler families interact, both within each family and between them. The setup for some really great dynastic politicking, or at least backstory involving it, is all there, and I want to see it get its use.

There’s also some very nice personal drama that could use expansion and enough beautiful descriptions of the time periods they find themselves in that I’d be happy just reading them on their own, without an overarching story.

This is sort of what I mean when I say I started liking the book halfway through. Everything I took issue with at the outset develops into something I can actually get behind, with more complication than I would have ever expected from the beginning. Things that I was always going to love come up later in the story. As it goes on, Passenger undermines the clear-cut good and evil it begins with, and even the parts I’m still annoyed with do develop complexity that I never thought they would. Even Etta, who I still can’t say I like, seems to be making moves toward growing beyond her saint-like perfection.

I guess, along with my overall wanting more, I’d just like the novel to have a little more self awareness about certain things, like its historical vision.

That said, with the way the first book ends, it looks like the sequel, Wayfarer, is going to be giving me a lot of what I wanted from this one. I’ll definitely be picking it up when it comes out next year, because at the very least Passenger left me curious to see where Bracken is going from here.