March/April Reading: In which I quit like a big quitter (and keep going)

March/April: Indie Month turned into It’s Not You, It’s Me Month, and then fell apart into Okay, Whatever Then Month. I feel bad that I keep bailing on books, if for no other reason than I paid for them at some point, but I can’t force myself to read if I am not invested in the characters, setting, concept, something. I keep running into books that are perfectly serviceable, but just don’t work for me. In cases like that, I’m inclined to realize that this is happening and move on to something else. I still have 100+ books in my pile to get to; life is too short.

Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

Mirrorfall by Grace McDermott
This was a really fun kaleidoscope of pieces: urban fantasy with otherworldly guardians, alternate worlds, and fae, narrated by a  hacker drafted into a  Men in Black-esque spy organization. Aaaannnnd I DNFd at 55%. Why, when I’d made it that far and was mostly enjoying things up to that point?!
a) Arbitrary twincest (ugh why)
b) Sentences like (very lightly paraphrasing): “Lol, okies,” I said, nomming on a cookie
…at least once a page, usually more.
I know that the lolcat style makes sense for a hacker character. I still found it teeth-grinding. I have a very low tolerance for all three, “nom,” “okies” (basically no tolerance at all) and “lol,” so this was not a fun time for me.

I Bring the Fire part 1: Wolves by C. Goeckel
Two words: Loki fanfic. Another it’s-not-you-it’s-me DNF, at 25%. Just wasn’t feeling it. Present tense is a constant pull out of the story for me, and I’ve never been an Avengers fan, so I am just not the target market. I’m not sure whether it’s serial-numbers-filed-off fanfic or whether it was crafted to tap into the fanbase, the other way around — but I’m still not in the fanbase. Mind you, the writing is fine, things are happening, all of that. I’m just not on board enough. I may try again sometime, if I manage to lower my resistance to present tense.

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss
That’s more my style: impenetrable high-concept science fiction whatthefuckery. I grew up on stuff like this, and while it isn’t my cup of tea a hundred percent of the time, it’s fun to visit sometimes.

Many years from now, just about all animals are extinct except for termites, wasps, and de-evolved tree-dwelling humans. Plants have taken over and moved into all the ecological niches. Half of Earth is a murderous jungle and the other half is in eternal twilight, after enormous, mobile spider-shaped plants lassoed the earth and the moon together and stopped both of their rotations. WTF? Exaaaaactly. Apart from some yap about “racial memory” (see below) and “humans’ frontal cortices were symbiotic fungus all along” (what), the concept is brain-hurting fun to explore.

I hated the lead character thoroughly and rooted (excuse the pun) for a giant acid-spitting space carrot to eat him, so once the story got done tour-guiding us around the setting, it became more of an uphill slog. In particular, the main antagonist, a Cordyceps-esque psychic fungus, is insufferable, and there are some… “humorous”? side characters that are never, ever entertaining. Basically, as soon as the characters go on the move and the party splits, nothing is fun anymore. I kept after it, hoping it would get better, and being not infinitely long helped. But the first section was still the most entertaining for me.

Part of the issue with having a TBR pile is that you forget why you bought a book, what the book is about, or what the circumstances surrounding it are. I bring this up because I didn’t remember, by the time I got around to reading this book, that this is a rerelease of a book that was actually released in the old school. When I reached the end and saw the copyright date of 1962, the last 80% of the book finally made sense. It explains a whole hell of a lot of things: the fact that the characters are complete cardboard, the awkward “men are treasured rarities in this Straaaange Neeeeew Woooorld” thing, the “racial memory” thing, the “superior nonhuman intelligence droning on about how stupid humans are” thing, even the entire idea of de-evolution. OF COURSE. This is from the actual past! OK, they’re still annoying, but at least it makes sense in context. Those things used to be fresh and cool.

As a travelogue and thought experiment, it was fun for a while — exploring a series of impossible plant-critters adapted to their alien environment and taking over niches previously inhabited by now-extinct animals. When we’re expected to give half a damn about the characters or their Quest? Not so very much. I’d rather have had a documentary about the setting than follow that mushroom-headed dunce around.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Turns out this wasn’t on my TBR list —  looks like I missed some. Oops.

So. Time-travelling serial killer. *jazz hands* I love me some time travel, but I don’t often read crime or thrillers, so this was a stressful one for me. Not to mention that the POV flips between Ambiguously Possessed Serial Killer, Soon-To-Be Victim of the Day, Obsessed Near-Victim Amateur Sleuth, or Other Dude Because Dudes Need Somebody to Relate To. There are a couple of others, but my point is, this is darkity dark dark. Time loops + grimdark is a combination I’ve seen work before, but not without similar grueling feelings while moving through it. (Compounding this is the “shining” thing. The title refers to the victims, of course, but they’re chosen specifically because they push back in their own quiet way against the strictures of their times — they shine in spite of their circumstances. And the serial killer intentionally goes around destroying them. Arg.)

Funny thing, though: present tense did not bother me this time. I hardly even noticed it. I think it’s because the plot hinges so heavily on flipping around time, and the present tense keeps us as readers pinned to whichever moment in time the story is in. It’s also built out of dread: we jump into the POV of a woman whom we know is being stalked by the serial killer, and every small triumph of her life is about to be snuffed out. Taking the immediate view makes the temporary nature of their lives that much clearer.

What I think I’m saying is that the present tense seems intentional, instead of “that’s what’s popular in YA these days.” I’m OK with that.

Romance

Unscripted by Jayne Denker
A palate cleanser between Hothouse and The Shining Girls. A cable drama showrunner pisses off her executive producer, wallows, then finds a hot theater professor while trying to get her show back. I don’t remember exactly why I picked this one up; it was probably Yay! Grownups!!, since the leads are both somewhere in their mid-thirties. They’re constantly surrounded by teens and early ‘20s kiddos, though, so the yay-grownups vibe is considerably weakened.

I’m not entirely sure this is uncut romance, honestly — I’m not too well-versed in chick-lit, but I suspect it has a strong strain of chick lit DNA. The romance plot is almost a subplot, though it’s a prominent one. What I’d call the main conflict arises through the main character trying to get her job back and regain creative control of her creation. The romantic red herring is a hurdle that the lead has to get over, and the romantic lead is her prize for getting her life back on track.

I’m still on the fence about contemporary romance. Contemporary about grownups is supposed to be Uncool, five-minutes-ago, without the swoony, cheesy cachet of historicals or the Drama of new adult. It’s escapism without a “real” escape, too real to be really fantastic. But for my eastern-suburbia-reared lower-middle-class self, Hollywood may as well be Narnia. Besides, nobody writes stories about things that are authentic to me personally, and if they did I’d probably start nitpicking. I sometimes find contemporaries less distracting than historicals, because I don’t get caught up in the game of “this character’s attitude doesn’t match this era.”

So. Fluff. Fluff with a kinda-gross focus on using accents as comedy, but otherwise harmless.

Altered Destiny by Shawna Thomas
I made it to 23% before DNFing because I really. wanted. to. like. it. Fantasy romance with a heroine who doesn’t suck! Yes! Sign me up! And the writing was fine, except for the distraction of “okay” everywhere. (1839, people! Folks were inventing photography and the telegraph by that point. Ye olde it ain’t, OK?)

But I had to admit eventually that I was bored and did not care about the eeeevil vampire elves, the who-is-this-again soldier-human-dudes, their impending clash, or the inevitable get-together of the heroine and the Wounded, Poetic Outcast vampire elf dude. That last thing especially, which is a shame, because that’s supposed to be the point. I assume. Drizzt/Katniss is just not my ship, I guess.

This is another one that I may try again sometime, when I’m feeling more like a long fantasy slog. And if/when my tolerance for Wounded, Poetic Outcast Vampire Elves goes up somehow. I missed the Forgotten Realms train back in the ‘90s, so maybe I’m just never going to Get It.

Also, I’m sorry, the vampire elf’s name is Jaden. I want to make sure Jaden’s mom knows where he is after curfew. I’m aware that there are fully grown Jadens out there, but… well. I guess generational naming trends happened to cross fantasy naming conventions.

Other Fiction

The Sekhmet Bed: The She-King Book 1 by Libbie Hawker
One may have noticed that I keep starting and quitting indie books in March/April. This was not intentional. (I started and quit a Carina Press book, too! Yay?) So my sigh of relief was that much bigger when I found an indie that I actually, with few reservations, liked.

So what is this one? A domestic drama about an ancient Egyptian dynasty. That’s different. Woohoo.

It’s the life story of Ahmose, an Egyptian princess. There’s the kind of worldbuilding (asterisk, I’ll get into this in a second) that I like, that doesn’t over-explain itself. There’s a moderately (at least) squicky, but historically reasonable sorta-wannabe-love story between a 14-year-old girl and a grown-ass man who, to his credit, wants no part of it. And in a longer arc, there’s the relationship between the protagonist and her sister/sister-wife, feuding and backstabbing and eventually bonding over their children. The main character has prophetic dreams, hatches a plan or two, tries to do what’s right, and finally births what I assume is the protagonist of the next book.

Time skips forward a lot in the last half of the book, so the pacing can be confusing, but once it gets going it doesn’t slump much. The characters have personalities without seeming anachronistic — their beliefs and worldviews have been palpably shaped by the world they live in. And, key for me, the antagonist is not made of cardboard. Non-cardboard antagonists will get me every time! And I’m not talking about bullshit antiheroes masquerading as antagonists, I mean people who are unpleasant and get in the protagonist’s way, but have dimension and personality.

“Worldbuilding” makes it sound like info-dumping, but what we have here is a world that is built into everything the characters think and do. Their sense of right and wrong and their sense of causality are shaped by their belief system, which has a huge effect on what they do and why.

So.

There’s an indie book I liked. So there.

Just one line makes me want to go “argh,” on top of the aforementioned squick: about three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist thinks something like “my life didn’t exist / didn’t matter before (thing that just happened).” That’s a So what are you reading me this thing for?! moment. Do not recommend, authors. Sure, it makes sense that the character would think that, but you just told me that all the hours I’ve spent on your book so far were wasted. Yay.

Nonfiction

The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality by Rachel Hills
First off: that subtitle seems to have zero to do with the content of the book. This is a pop-sociology book revolving around a kind of Unified Field Theory of Judginess. It lashes together disparate ideas like

a) “women’s worth equals virginity, blah blah”
b) fratty grossness
c) Cosmo, generally (NSFW)
d) “vanilla people are dumb and boring” (NSFW) (sidebar: even this artist posits at the end that monogamous straight people are incapable of holding sex-positive attitudes. I read this comic regularly and felt as though the author has always been generally inclusive, so this one was a big disappointment. However, this is where I got the rec for this book, and I still read the comic.)

…by the common thread of “what you do with your junk is The Most Important Thing in the Universe, and fully defines you as a person. Moreover, if you don’t align with what I think is acceptable, you’re bad and wrong.”

“Well, yeah,” says Western culture, “blah blah cavemen,” or “blah blah enlightenment,” or “blah blah religion,” or “blah blah some other excuse.” Funny how that works, no matter what your excuse is.

It’s an interesting idea overall, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a backlash against modern mores that isn’t based in religious pearl-clutching. Instead of the usual American-culture “you shouldn’t sleep around because Jesus,” it gets into “some people really enjoy this, and some are just putting on a front so that their friends think they’re cool.” Refreshing.

Now, a couple of things that didn’t sit so well with me: first, wow, I am old. This book was written by, for, and about millenials in the Anglosphere. I’m at the young end of Generation X. That’s a much bigger gap than I realized. Of course, every person’s experience is different. My college experience was atypical, for one thing. So it’s both interesting and depressing to read about the cultural assumptions that have changed since My Day.

Second, spoilers: no solutions are suggested. Yes, this is a sociology book and not psych, but as a general reader, it feels frustrating to read through an outline of a systemic problem and then see, “welp, don’t do that. The end.”

Overall, though, it’s a useful idea (don’t be a judgmental, reductive toolbox) carried through several scenarios, with the use of interviews/anecdotes (mostly with pretty young white people, but eh), then dropped without warning. What I think I’ll do to placate “But what can Society DO about any of this?!” rage is to follow some of the references, many of which are still available online.

Lest this all sound too retrograde, the Unified Field Theory of Judginess (people different from us in this particular way are Bad) is also briefly applied to homophobia, judgment toward non-monogamous people, judgment toward nonbinary people, and the Fifty Shades-popularized cheapening/watering down of kink (”oh, it’s just a dumb, naughty thing we do to look cool, not an important and specific part of anyone’s identity or anything”).

My final impression here is “thought-provoking, though incomplete.”

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
Another palate cleanser for me. I don’t have any interest in, say, sportswriting or memoir, but it’s interesting to me to see how the sausage gets made, and the usual points about clarity and brevity make as much sense as ever. Honestly, I’d almost substitute it for The Elements of Style, which it lionizes, if only because S&W have been debunked eight ways from Sunday at this point.

Beginning TBR: 115
Ending TBR: 108
Goodreads Challenge: 19/36. I’m sorry that it counts DNFs as “read”s. I wouldn’t.

Goal for May/June: Get the TBR list below 100. This will be a bigger challenge than it sounds, because my birthday is coming up, and my wishlist is largely made up of books. Still! Something to shoot for.