May-June Reading: I’ve Got a Big Old Problem

I think my problem as a reader is that I like to be surprised. I like not knowing where a story is going to go. I enjoy a story that has internal consistency, but that doesn’t ride on well-worn genre rails without taking any chances. This is not the usual order of things, and makes it hard for me to find things that I like. It kind of sucks.

This 2-month period was all over the map; I didn’t have a theme. I only got through half a dozen books, but I have a some rambling to do about some of them.

Side note: For my own convenience, I’m going to switch to linking to Goodreads rather than Amazon. I’m already using Goodreads to keep track of my TBRs, so the listings are right there. I’m not doing affiliate links anyway.


Fantasy, SF and Related Genres

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Imagine that there’s a theoretical park I love to go to. It’s beautiful, it’s intelligently laid out, there are always new things to see and nooks to discover.

And the paths are lined with a species of tree to which I am violently allergic.

That’s pretty much how I am with LMB’s work vis-a-vis May-December romances. Old grizzled men and dewy young lasses are always, always… they are every romantic pairing, I think. Every one that matters. And the dewy young lasses aren’t only dewy young lasses; they are invariably the smartest of cookies. But so much attention is lavished upon their dewy young lassness and the grizzled men’s grizzled oldness that that feels, to me, to be more important than their individuality sometimes. (In this case, to be fair, the grizzled dude isn’t that old chronologically — hell, he’s younger than me — but there’s a bucket of ink spilled about how he feels older than he is, and how he has been ground down into premature decrepitude by circumstances.) It’s always She’s Young and Spunky and Full of Hope, He Finds New Purpose in Life! Just short of a manic pixie dream girl scenario. Just short.

However, I thiiiiiink this book is my turning point from “OH GOD NOT THIS AGAIN” to “okay whatever, here it is again, geez.” I just mentally get out my eyedrops / tissues / antihistamines, and don’t notice it so much. It probably helps that the May-December is hit lightly in this book compared to, say, The Sharing Knife, where it’s all of everything always. (note: I still very much enjoyed The Sharing Knife, even if its vaunted inclusion of polyamory was just an end-run around gay marriage. Product of its time? Nobody’s perfect? Moving on.)

That allergy aside, what’s it about? Saving a kingdom from a corrupt royal advisor, through diplomacy, subterfuge, and a little dark magic. Oh, and lifting a curse. Of Chalion. Of course. Also theology, cancer, cancer as theology, magic, mental illness, and magic that manifests in a way that, to me, reads a bit like a familial tendency toward mental illness.

You are in for big vocab words, grownup ideas, side characters who mostly seem to have lives of their own, lots of bitching about saddle soreness, a moderate amount of medieval fashion porn, and a fantastic, balanced, non-silly, non-allegorical fictional religion that echoes through the characters’ lives believably. The theology  actually winds into the characters’ worldviews and isn’t just arm-waving window dressing or a straw-man villain. (There are obvious, obvious villains, but the Church is neither good nor evil. It just is.) At first the magic component is subtle enough that I wondered, for several chapters, whether it were literally real. Some of the “miracles” came off as coincidental. But then it continued to build.

It took me a while to untangle the eighteen dozen characters hurled at me in the first few chapters, but it all shook out in due course. I can quibble about the villains, I guess — oh, the king is fat? Let me guess, he’s weak and evil and dissolute OH HOW’D I GUESS thanks a lot Henry VIII — but that’s about it.

The series continues, but this book contains an actual story arc. In one book. Yes.

 

The Bees by Laline Paull

See, what did I say? High-concept science fiction whatthefuckery. Though really, I’d call this fantasy-science-ish… high-concept whatthefuckery.

I read The Once and Future King as a kid and was unnerved by the part in which Arthur is turned into an ant, with a rigid, binary mode of thinking that encompasses nothing but working forever. So when I heard about this, I had an immediate gleeful “whaaaaaaat I HAVE to read this” reaction. Yeah, it’s kind of stunt-y, but give me a whackadoo stunt over a formulaic cookie cutter any day — especially one that messes with our expectations about POV. (Yes, Ancillary Justice is on my TBR list too. How’d you guess?)

So we have Flora 717, the Chosen Bee who is Different from Other Bees But Doesn’t Know Why. She lives in an all-encompassing, chemically/pheromonically/psychically bonded hive, which struggles for survival against threats like wasps and fungus and winter. I appreciate the way, way out-there POV, but because of it, I have a tendency to be pulled up short by wording that seems too human — tables? bread? What?

Overall it’s an adventure/espionage kind of story, as Flora explores and tries to understand her world, while being menaced by soldier bees and priestess bees (just roll with it) who are trying to hew to the hive-mind party line and suspect our Different Bee of being Different. It is so very, very weird.

 

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Maybe it’s a coincidence that after I read this book, Amazon laid out this set of recommendations: thepersonsotherperson
This is a well-worn trope now, and well, it seems to work no matter how tired I get of it.

All right, that’s out of the way. Once upon a time, I saw this book on sale and thought huh, science fiction romance, why not? While this sat on the TBR pile, science fiction romance has grown to be a bit of a dark-horse success, even if Bookbub lumps it in with ghost/vampire/whatever paranormal romance. I have yet to get very deep into the new wave, though, because a lot of the emerging tropes and plotlines don’t seem to appeal to me much. “Help, I’ve been abducted by a sexy alien hunk, whatever shall I do?” is not my jam.

More my jam, it turns out, is this: strange, depressing, women’s fictiony post-apocalyptic near-future domestic drama about a chainsmoking, deeply unpleasant tapestry artist who falls in love with her dad’s android lab assistant. (Yeah, what? says everyone except the Data fangirls in the back.)

This book was sad and weird and never quite sank into misanthropy. It is not, it turns out, a romance in the genre sense — for two reasons.

  • First, the heroine dates other men after meeting the hero. As I understand, this is a giant no-go in Romancelandia. Even though they met when she was 7.
  • Second, the hero, based on his very nature, is extremely passive. None of the usual “Stand back, little lady, I know what’s best for your tiny lady brain! *flexes*”.  Generally, that’s a plus for me, although it isn’t a thing you’ll find in Romancelandia. Taken to the extreme as it is here, though, the hero’s passivity can come off as creepy at times, because it’s not entirely clear how much agency he really has. But basically, this is just not how romance heroes act. It’s beyond “beta hero” and into some other territory entirely.

So it doesn’t follow the standard pattern of a romance novel, even though it is more or less a love story, or more precisely, the heroine’s life story through the lens of her relationship with a man.

It also contains a trope that usually pushes my squick buttons, and I still mostly liked it. I was just aggravated enough by the heroine’s mistakes to believe her as a flawed human. And something else that means a lot to me, but is a drawback to a lot of readers: I didn’t know where the story was going throughout. Since it was off the romance-novel rails and not quite onto any other recognizable (to me) rails, I didn’t know where it was headed exactly.

It isn’t perfect, sure. The post-apocalyptic and cybernetic stuff is handwaved when it would have been kind of interesting to explore a little more. There are a couple of enormously creepy things about the hero’s origins that are brushed off with “well, some of my assistants got at him and added some programming for the lulz.” (For a good chunk of the book I thought he’d been created as a sexbot, because why the hell else would an android need those skills? But uh, no.)

More to the point, the main characters are both very passive, letting life happen to them; the heroine never seems to take responsibility for her choices, even though she is a full human with full human agency and rights. This gets downright aggravating. Plus, there’s a cartoon villain in the middle section who seems to exist merely to make the book longer.

But thanks to my inner 14-year-old dysfunctional fangirl, I was charmed in spite of myself. Set me up with a maybe-unrequited tragic love story, a heroine with flaws, and a principled hero with Hidden Depths, and I will plop down in a front-row seat with my popcorn.

 

The Serpent Sea: Books of the Raksura #2 by Martha Wells

I’ve never read book 1, but I saw book 2 on sale on Bookbub a while back and read some reviews that suggested that it was comprehensible without book 1. And it is! As comprehensible as an action-adventure-culture-clash-heist story featuring splendiferously arrogant, shape-shifting tree-dwelling lizard people can be.

And now I need to get this out of my head.

IIIII’VE GOOOT A BIG OLD PROBLEM came back every time I opened this book. Of course, the Phone Power album had come out fairly recently, so it was at the top of my brain. Still.

This book might be what you get when you take an old-school painfully-high-concept story and pull it into an era when characterization is a going concern. The vast majority of the verbiage involves “cool, bizarre thing is happening, let us describe it,” but the narrator has a personality, and makes decisions sometimes. I’m for it. If more fantasy were like this — taking weird leaps in unexpected directions — and fewer Tolkien knockoffs, I’d read more of it.

I am going to say it though: Avatar. Cameron, not Konietzko & DiMartino. There, I said it. Also, the law of conservation of mass omg. This is the reason I do not normally cotton to shapeshifter/werewolf stories. I can take all manner of magic whizzbang in a story, but where did your clothes go and HOW are you twice your original size where did it come from just no.

In this one, one of the characters has a shifted form seemingly four times the size of his unshifted form. My brain itched every time that came up. Also, they blatantly shift clothes out of nowhere that do not seem to be part of their bodies how aaaagh.

(I have spent actual time in my life wondering whether Odo’s comm badge on Deep Space Nine is inorganic or if it’s made of shapeshifter goo, and if it’s inorganic, does it just float around somewhere because we don’t see it in the crappy ‘90s CG, and if it’s organic, how does it work. That’s the kind of nerd I am.)

Those are my quibbles, which are really just quibbles with shifter fiction generally. Otherwise, I actually looked forward to seeing what came next, and reading it didn’t feel like a chore. I quickly gave up on trying to tell apart dozens of nearly indistinguishable named side characters, which helped a lot.

As for not reading the first one, there are clear repercussions in the characters and story from what happened in the first book, but there’s enough recapping that I didn’t feel particularly lost.

Oh yeah, the plot. So our hero is a concubine of the lizard queen, a concubro, perhaps. After the events of Book 1, their clan seeks out a new giant magic tree to live in, only to find that its magic MacGuffin core has been stolen. Concubro, Four Times His Natural Size (the tank of the group), and a bunch of others (all with hippie / American Gladiator names like Leaf and Justice and such) set out to steal it back from an evil wizard in a tower built on the back of a giant sea creature, “The Beast Below” style.

Trippy! woo!

Not sure I’d keep reading, but I enjoyed it, even for all its biological/physics-violating NO and plot meandering. It aimed for something different, and I respect that greatly.

 

Other Genres

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Historical/literary fiction, and by “literary” I generally mean “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen before I start.” It’s about the family of a white Georgian fire-and-brimstone missionary who goes to the Congo to Convert the Heathen Masses, just as the country is undergoing upheaval. It’s narrated by the mother and four daughters of the missionary’s family, each with their own take on the situation.

I enjoyed it greatly, though it was intentionally frustrating to watch the family tilt toward disaster in the style of grand family tragedy. Grand family tragedy + immersion in an unfamiliar setting + very different POVs = interesting read.

Plus, hit up Goodreads afterwards to watch people utterly lose their minds over the less than perfect missionary character.

 

Nonfiction

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

DNFd. I will start by saying that I’m surrounded by Bloggess fans, but I’ve never read the site myself. As it turns out, this dynamic is extremely apt.

I’d picked up the book because I heard it was a funny memoir/essay collection about depression/anxiety/mental illness, and it is exactly that.

The thing is, there are as many experiences of mental illness as there are people with them. This one reflects an experience that I can’t relate to. The title refers to an idea that, if I may be cynical (because I’m going to), boils down to “don’t be depressive, be bipolar instead! Then when you’re depressed, you can look back at your manic phase and remember how awesome it was to be manic!” Which I’m sure works for a lot of people, but not me. I’m not bipolar, and I can’t do WACKY SPONTANEOUS things like climbing over a fence into the zoo at 2 a.m. to pet the elephants, because I’ve got a mortgage to pay, and I need to work and sleep. I know that’s super uncool and boring, but that’s my life.

Ultimately, though, it was one anecdote that made me quit. It was a story about the author wanting to adopt a cat that she couldn’t really take care of, because she thought it would be funny to give it a funny name. Yeah, that would be funny. But to me, that isn’t enough of a reason to adopt a pet that you can’t handle. (So are you just going to take it back to the shelter like “yeah, it made a great anecdote for my blog, but I’m done with it now”? yeahno.)

My Pet Rage activated at that. I’m also one of those people who bails on a movie if they hurt the dog, so I was not interested in anything the book had to say after the “flippantly adopt a pet solely to give it a silly name” story. I know that’s kind of petty, but hey, it’s my reading experience and I can bail whenever I want.

In a larger framework, I think it’s important to have a lot of different experiences of mental illness out there in the open, because different people will relate to different experiences. This experience appeals to a lot of my friends, who can and do have spontaneous, cool adventures that brighten their lives and provide something good to look back on when things are darker. But my life is not like that, and so that lens/mirror doesn’t work for me.

 

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015, edited by Rebecca Skloot
Like it says. I like a sampler sometimes, and I like reading about topics about which I am completely clueless, like caving. Some of the pieces seemed truncated, but I don’t recall any that felt like a slog. I’ll have to remember to look for this year’s collection on sale.


I’m nearing the end of John Scalzi’s The Human Division, but I don’t know whether I’ll finish it before month end, so we’ll call it there. July might be Femslash Month, and I wish I’d thought of that in June! Ah well.

Beginning TBR: 108
Ending TBR: 104 (bought a few on a trip to Half Price Books)
Goodreads Challenge: 29/36

La la la limbo

See previous: same situation. I am not being chill about being in limbo. I foam at the mouth regularly. I want a direction for Book 3, which I can’t chart until I know whether Book 2 makes any sense to anyone. (Again, beta reading is always always always open. I am this close to nailing copies of this damn draft to telephone poles with tear-off strips that say “Please Please Please Somebody Give Me a Fricking Opinion I Need to Fix Whatever Issues I Can’t See And Now I’m So Bored It Hurts Help.” They would be long strips.)

In the meantime, I’m reading as much as I can stand, and spinning my 500-words-a-day wheels by writing prequels, sequels, history, story-encyclopedia entries, journaling, and, recently, a wow-how’d-this-get-so-long potential (but unlikely) future short set about 10 years after Book 2. I may write a couple more of those, and see whether any of them makes sense for an eventual direction for that part of the series.

This situation is deeply frustrating. I’ve offered to beta-read and line-edit other people’s books, because I’m good at it, and skill trade is a great idea in theory. Nothing. I’ve begged for help from friends to no avail. The only leverage I don’t have is money, and that seems to be the only thing that will wring anything but silence out of this world. So… here we are. Yay money, you make all things possible.

Every cell in my being screams that I cannot, CANNOT OMG WHAT ARE YOU THINKING put up a book that hasn’t been through >1 pre-readers. But that’s what I’m facing: publish a nearly un-pre-read book, or never publish again. I’ll go back to my list of priorities and ponder this for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll see.