As I mentioned in the last post, one of the few benefits to my long writing hiatus has been that I have amassed a pretty sizable list of books to point you guys towards (or… very much point in the other direction, as the case may be).
So let’s get to it! Since I’m a bad news first kinda gal, let’s start with the nominees for the book Razzies and work our way up, shall we? There are probably some spoilers here, but not for the books that I hope you’ll actually want to read after reading this!:
The Nope, Never Mind, Move Right Along Past This… Quickly List
Marked in Flesh, Anne Bishop
Yes, really. This was a surprise to me, too. I am on record many times as a huge Anne Bishop fan. Her Black Jewels Trilogy was a cornerstone of my angsty teen reading and of my indulgent adult reading. I always thought she really got what it was like to be in the grip of extreme, out of control emotions and hormones all the time and had a gift for silliness that balanced it perfectly. And the first and second books in this series seemed like more of the same. A special snowflake wounded main character who is given her fantasy of eternal protection and innocent friendship in a cruel, perverted world that has tried to destroy her essential innocence and failed, with the same cast of protective, powerful main characters and quirky side characters, with the same ultimate looming danger. But the ingredients didn’t mix as well as the series went on- the exchanges got more and more formulaic, the events and the response to them got not only repetitive but predictable almost to the word- you knew which expression each character was going to use or how Bishop was going to describe their emotions without trying. You could call the adjectives, even. And while I always found it charming that Bishop wanted to protect her characters from everything… oh man does she. It’s like she dreams up a possible danger, and then anxiously spends days and weeks thinking up how to plug all the holes possible for this character to be in actual danger, and then moves on to the next thing, with the result that there’s like two pages of action followed by like fifty pages where everyone’s soothing and hugging each other and setting up magical gates until it gets unbelievable that anything WOULD ever happen to these characters ever again. Also, her insistence on her belief in the utter innocence of childhood, particularly female childhood, gets pretty twee and a little weird after awhile- Bishop really seems to have something against fully functioning adults. Or at least she got lazy enough to give us all the signifiers and none of the meat. And, to top it all off, I find the understanding of sexuality that she presents in this series more and more troubling and sad every time I read another book- it seems to kind of glorify emotional dysfunction and childish innocence as sexual prizes in a woman, and sees all men as threatening except super paternal/fraternal ones with disturbingly aggressive protective instincts. I tried to read this like four times and couldn’t get past page 100 no matter what I did- my eyes would forcibly close every time I tried to read more of it. Stop at book three in this series and read someone’s spoiler-y recap if you want to know what happens after, honestly. You’ve read all the other books in this series already, I promise. Unless you really NEED to read more about what kind of treats Meg is feeding her special animals and how she’ll save the world with adorableness, or something.
Contagious: How Things Catch On, Jonah Berger
This was one of those $2 kindle daily deals that I decided to take the plunge on. …It turns out sometimes there’s a reason that they’re on sale for $2. This was an incredibly obvious overview of marketing principles that was written by a professor who said that the principles he tried to explain to people were just too “complicated”, so basically he dumbed it down for the layperson to understand. And boy, did he. OMG, did you know that people like to buy stuff that that gives them status in society??? Did you know that people like exclusive stuff even more?? And that they trust friends and family more than oily sales people with an agenda?? This could have, and should have, been dealt with in a short article for USA Today. Instead, I assume that students in his class have spent untold thousands of dollars, collectively, to purchase this required text to deal with at unnecessary length for a semester. Skip it, guys.
Last Song Before Night, Ilana C. Myer
Meh. Soooooo much meh that it became bad. It’s a poor man’s Kay book, and as a devoted Kay fan, you can’t lead me up to the water and then expect me to drink recycled pond scum, you know? It’s Kay but if Kay had less understanding of people and had read far too many fantasy books that present fantasy characters until the author thinks that that’s how people operate in books. Lovely setting, nice rich colors airbrushed in, the plot and signposts all set up…. and then some super juvenile and half-assed characters were the only ones who showed up to play in it. Hard pass, guys.
The Forgettable List
This was the first year I’ve really, truly, allowed myself to read a LOT of these, even after I knew that they would fade away as quickly as I read them. But other people may be in a stressful situation and need the same sort of escapist nonsense, so here they are:
The entire catalog of Liane Moriarty
Over the course of a super stressful February, I read every single book that Liane Moriarty has ever written. And I honestly don’t remember pretty much anything about any of them except that I read them fast, they kept me up some nights, and that they featured a lot of women discovering dark secrets in their family’s past or present. It’s got a fairly traditional understanding of femininity and women’s choices- it’s a lot of women with small, domestic lives who really just want their two kids, picket fence and a dog at heart- and are super defensive about wanting that, actually- but are caught up in other stuff that hasn’t allowed that to happen. And if women don’t want that, be prepared for some great tragedy in the past that has warped them somehow into not wanting that. (Those are always the most interesting characters though- the ones that Moriarty really lets herself go on.) On the plus side, she has these women thinking a lot of things that I’m sure a lot of women of a certain class and age- mostly white and middle aged and upper middle class- think a lot and feel bad about, so some readers will have a lot to relate to here. But of course it’s mostly things that involve a small amount of daring that she imagines is far bigger than it is. Except for The Husband’s Secret, which is by far her most popular book, and is basically just Moriarty putting the deepest, darkest fears of someone for whom image and class matters far more than anything else on the page and almost, but not quite, letting them come to their worst possible conclusion. By far my favorite of these books was Three Wishes, about three sisters and their issues with each other- it’s also the one I remember the most about and it had by far the sharpest writing, I thought. The Last Anniversary had a fairly compelling central mystery, although I found several of the characters irritating in retrospect. The Hypnotist’s Love Story had some disturbing things going on from a feminist and, well, human perspective, and The Husband’s Secret… well I can’t talk about it, really. That thing was written for a very safe, unimaginative book of the month club for people who wear khakis to be totally shocked and threatened by. That was the only one I almost didn’t finish. But again… I read them all, I read them all quickly, and I bought the next one almost immediately after. So take my months-later criticism with the grain of salt it probably deserves.
The Good Girl, Mary Kubica
Paint-by-the-numbers post-Gone Girl attempt to cash in on the craze for realistic psychological dramas inside the head of deeply flawed main characters. Which I totally fell for because that is so my addictive cup of tea lately, if its done well. And this was deeply average. I literally forgot I read this and what happened in it until I just opened up my kindle to see what books I had on it from the last couple of months. Overly dramatic family drama with generally flat characters feeling flat emotions, basically trying to make three-dimensional all those headlines about kidnapped girls and put a twist on it You’ll Never See Coming! And I guess I didn’t until really close to the end, except that I also didn’t care because the book keeps the reader at such a distance. Some points for the scenes of Stockholm Syndrome with the kidnapper’s perspective. Pass, unless you’re as desperate as I am to find some actually good book of this type, and are on a lazy-brain sort of day.
Eight Hundred Grapes, Laura Dave
Fairly inoffensive story about a big city girl coming home to find her roots and realize What’s Really Important at home, and all the dysfunctional family mess she finds as she does so. The romantic element was easy to figure out pretty quickly, and honestly kind of forced in a way that felt practical for the character rather than actually romantic in any way. This is genuinely sometimes how it works out when certain people aren’t suited and realize it, so points for that, but it sucked any juice out of those parts of the novel. Some points for not allowing herself to go full Hallmark schmaltz on the end, and making her character realize that everyone else in her life may not be onboard with her perfect picture of her Coming Home Again storyline. The writing could occasionally be lovely, was mostly obvious and full of strained metaphors.
After I Do, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Dysfunctional couple consider divorce after getting more and more frustrated with each other to the point that they can’t even be in the same room anymore. The gimmick here is that they agree to spend a year not contacting each other and seeing how their lives are apart before they actually divorce to see if they miss each other or not.We only really get the female half of this experiment’s perspective, which was kind of disappointing. Some emotional stuff to connect to, and definitely a good angsty read for a rainy afternoon. Downgraded from good for some predictable stock characters, some truly shallow emotions on display, and of course, for the predictably tied-with-a-bow ending. (If you guys read this… can we talk about the mutual violation of privacy thing, though? Because that was a super redline NOPE for me and it also blew up a lot of my belief in the ending.)
The Good and Solid
Steal the Sky, Megan O’Keefe
I don’t have a lot to say about this one except, solid thumbs up. It is exactly what it advertises itself to be, with exactly the tone, characters and situations that you might expect. It’s got the lighting on the walls and the ships in the harbor and the actors suited up and ready to go. It’s got the zingers and close ups ready, it’s got your action sequences all lined up. If you’re into pirates and scoundrels and swordplay and spies, sign yourself right up for this one. You’ll get exactly what you want and never be once disappointed. It’s not formulaic, and just fast-paced enough that you don’t think about anything for too long, or are much inclined to criticize if you did. (You won’t get any more than is advertised, which is why this is not on the Great Ones list, but all of the above is something to be proud of.) A quick read with no pretensions, and a smart author clearly at the helm.
The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
This is an earlier Ferrante work, and I think it shows. You can see her warming up for Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels, but she isn’t quite there yet. Flashes of them show through in her characters’ thoughts, stated more crudely and with less emotional power, less well hidden. Part of me thinks that Ferrante spent her whole career warming up for that quartet of books, planting little pieces here and there in her writing until it finally all coalesced there, finally able to be articulated with the precision and passion that it deserved. This particular book is a vignette of a thing- a short snapshot of a middle-aged mother on a solo vacation to the Italian coast, having just got both her grown daughters off into their lives, who commits a small and seemingly inexplicable act of thievery that has obvious symbolic meaning and farther reaching plot consequences than you’d think. Some moments of truth, but a lot of it is super raw here- stated too baldly to really have much else to say. But she’s on her way, and it’s Ferrante, so it was never going to be bad or forgettable.
Keep You Close, Lucie Whitehouse
Both of my previous Lucie Whitehouse reads would have gone straight into the no, no, no, pile (or at least the “be careful, problematic, approach with this warning label” category, if we had one of those), but this one surprised me pleasantly. Whitehouse has, in the past, produced women who are obsessed with the sort of surface, class-based and female-on-female symbols of power that are like nails on a chalkboard to me. They seemed emotionally childish, and sparked a pretty long and probably unfair rant about women who hide from each other in dishonest ways from me on goodreads (on her Before We Met book review space, if you’re interested). But this one was my first hint that Whitehouse actually understood that her main characters had deep flaws and didn’t fully sympathize with their fantasies of being Better Than All Those Other Girls, that she actually understood that it was disturbing and indicative of something deeply wrong with them somewhere. Or at least she was exploring the possibility. And her previous books meant that I was TOTALLY surprised by it and did not see it coming until almost the end of the book, which made the last chapters of this a total page turner for me. I doff my hat to you, Whitehouse, and issue you belated apologies for perhaps underestimating you. I look forward to seeing where you take this realization in future books- I hope it’s to the honest place you did here, in by far your best, most relatable and psychologically surprising book.
An Irish Country Village, by Patrick Taylor
This is the follow up to An Irish Country Doctor, and I didn’t love it the way I did the first installment. Everything is just slightly less good than the first one, and suffers from formulaic, repetitive problems and a less than compelling narrator. But it’s charming cast of characters, the believable stakes, the wonderful Fingal O’Reilly and Taylor’s commitment to realism made this more than worth reading. More to tell you in the Great section.
…which will be coming soon!
Next post: The Truly Great Books I read over the past few months. They deserve their own space, because I’ve got a lot to say about them.