I was really expecting to cry during this one.

When Paul Kalanitihi’s When Breath Becomes Air came out last year, it got a lot of attention. A young neurosurgeon (with a background in literature and apparently a strong poetic writing style) diagnosed with advanced cancer writing his memoir? It promised to be a new voice, a new look at death and life from the perspective of a man who’s been walking that line his whole career and considering what constitutes a life his whole life.

And I guess that’s not wrong, it was also just proclaimed to have beautiful prose and to be a tearjerker. But I didn’t quite get that. To me, this was just solidly fine. I know I went in with pretty high expectations after hearing everyone gush about the prose,  but, well, it felt more clinical/scientific than truly narrative or personal.

This was still a moving story, death and families left behind always are, but from all the reviews I really expected a bit more tears. The only section, though, that tugged a bit harder on my heart was his wife’s epilogue.

 

Y’all this wasn’t great either.

I didn’t really love The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, so picking up the sequel wasn’t high on my list. But then I read so many mediocre books by white people that I wanted to get back on the diverse reading train. And, well, The Rose & The Dagger seemed light enough to not feel daunting, even at 400+ pages. But, well, I ended up giving it two stars on Goodreads, which seems a bit cruel, but apparently that stands for “this was OK,” and that is really how I feel about this book.

TBH I don’t really remember the first book all that well. I had to check out a recap on bookseriesrecaps.com and even then I was like, Ugh. I never really connected with the characters or felt super invested in ANY of the relationships. And the characterization felt all over the place. Shahrzad felt even more volatile? Unstable? Aggressively suspicious and angry? I don’t know. Just, she had a lot of emotions that were frequently too hair trigger to be enjoyable, bearable, or really believable. Rahim shows up just to give Irsa some page time and then, well, <spoiler>dies</spoiler>, so that seems pretty useless. He was barely there long enough for me to care about, which just is sloppy. Jalal is barely in it, which might actually be a crime.

Really, for how long this book is, the plot was hideously rushed in places. Tension is introduced and resolved within pages. Nothing seems to last. Like, remember that curse? That Khalid has been suffering under? And we go through all this shit because of some curse? And how does that get resolved? By stabbing a book in a scene that lasts, what, three pages? AND THEN IS NEVER ADDRESSED AGAIN? Yeah, OK. And apparently all the citizens of Rey are cool now that Khalid isn’t going around killing his wives. The epilogue just jumps over all the trust (and city!) rebuilding that had to happen and gives us a happy ending that is barely more palatable than the Harry Potter series epilogue.

I was kind of impressed that Ahdieh decided to kill Khalid, and then two paragraphs later she undoes all that good will by having Jahandar FINALLY see the light and “redeem” himself by using all the ~~dark magicks~~ to trade his life so Khalid can live. (Cue aggressive eye-rolling.)

I’m glad I finished this series, but this isn’t going on my reread shelf.

I’ll take “Pretentious and Privileged” for 600, Alex

Well, this was another misstep. A memoir in the form of a graphic novel, Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke leaves a lot to be desired. The illustrations were fine, but as with At Home in the World, I wonder if the author is aware of how pretentious and privileged she comes across. This is not the deep look at grief and ruins that I’d hoped for; it’s very surface level with a deeply rooted sense of entitlement, as she flees to Italy to avoid her adult life. As she flees to Iceland to put off moving to Kentucky (gasp) of all places. As she interviews former residents of nowadays ghost towns and doesn’t know how to feel when she comes away without anything good, something she can sink her teeth into and give permanence. These are things only us white people can get away with. Radtke nudges up against some interesting thoughts on ruins and their purpose and implied meaning in our society, in our history, but honestly that isn’t enough to save this for me.

 

Knock on wood, but I think I’m out of this rut.

The trick to getting a lot of reading done is this: work from home and have no dependents or social life. Such is how I read all 400 pages of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly in less than twenty-four hours. I read in the morning. I read on my lunch break. I pretty much sat on my couch all evening and then my bed all night reading. And, at 12:01 AM, I finished.

Let me be honest: if I weren’t coming off a streak of uninteresting books, I likely would have spaced this out more. Taken a few more days with it. Under different circumstances, this isn’t a book that would grab me by my throat and straight-up compel me to keep reading in a mad frenzy. But due to the sheer novelty of finally enjoying a book again, I didn’t want it to stop. So, well, I didn’t.

This is a really solid book, though. Strong writing, even pacing, and interesting premise of spies and fascism and cabarets and two men in love who quite simply are terrible at communicating with each other until it’s too damn late. All things I don’t hate. Astride is delightful and knows his worth and what he can do with his face and his body (and my god HIS HAIR) and his mind, and sure he may be a smuggler in love with a government spy but he’s damn well still going to do what he pleases. And Cryil, quiet Cyril, who’s had some tough breaks and is finally settling in with his new lot in life and his not-spoken-of love of Astride until things get shaken up again and he’s desperately trying to stay afloat and save his skin and Astride’s, all on his own, of course. These two idiots. I’m into them.

The ending of this book aches, but it felt right. Kind of a spoiler, here, but obviously they couldn’t have a happy ending. They’re both too used to hiding things and working around the other without revealing their plans and secrets. But, I think this is the first time in recent memory that I’m not mad at a standalone book turning into a series. Because I want these two fools to find each other in their mad world. I want them to carve out some space of quiet happiness for themselves, like they had for a while in Astride’s flat. Only this time, they’ll only tell each other small lies.

I do want to touch briefly on the women characters, of which there are some! Just mostly in side roles, although starting with Part Two Cordelia gets a lot more to do, thankfully. She’s smart, ambitious, and willing to blow shit up when necessary. And while she operates without all the information (“for her own safety” according to Cyril and Astride, OFC), she doesn’t relinquish her agency and when people around her start getting hurt, she doesn’t back down. I hope we see her in the next book!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go be sad about this for some time.

 

I’m in a rut.

It’s possible that I’m in a terrible cycle. I’ve read so many mediocre books that I need something amazing to shake me up, but all the books I try are still just so-so. Which makes me wonder that I might like that more if I were experiencing them at any point of than now.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is fine. Solid, even. I might have given it four stars if I read it four books ago, but I didn’t. It wasn’t a revelation, although Savit does have a good grasp on the inner workings of seven year olds. I think he does justice to the confusion of that age, when adults are mostly taken at face value, and the affable acceptance and flexibility and adaptability of the very young. World War II in the very near background was treated with a light touch–light on the horror and Anna’s understanding of what’s going on in the world comes in waves. I didn’t hate this, but I just didn’t love it.

I also didn’t hate At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider but I definitely love myself enough to stop reading it. It wasn’t even the mediocre kind of enjoyable and I’m trying to be better about not slogging my way through texts that are just dull. Or maybe dull isn’t the right word for this, but it fits right now. At Home was just very white woman, very privileged, and boring. She sobs about leaving a small New Zealand town, for Pete’s sake. Come the fuck on. There’s just so little substance–no deep dives into where they’re going, the history, what they’re seeing or eating, just surface notes and relief that they found Italian food in Beijing. Even as Tsh and her family are traveling the world, going to these amazing places and hopefully experiencing amazing things, her experience feels so very myopic. There is very little looking around for the reader and I don’t have time for this.

Amberlough is my next book and I have really high hopes and expectations. Crossing my fingers that the next post here isn’t as unhappy!

I Had High Hopes, tbh

Well, the last three books I’ve read have been solidly “meh”: All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and Witches of America by Alex Mar.

All the Lives I Want
I don’t know what more I wanted from this. The essays are solid(ish), the collection covers a broad range of topics, the “famous strangers” are from a wide range, but I just didn’t get anything out of it, aside from a couple eye rolls and the sense that “oh this is white.” (Particularly in the Didion essay. Is it possible to ever avoid that???) The Courtney Love is a Witch essay at least felt like something new. I will say, though, that Alana Massey never sounds like anyone but herself throughout this collection.

Everything I Never Told You
My god this book is depressing. But if you’re feeling emotionally blocked, give this one a try. I cried at least three times from the sheer misery. The writing is lovely, though! Strong, solid narrative, beautifully created characters who just so happen to be utterly miserable. It is a magnificent reflection, though, on unvoiced expectations and how those weigh on the people in our lives. How even as we think we’re being better than our parents, better than stereotypes of culture, some shit is hard to leave behind. This is basically the novel version of “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin.

Witches of America
Honestly I didn’t know what to expect here, other than WITCHES and how much I loved the cover. But it took a decidedly different turn when Mar takes a personal interest in witchcraft (as opposed to the professional, documenting kind of interest, I mean). And, really, some of this feels . . . exploitative? Unnecessary? And some of her descriptions are, well, cringey. Talking about a large woman’s breasts. That a gay interior designer wore a patterned (maybe it was floral) scarf all weekend. Why? Is? This? Included???? Maybe insensitive is the word I want. But, in any case, by two-thirds in I’d had enough of her self-questioning and her journey started to feel like a weird masturbatory/self-congratulating event for her.

Fingers crossed that the books waiting for me at the library are better than this…

Thank god it’s over.

Well, I’ve just finished A Separation by Katie Kitamura and MY GOD am I glad it was short at only 230 pages. It was not my favorite, not by a long shot. I’m pretty sure I picked this up because I was reminded of the cover of Things We Lost in the Fire. My dislike could come from timing–the books I’ve read lately have felt very literary, requiring more emotional investment than I have and the prose, while enjoyable, feels a bit dense (this is mostly meant as a compliment)–but I know that’s only a contributing factor. This was exhausting to read, more work and not enough payoff.

The prose is lovely, if a bit recursive and rambling (dense, but not as a compliment). Kitamura writes beautifully and with such restraint–there’s a low sense of internal tension, but nothing remarkable. Nothing like the second half of Fates and Furies or the unbearable ache of Idaho. Overall the tone, the aesthetic if you please, is very meditative, methodical, and comes at relationships and how we evolve out them sideways, but the unnamed wife is so draining. I understand her concerns about sharing or not sharing her current relationship status with her husband’s parents and I like that she’s upfront in her awareness that it’s mostly a selfish decision, but she feels so flimsy. There’s something slippery about her decision-making and emotions that I can’t trust.

No one was particularly likable or obscenely unlikable; Kitamura did an excellent job of creating very human and, as such, flawed characters. This book just wasn’t my favorite.