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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, in pretty much one sitting, I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It was fine, a pleasant enough read. The problem is that the whole time I was comparing it to Catherynne Valente’s Deathless and coming up short. I know that’s not fair, but Deathless is more ambitious and the prose is beautiful and, well, now I want to reread that.
But back to Bear and the Nightingale. I did enjoy reading this. In my Goodreads review I posit that it would be nice bath reading, you know, maybe a nice scented candle light, warm water, nothing to do for the foreseeable future, etc. It doesn’t demand too much of the reader, tbh. Actually, what I quite like about this is (and Deathless) is the sort of “well let’s get on with it” vibe that Russian folklore characters have. That stoicism and inner strength and that general sense of fuck you I will survive. I can work with that.
A Cinderella-ish, Jack Frost-ish retelling, Vasilia gets the evil stepmom who isn’t quite evil, just a bit gifted/cursed and overly dependent on religion, while Vasilia herself struggles to retain the old ways because, well, winter is coming and something is waking up and she’s just a bit witchy. There’s country life mentality and fear of the unknown, new and old religions butting heads, lots to enjoy. Also, you know, Vasilia learns the language of horses and I love me horses with attitude. But, it didn’t really leave me gasping. Most of the action feels shoved into the last 30 pages and we don’t get a lot of answers exactly about Vasilia’s mom’s past. Which, I guess, is why this is apparently a series now. Awesome.
Possibly my biggest quibble is that I think the title is . . . misleading? It rolls off the tongue nicely and creates a nice image, but now that I’ve finished the book it seems not quite right. Not to spoil anything, but the “nightingale” part doesn’t come into play until the last section with the real action and honestly is just a supporting character? It’s not a bait and switch or anything but just seems like they went with a title that sounded interesting as opposed to entirely accurate.
The sequel is set to come out in January 2018, so we’ll see how I feel then!