The Final 6: 2016 Reading Challenge

I put what I suspected was an unrealistic 18 titles on my 2016 Reading Challenge, back in December. I’ve torn through them rather quickly, wouldn’t you say? I’ve broken the reviews down into 3 posts, the first two of which can be found here and here.

Here’s the wrap:

1. A funny book.

The Princess Bride The Princess Bride by William Goldman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always believed that the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me,” means “It’s you.” But when it comes to this book, I think it must really be me.

I fully expected The Princess Bride to become my new favorite comfort book. I mean, it has everything. Fencing. Torture. Giants. True love. Beautifulest ladies. Villains. Pirates. Heroes. Pirate heroes. Etc., etc. It has satire and humor and cerebrality and the story-within-a-story-within-a-story schtick that I usually love.

The movie was one of my son’s absolute favorites when he was little, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, both of which we wore out more than once in VHS format. I found the movie to be decent, so I expected to love love love the book because the book is always better than the movie, but – not this time.

Reading other reviews, I see that in the 30th anniversary edition I got some extra material, including an abridgement of Buttercup’s Baby and Stephen King as a character, which is particularly cool as lately I’ve been on a kick where I’m rereading books I loved clear back in high school, and I’m not sure if my literary life flashing before my eyes means I’m going to die soon or what, but it’s all good, gotta go sometime and it might as well be with a good book, and so I recently reread Carrie and was reminded why Stephen King is the King of Storytelling, and I’m sure he gets tired of that joke, but then again maybe not. Anyway, I did not love the Buttercup’s Baby material, and I see other reviewers felt it spoiled the original story. I can’t unread it, so I’ll never know if that was the problem.

What was the problem?

The drama club of my daughter’s erstwhile high school in Fallon, Nevada, put on a stage production of The Princess Bride that was stellar, and that’s what I was expecting to find in the book, I think. Perhaps it was those particular kids bringing the parts to life, dare I say it, even better than the professional actors did in the movie (with the exception of Inigo Montoya – Mandy Patinkin owned Inigo Montoya). It was a very talented bunch of kids. That play will always be the pinnacle of The Princess Bride for me, and it’s too bad, because you can’t rewind or reread a stage production. Once the run is over, it’s only memory. Perhaps that’s what’s going on, that I loved the play the most because of its transitory nature – things are always better in retrospect. Or perhaps it was the potential that exists on the written page, waiting to be brought to life by actual people. I’m picturing another Cary Elwes vehicle, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, that would have been “meh” to read but was an absolute scream as a movie.

Anyway, whatever the issue is, three stars. That’s not bad, according to my rating system. I only give 5 stars to a book I love so much that I will buy a copy and read it again and again (I’m cheap and I love libraries), so I hand out very few 5-star ratings. Four stars means I did love it, just not enough to buy. Three stars means it was competently written and it entertained me and I liked it just fine. I was considering a fourth star for the “it’s not you, it’s me” factor, but I always hated it when erstwhile paramours tried that crap on me and I’m not trying to put anything over on anybody. So, three stars.

10. A book by an author under the age of 30.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It looks like she may have done all of her best writing before 30, because after 30 she was preoccupied with horrible marriages and alcoholism and various degrees of suicide and having strokes. I’m not trying to be flippant. Tortured writers often produce the best stuff, and this title has been on my TBR list for a long time.

There’s this:

“Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty.”

I imagine that at the time this book was published, it was avant-garde and a rather in-your-face study of society’s ailments, particularly coming from a writer only 23 years old. There is some beautiful and evocative prose:

“Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.”

The problem I had was that nothing much seems to happen. The characterization is marvelous, but the interaction between the characters is minimal and the movement in the story is almost entirely internal. It’s like contemplating one exquisitely painted still life after another, each isolated and crying out silently, but not going anywhere. You just look at them in their aloneness and sorrow. The writing is graceful and evocative, but what it tells of is bleak and depressing and I had a hard time pushing myself through it. I feel rather let down.

12. A book set in the future.

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Snow Crash thing — is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?”

Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?”

The Matrix meets  The DaVinci Code! It’s important to note that (1) this book came first, (2) the Sumerian mythology also came first, and is also way cooler, and (3) Neal Stephenson writes way better than Dan Brown. This future world is bleak indeed, dominated by televangelist-style religion and a Mafia that doesn’t even try to hide anymore. Not like that’s practically the way things are now or anything.

Enter sword-fighting hacker extraordinaire Hiro Protagonist, and a prickly, street-smart thrasher known as Y.T. (Yours Truly), whom I just wanted to bring home so I could feed her cookies and milk.

It is not the book’s fault I didn’t get out of it as much as I should have. I was snatching a page here, a quick chapter there, during a very hectic time, when my husband’s health problems had him back in the hospital, I was trying to find a place to live, we had Mother’s Day and birthdays to wrangle, a couple other minor crises, one of those times when everything happens at once. Naturally, that’s when my name finally made it to the top of the wait list for Snow Crash. I will read it again when things are calmer and I can immerse myself properly. It’s still easy to see this is cyberpunk at its best.

13. A book with a love triangle.

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

For my 2016 reading challenge, it was hard finding a list of love-triangle books that aren’t 100% romance (I loathe the romance genre) without also being YA/paranormal. Not that I have anything against YA or paranormal as separate genres, but I can do without the whole teeny-bop vampire/werewolf thing. Like an NA member admits to having used, I admit to having read the Twilight series — but not where anyone could see me doing it, and only now that I’m rehabbed and clean. And it’s like former users have told me: you know you’re being stupid for trying it the first time, but you just have to see what all the fuss is about, and after that it’s not your fault because while it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and is horribly bad for you, it’s still just that addicting. Twilight is about as much YA/paranormal as I can take.

But this YA/paranormal stuff is all I could find!

Fine. I went with City of Bones just for the wild disparity in the ratings. Reviewers either love love love it or hate hate hate it. I’m intrigued by a book that can stir that much feeling, either way.

On to the review:

“…hair that stuck up around his head like the tentacles of a startled octopus.”

Right there, on page 2, I knew I was in Silly Simile Land. When I googled around to find a picture of a startled octopus, I also found several quotes of this line but with “tendrils” of a startled octopus. My library print copy says “tentacles.”If the ebook has “tendrils,” that’s even worse. And, I’m not the only one who thought it was dumb.

“[She] hails from New Jersey. ”
“I’m from Brooklyn!” Clary was outraged.

Clary is constantly outraged. All of the dialogue is over-the-top and soap-opera-ish. I liked the arch humor in Simon’s character, but when all the other characters do it too, it’s just overdone sarcasm. There’s this whole I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I flavor to every exchange the characters have.

And let’s see…Clary’s father died before she was even born, and Jace’s parents are dead, and somehow he felt this attunement with her at the same time she could see these Shadowhunters when mundanes can’t, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say they share a father. (Peeks ahead.) No spoilers.

Googling around, I also see a lot of complaints about the author’s plagiarism of her own work. It’s certainly possible to do that in academia, where papers for classes are expected to be original for each class, and at the very least you’d better cite yourself. This is hardly academia, however, and I don’t know why she can’t rework her own stuff if she wants to. What’s she going to do, sue herself? And with the plethora of YA/urban fantasy stuff out there, after so many, many years of fantasy and science fiction from other authors, it’s also difficult to come up with anything that’s truly original. I only watched a couple episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not a big TV person) but I see the similarities easily, along with the Luke-and-Leia bit from Star Wars, and the ‘net tells me this stuff started out as Harry Potter fanfiction. Still, I’m not sure what’s the big deal about “plagiarizing” her own work. E.L. James turned her Twilight fanfic into Fifty Shades of Grey, and I don’t see anybody crying foul beyond the quality of the writing itself – I did not read and have no intention of reading Fifty Shades, so I’ll never know.

As noted, it’s difficult to come up with anything that’s truly original anymore, but City of Bones has so many stereotypes. Jace is the classic wounded-bad-boy hero. Clary is the Mary Sue who has no idea how she beautiful she is and doesn’t understand why every guy in the world wants to do her, and can kill a monster like anyone else would slap a mosquito, and just blindly accepts that mermaids and werewolves and vampires and warlocks and faeries and demons really do exist like oh, okay, if you say so, I’ll believe you, even if I only met you two hours ago, because you’re just so cute. I’m guessing Simon-Clary-Jace is the love triangle, which was the whole point of me reading this book, and Simon seems to be a cross between Gale from The Hunger Games and Duckie from Pretty in Pink. He’s the only character I like, and I’m afraid he’s just not going to be enough to carry me through. I was able to apply my 100-page rule but now I’m abandoning after seven chapters.

14. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.

Greece!

I was recently very disappointed by The Lost Sisterhood. If The Song of Achilles hadn’t turned out to be everything I wanted in a novel of ancient Greece, I was going to be so pissed.

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was as Odysseus had said; he had light enough to make heroes of them all.

Thank you, thank you, Madeline Miller, for my new favorite retelling of The Iliad.

The fresh take is twofold: the narration by Patroclus, and the oft-debated premise that he and Achilles were lovers. Those uncomfortable with same-sex romance may want to give this a pass, but to do so would be to miss an elegantly told love story. Oh, to have any of my romances written of so lyrically.

Miller stays true to Homer while giving new breath to lesser-known cast members, including Chiron, Thetis, Peleus, Deidameia, and Briseis. This old story is so evocatively written as to transport us back to the Bronze Age and the Trojan shores, caught up events that seem utterly new.

Beautiful book. The ending made this crusty old broad cry.

New words:

Yare: Of a ship, easy to maneuver.

15. A book you own but have never read.

Border MusicBorder Music by Robert James Waller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember absolutely loving Bridges of Madison County (yes, I dislike the romance genre, but I enjoy a well-told love story; big difference), so much that I bought two more of Waller’s books. I also enjoyed Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, and I have finally gotten around to reading Border Music.

I didn’t like this one quite as well. The basics of the writing are as beautiful as I remember: “Dawn, and the moon sat full and fat on I-10, looking as if you could go right through it in a mile or two.” Like that. Lovely. But the dialogue in this one seemed very scripted, long, drawn-out aw-shucks-ma’am speeches rather than people actually making conversation. But then, maybe people talk that way in West Texas. I’ve never been there.

This story kept me turning the pages, but the events are almost more internal than external. It was decent and Jack Carmine and Linda Lobo are likeable enough and the story kept me entertained, but I preferred the first two Waller books I read.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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