Wednesday, September 9, 2020

May's Reads Reviewed

May's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

I had such high hopes for this book, but ultimately it was just okay. Probably forgettable. Nothing was wrong, but it failed to grab me and make me invested. I didn't feel strongly in any way when reading this. It was just...pleasant. Nice enough to keep reading. Easy enough to put down.

The characters were all okay. The "mystery" wasn't much of a mystery but the story was nice enough to follow along with. The thwarted and achieved romances were all mildly emotive, but more like in a shrugging kind of way-- sure, that thwarted romance was sad *shrug* sure, that achieved romance was nice *shrug*.

The three different authors writing three different time periods about three different but mildly related character sets was done seamlessly, so that's good. It's a good vacation book when you don't want to get so invested that you don't pay attention to your vacation setting, but not so bad that you wish you had brought an alternative with you. Just...nice. Overall though, after reading Kate Morton and loving Karen White's Tradd Street books, I was hoping for more.

Since I own a pretty paperback copy, I now have the dilemma of "do I keep it?" If I didn't already own it, I would feel no need to buy a copy. Since I already do own it, I'm torn between "sure, keep it, it's pretty and was good enough" and "I'm never going to reread this and do I really want to use shelf space and moving boxes for it?" But...I already have it....ugh.
Secondhand CharmSecondhand Charm by Julie Berry

I have a hit-and-miss history with Julie Berry. I loved The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place but I was pretty meh on The Amaranth Enchantment. This book falls more on the meh side of things.

The thing is, Julie Berry has this tongue in cheek style that can often veer into zany and weird. That worked for Prickwillow because the whole book felt like satire of a genre. Amaranth and Secondhand Charm don't have that satirical edge--they're straight MG/YA fantasy, and so the zany just comes across eye-rollingly weird.

The characters are also pretty thin and hard to feel much about, which again works for satire, but not so much here. Finally, it felt like the audience age was off. In some cases this felt MG or on the younger side of YA (think the sweetness of a Jessica Day George book) and in other places it felt like it had an edge or darkness that made it seem older. This clashed and made for an unsettled feeling. The charms also felt like they were thrown in and not very well fleshed out, which, yes, that's another thing I didn't like about Amaranth-- it felt like too many things were thrown into the mix but it was jumbled and unfinished (but that worked in Prickwillow).  Another meh.

Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully PresentPeace of Mind by Thich Nhat Hanh

I've been making my way slowly though this author's books and I think this may be my favorite so far. The others are more short paragraphs or a page that focuses on an idea and gives you something to think about. I love them. This one is similar, but different. The book takes you on a sequential journey and helps you build a pathway toward a calmer and more present state of being. The author's voice came through a little more in this way, like you're having a conversation over time rather than getting different pieces of advice. Both are good approaches and I like both types of his books, but this one seems like it had a stronger impact. The sequential, building approach pulled my focus back more effectively and this book felt like a refuge and a motivator. I think I'll reread it.

Fast And LooseFast and Loose by Edith Wharton

I'm still making my way through Edith Wharton's novellas and it's such a pleasure. They're so easy to read, but I find they stay with me long after they're over and call to me (I foresee rereads in my future). She's so good at creating vivid characters and intriguing, thought-provoking situations. In some ways I almost prefer her novellas because they let her shine a spotlight on these things and let the reader sit with them for just enough time to really focus on them, but not find them tiresome (which is a fine line, because her characters can be easily intriguing but just as easily tiresome).

Fast and Loose had shades of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness in that it felt like a cross between the manners and romantic entanglements of Jane Austen and the Gothic drama of Emily Bronte, but shorter and more lighthearted and fun like Burnett's. But, it's also Wharton, so there's still some heft underneath the fluff and you can easily spend a lazy afternoon musing over the different angles of the situation and what you might do if you were to find yourself in such an entanglement.

This is the review I wish my past-self had read, as it would have saved me a whole lot of time and irritation:

Skip it. Trust me. I know the storyline is right up your alley: Egypt, dual era, mystery, yes, yes, I know. I know Egypt especially is calling to you and you want to spend some time with the romance and adventure of Victorian Egypt. I also know you think you're prepared for the hefty page count because you read The Ghost Tree last year and while you didn't love it, ultimately you thought it was a pleasant enough read and you loved the super short chapters. I know the first chapter seems like it's well-written. I know.

But you won't get any of that here. The chapters are long and the writing takes a serious dive after that reader-bait opening.

What you will get are awful characters. Every character is a trope pulled from the 1990s, including the painful love triangle where the main character is never quite sure which potential love interest is the misunderstood good guy and which is a villain (and both do awful things). The main character is at turns weak, bitchy, flighty, irrational, naive, and straight up stupid. The historical sections were better, and while those characters were easier to like, they were also insipid.

At nearly 500 pages with these characters, it's a wonder I didn't quit. But, I didn't like the characters much in The Ghost Tree so I thought I'd keep going...until I started to realize that this book is one big rinse-and-repeat, and by that point I was so far in that I wanted to just see it through to the end hoping that would at least make it all worthwhile. The historical story does advance, albeit in a slow and not particularly interesting way, but the modern portions are just the same contrived situation done over and over again without any plot advancement.

But the final "toss the book across the room" moment came at the end when the conclusion of the historical portion petered out to a disappointing end and the modern day portion stopped right in the middle of a scene. Now, granted, the scene probably would have been the same old shtick, but ending it this way made me feel like I was stuck in some Sisyphean hell doomed to repeatedly follow these loathsome characters through this contrived and, really, boring situation. Save yourself. Read something else.

In closing out a rather hit-and-miss month, I'm relieved to say that this was a solid hit. Many people will disagree. This is the most fictiony non-fiction book I've ever read. Talk about author bias! And the writing shifts from non-fiction to straight up fiction storytelling (and romantic, blousy writing at that) from paragraph to paragraph. But I loved it.

Catherine is portrayed as her infamous bad self with all the dirt presented as fact, but it's done in such a way that I couldn't help but like and admire her anyway. Kind of like Megan Follows' interpretation in the equally ridiculous but fun TV show Reign. Really, pretty much everyone gets this treatment (Francis, Mary, Elizabeth, etc.). (Actually, for fans of Reign looking to learn a little more about the characters, this would be a fantastic book to start with).

I think the best way to approach this book is to imagine you're watching a gossipy docu-drama with colorful reenactments and salacious commentary from legit historians who aren't above a sleepover party approach to learning about history. It's non-fiction...but it ain't gospel, and it comes with a bucket of buttery popcorn and tooth-curling cotton candy. I wish I could get my hands on more of her books.

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