Sunday, January 31, 2021

January Wrap Up

 


January is coming to a close and I have to say that I'm pretty pleased with my first month of reading. I managed to finish 8 novels and read 225 pages of Les Misérables, which I am taking a piecemeal approach to. I found 5 books I am going to donate over the course of the month, so I'm slowly chipping away at the massive amount of books on my shelves. Here's everything I finished:


My best reads of the month were Main Street and The One. While these were both intensely different novels, both offered interesting commentary on society that made me think. my least favorite of the month was Love in the Time of Cholera, which I found to be deeply rooted in misogyny and outdated ideas. 

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed several of the books I read this month, I didn't rate any of them at 5 stars, so I didn't discover any new favorites. Maybe next month.

Speaking of next month, I am hoping to get through a few of the longer classics left on my Classics Club list. Here's my plan:

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Iola Leroy: Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

This will be a big challenge because Winter's Tale and Our Mutual Friend are both absolute bricks and February is a short month. I'm looking forward to reading them, but I'm hoping they won't be too slow to get through. What about everyone else? What's on your TBR list for February?

Reverie by Ryan La Sala

 


As the end of January approached, I wanted to power through another young adult books for my Clear the Shelves Challenge. I decided to start with Ryan La Sala's Reverie. I first noticed this young adult fantasy novel while browsing in Barnes and Noble and was really intrigued by the plot summary. It involved daydreams coming to life and wreaking havoc in the real world. I am a very elaborate daydreamer myself, and I thought that this was an excellent concept. I started reading thinking that I would relate to this book deeply and maybe find a guilty-pleasure favorite. Unfortunately, that did not end up being the case.

The plot of the novel follows Kane Montgomery, a teenager who has just been involved in a mysterious accident. He has been told that he stole his parents' car and drove it into an abandoned building, but he can't remember doing that, or the fiery explosion that occurred soon after. In fact, he can't remember the last several months of his life at all. It's obvious that something very strange happened to him and he is becoming increasingly frustrated trying to figure it out.

At the start of the story, an eerie encounter in the woods sets him on a path to discovering the truth about his accident. It turns out that Kane and three other kids from his school are in a group known as the Others, and they've been dealing with a strange magical phenomenon that has laid siege to their small hometown of Amity, Connecticut. Essentially, peoples' daydreams are becoming real and threatening to overtake the entire town with strange, alternate realities. Kane was the leader of this group before his accident. He had the ability to unravel the daydreams, or reveries, and return things to normal. His accident is somehow tied into all of this, but he doesn't remember how. As he struggles to put all of the pieces together, he must solve the mystery of what happened to him and relearn how to stop the reveries.  

This book was a frustrating read for me. The concept of it was very strong and creative, but I never felt like the story came together in a satisfying way. I think the decision to have Kane be struggling with amnesia was the biggest factor in this. It made the plot feel chaotic and confusing. It prevented me from forming connections with the characters or ever truly understanding how the magic in this world worked. Information would be passed to the reader in a scattered fashion, with Kane's friends continually called upon to explain key details about their situation that they had already figured out ages ago. Lots of telling instead of showing. It didn't feel organic and it made me wish that I reading along with the characters as they discovered these things, rather than the game of perpetual catch-up that the lost memory plot device necessitated. His memory loss is worked into a twist at the end of the story, but I honestly don't think the twist was worth the drawbacks across the text.

The amnesia also prevented me from connecting with Kane as a character. He spends a lot of the plot (understandably) confused, peevish, and argumentative. He's rude to his family and his friends. He has a romance in the book that feels rushed because all the build-up for it happened before the events of the novel start. Accordingly, I couldn't bring myself to feel invested in his story. Similarly, I felt nothing for the three other teenagers on his team. All of the relationship building with them happens off-page, so it was tough to get a real sense of who they were and what their real relationships to Kane were. 

Additionally, the details of this world were never really clear to me. I'm still not sure what exactly the reveries were, why they happened, or what the rules for magic are in the universe of the book. I know that some of this is intentional and that this is meant to be an unusual, dream-like story. There is a difference, though, between being entertained by a quirky, impossible plot and feeling like maybe the author didn't explain enough, and this book felt like the latter. Things just happen in this book, and there isn't enough of a foundation to the setting of the novel that allows the reader to make sense of it. At no point was I able to predict where the action was headed next, and not in a good way. It was just hard to determine the overall goal of the story. I was mildly confused and bored while reading. This took me way longer to finish than it should have, simply because I didn't want to pick it up.

However, all was not darkness here. Reverie definitely had some positive elements to it, the best one being its inclusivity. Kane is a gay character, and there are some secondary characters that are gay as well. The big villain in the story is a drag queen that uses she/her pronouns. There are characters of different ethnic backgrounds. It was clear that Ryan La Sala paid a lot of attention to this aspect of the novel and it was great to see. This diversity played into what I think was the most intriguing idea in the novel by far: the idea that Kane and his friends are able to fight the reveries because they have spent so much time earlier in their lives escaping into fantasy worlds to hide their own pain. Kane, a kid who tries to remain invisible to avoid being bullied over his sexuality, has spent a large amount of time escaping into the fantasy worlds of books and daydreams. In effect, he's been training all his life to deal with the reveries. This connection between personal pain and fantasy is one that a lot of readers can probably relate to. Unfortunately, this concept is only explicitly addressed in the text a few times. It felt like a missed opportunity to forge a deep connection with the audience.

The end of my copy of the novel included some bonus material that contained a message from Ryan La Sala explaining his reasoning and process behind writing the novel. This message was more relatable and emotional that anything in the actual book and it helped me understand where he was coming from and what he was trying to do much better. Honestly, it probably would have made for a better experience if I had read that part before the actual story. Ultimately, I think that's where my issues with the novel came from. The author was writing from a place of great emotion and purpose and was starting with a fantastic idea. However, all those positives really struggled to come through clearly in the text. So, for me, this wasn't a favorite. However, I don't doubt that La Sala's style will appeal to other readers. I'm going to donate Reverie, and hopefully it will find a home with someone who truly understands and enjoys it.


Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 5/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 8





Friday, January 29, 2021

The One by John Marrs

 


I was still in the mood for some suspenseful science fiction after my last read, so I decided to try The One by John Marrs next. I first heard of this adult sci-fi thriller from a BooksandLala on Youtube several months ago. I remember that she was surprised by how much she liked this one. so I picked it up on her recommendation. I settled in hoping for one of those exciting, can't-put-down experiences.

The plot of The One centers around a time in the not-so-distant future where a scientist has isolated a gene that allows someone to match with their one, true love. Once this discovery went public, a worldwide database was established for the purposes of matching people with their perfect partners. Interested people send in a mouth swab with their DNA on it and hope to get matched to someone in the system. The test is never wrong, and this service has changed the way relationships are formed irrevocably.  It has created many happy marriages and caused domestic violence and divorce rates to fall. At the same time, it's ruined a lot of relationships established pre-matching, as coupled people submit their DNA out of curiosity and end up leaving their original partners. 

The novel follows several different characters who have all received matches that aren't what they expected. For example, one is a woman who finds that her match has died by the time she is alerted to him in the system. Another is a man who is matched with another man, despite the fact that he doesn't believe he is gay. Another is a serial killer who took the test for laughs and is matched with a cop. Each character in the novel faces different challenges with their results and have to navigate through some difficult and painful situations in order to find their happy ending. 

This novel is structured around extremely short chapters that hop from character to character and end on cliffhangers. For that reason, I don't want to go too in-depth with my summary. It would spoil some of the fun of discovering shocking twists on every other page, and this book really is a fun one. I was completely drawn in from page one and I raced through it in just a couple of days. The pacing was very quick and the strategies of switching characters frequently and short chapters really made it fly by. All of the characters were interesting and they shared in the story pretty much equally. I didn't feel like any of the plotlines were boring or unnecessary. They all offered a unique spin on the idea of genetically perfect matches, and all the troubles and joys that could potentially come from them. This was a very dramatic, soap opera-like kind of science fiction, so you have to suspend your disbelief while reading and just go with the flow. I felt like the plot was engaging enough throughout that its more sensational aspects didn't bother me.

While it's clear that The One isn't meant to be high literature, I thought it asked some really interesting questions along the way. If science ever could be used to determine a person's ideal partner, I think that some of what Marrs played around with in this story might come to pass. For example, the idea of "matched" people being more highly regarded than "unmatched." Relationships born from matches are seen as more desirable and more valid, leaving people that can't find a match in the system relegated to second-rate dating apps and a vague sense of hopelessness. I could definitely see that happening in reality. It already happens in society with partnered versus single people, albeit to a lesser extent. Another interesting question was the idea of what to do with inappropriate or impossible matches. You could be matched with anyone, including a criminal, someone way too young or old, someone terminally ill, or someone who has already died. What kind of impact would this have on you, if you knew for sure that you couldn't be with your one true love? It's a rather depressing thought, and one that has interesting implications in the story. I really enjoyed thinking about how I might react across the different scenarios that Marrs introduced.

So ultimately, The One was a really great reading experience. It's the kind of intense, exciting book that would be perfect as the basis for a Netflix show and it's the perfect thing to pick up when you are looking for something easy and engaging. This is the kind of novel I'd be recommending to other adults if I knew a lot of people who liked to read in my real life, because I think most casual readers would be into it. That being said, as a lot of its enjoyment factor relies on surprising plot twists, I don't think it's one that I would read again. The book is at its best when it is revealing secrets, so once you already know what happens, the experience won't be the same. I'm going to donate it to make more room on my shelves and hopefully someone else will be as entertained by it was I was.


Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 4/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 7





Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

 


For my next read, I decided to pick a book for my Clear the Shelves Challenge based purely on my mood (something I'm trying to do a lot more often this year). I wanted something quick and exciting, so I went with Jess Rothenberg's The Kingdom. This YA science fiction novel was released in 2019, and I was instantly intrigued by its concept. It was being billed as a young adult Westworld, which is one of my favorite shows. Accordingly, I settled in expecting lots of suspense and ethical dilemmas.

The plot follows a hybrid (an extremely life-like robot) named Ana that works at a technologically advanced fantasy theme park called The Kingdom. Ana was created to play the role of a princess and entertain the guests by providing them with an immersive fantasy experience. She performs alongside her six sister hybrids, each one taking on the persona of a different royal character. She's done this for years, and enjoys making the guests happy, as she has been programmed to do. 

However, as the novel begins, something has clearly gone wrong. We first meet Ana while she is being interviewed after a terrible crime has occurred in The Kingdom. She has been accused of killing a park employee, and is on trial for the murder. Ana insists she is innocent, but video surveillance tapes seem to prove otherwise. As the novel progresses, the story flips back and forth in time between transcripts from the trial and Ana's narration of the events leading up to it. Both halves of the story explore the ideas of what it means to be human, if a robot could eventually learn enough to cross that barrier, and what types of rights and protections should a being like Ana be entitled to. 

This novel started out strong, and I was pulled into the story right away. I thought that Jess Rothenberg did a good job narrating from a robot perspective, and the way Ana explained her programming and abilities made her a very intriguing character. Once the plot started to pick up and things started going wrong, I enjoyed watching her try to rationalize decisions and responses that were outside of her supposed abilities. I love a robot-learning-to-love story, and this delivered on that classic sci-fi trope in a satisfying way throughout the first part of the book. The theme park setting was interesting as well, and I enjoyed learning about the different roles for the princess hybrids and how they worked within the park. I wouldn't have minded more detail about this being included, but the fast pace of the novel didn't really allow for it. I was totally into the story for the first three quarters, and was thinking this would probably end up being a four star read for me.  

However, the ending of the novel was a major fumble. As the plot moved towards its conclusion, it became incredibly rushed and choppy. The action unfolded too fast, too many details were thrown at the reader and left half-explained, and Ana's romantic storyline progressed too quickly.  The shift in pacing was abrupt and jarring. The content of the story changed as well. Rothenberg ended up moving away from the serious moral questions and complex topics she was exploring in favor of theatrical violence and cheap reveals. Ana became much less sympathetic of a character after this switch. Her personality seemed to change completely in a way that rang false to me. Earlier in the story, she was pondering what it meant to be human and was cautiously exploring the inconsistencies in her world. In the final chapters, she was aggressive, pessimistic and abrasive. While one could argue that her experiences have made her this way, the switch didn't feel organic to me. I think this book could have used more pages to bridge this gap.

I also have to bring up the numerous similarities to Westworld, which became excessive as I read on. I'm fine with this story being inspired by that series (in fact, that's one of the reasons I was interested in reading this in the first place), but there was just so much in these pages that felt a little too close to that show. To create a list of everything I noticed would have numerous spoilers, so I'll just mention one element in particular that I felt was a blatant copy. At one point, Ana mentions a quote from Romeo and Juliet - "These violent delights have violent ends." This particular line was used multiple times in Westworld. Granted, it was used for different reasons in the show than in The Kingdom, but the fact that this one specific line was included at all pointed to an over-reliance on that show for ideas in my mind. As this book is entertaining, but definitely not as compelling as Westworld, the similarities became increasingly funny to me and took me out the moment while reading. 

So while The Kingdom started off very intriguing and strong, the ending was a disappointment. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I didn't enjoy the story, but it's not going to be a book that sticks in my mind. It's too bad, because I thought that the concept had a lot of promise and the opening chapters set up an interesting world that I wanted to explore. On a positive note, the young adult audience for which this was intended will probably have no issues with it, especially if they haven't seen Westworld before. Ultimately, this wasn't a favorite for me. However, at least I have another book crossed off my TBR now that I can donate to a reader who will probably appreciate it more.  

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 3/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 6








Friday, January 22, 2021

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

 


In my continuing quest to wrap up my Classics Club Challenge this year, I picked up Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I have never read anything from him before, making this a great fit for the "classic by a new-to-you author" prompt in the Back to the Classics Challenge as well. Since I read so many books from the past, I'm used to not knowing much about them before I start. There's not a whole lot of buzz flying around the internet for books that are over 100 years old. However, in this case, I had actually seen a few reviews on classics blogs and gotten a few comments praising this novel, so I started off hoping that this would be an entertaining one.

The plot of Main Street follows Carol Kennicott, a young women recently graduated from college in Minneapolis and freshly married. She loves art and music and wants to have a big, exciting life. She isn't exactly sure what she would like to do, but she knows that she wants adventure and culture. Her new husband, Will, is a prominent doctor in a small town named Gopher Prairie in Minnesota. At first, she is very hesitant to move there with him, but he assures her that there are opportunities for her there; she is just what the town needs to liven it up. Intrigued by the idea of introducing art, music, and community improvements to the place, she agrees to move there and set up a household.

Within minutes of arriving at Gopher Prairie, Carol begins to feel like she made a mistake. The townspeople there are nice enough on the surface, but lurking underneath is a culture of closed-mindedness and judgement. Carol's enthusiasm for art and music are interpreted as arrogance and her efforts to improve the town are viewed with suspicion. She is constantly being gossiped about and watched by her neighbors, her every word and action picked apart in an effort to find faults. The few times she arranges events, they never go according to plan, and she soon becomes frustrated at the town's adherence to their old ways. Even her husband becomes annoyed with her, eventually accusing her of thinking that she is better than their neighbors and wondering why she can't simply be happy with things the way they are.

Naturally, in the face of this criticism, Carol falls into a depression. She begins to see Gopher Prairie as a prison instead of a home and she yearns to get away from it. Her feelings improve somewhat with the arrival of a son, Hugh, but she still feels like she is meant to do more than waste away in a stagnant town having the same conversations with the same people over and over again. She tries to distract herself in various ways, including developing a close (and scandalous) friendship with a like-minded man that works in the tailor's shop, but as usual, everything she tries to do ends very poorly. Eventually, she feels like she simply must leave in order to find her own happiness, but taking control of her own destiny is a difficult thing and she's not sure if she truly wants to walk away from everything she knows.

This novel covers the span of several years in Carol's life, and I have to say that Lewis did an excellent job covering the complexity of her feelings and the monotony of the years she spends in Gopher Prairie. My edition of the novel had 517 pages, and parts of it definitely dragged on. I believe this was on purpose to give the reader a sense of what Carol was feeling day after day in the town. It was tough at times to see her get disappointed again and again by everyone around her, but this was an effective technique to make you understand her struggle. I don't mean to imply that the entire story was depressing either; it was often witty and sarcastic. There were genuine moments of happiness and excitement throughout as well. As we all do in real life, Carol cycles through a lot of emotions rapidly throughout her days. At times she is hopeful, determined, and loving. At other times she is bored, cynical, and melancholy. She is imperfect as well, and has her moments of being arrogant just like everyone else, even though she doesn't realize it. It was realistic to the way people actually think, which I really appreciated. 

I was also impressed with Lewis' ability to write a believable female character feeling isolated and yearning for freedom. I could deeply relate to her struggles. I moved to a new, smaller state a few years ago, and I work in a small town where everyone has known each other for years. It's hard to fit in. The things Carol was thinking were often things I have thought too. I know what it's like to be feeling great about life and hopeful one minute, then get smacked down by a weird comment and feel sad the next. I know what it's like to have a hard time finding people with the same interests as you and feeling lonely a lot of the time. Carol's inner monologues were very genuine and allowed me to make a strong connection with the story. I could empathize with her, so I was invested in her struggle.

One of the biggest ideas in the novel, and the idea that the novel is probably the most famous for exploring, is small town America and its reluctance to embrace change.  Lewis makes it clear throughout the story that Gopher Prairie's Main Street is no different from any Main Street in any small town. The people are stuck in their ways, judgmental of others, and hostile to change. He lampoons the citizens of Gopher Prairie pretty mercilessly, creating characters that are unbearable in their simultaneous ignorance and arrogance. Not everyone is completely terrible, but everyone ends up being disappointing in one way or another. Whether it's through constant spying and gossiping about each other, being outright cruel to anyone who doesn't follow their societal norms, or being unwilling to try new things, the townspeople are quite the cast of characters. At the same time, they do have their moments of being kind and loyal as well, and even Carol doesn't hate everyone all the time. Living in a small town seems to require a fairly complex balancing act, and Lewis shows throughout the story that saying the right words, wearing the right clothes, and behaving the right way are deeply important matters that trump real forward progress. Yet, even in this socially fraught atmosphere, these places get a hold on people. Carol is consistently torn between leaving and staying in Gopher Prairie, even though it makes her miserable most of the time. She admits that there is a certain comfort in the community of a small place where everyone knows each other. So while the overall tone is negative towards these little towns, there is a grudging acknowledgement of the comforts they bring people too. Again, it was a realistic, if unflattering, portrayal.

I think was stood out to me the most of all in Main Street was the ending. I won't go into detail because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but I appreciated how it focused on inner changes rather than outer ones. It wasn't a perfectly neat ending, or an exciting one. I wouldn't even say it was particularly satisfying. What is did give you though, was a lot to think about. I liked that it was quiet and probably pretty close to what would happen in real life.

So although this book was long and deliberately monotonous a lot of the time, I really enjoyed my experience with it. I thought that it was very realistic and relatable to what people go through when they move, particularly women who move for a husband and find themselves adrift in a strange place. I liked watching Carol's journey. I was also happy to get a chance to read Sinclair Lewis's bitingly sarcastic prose. I would like to try another one of his novels eventually. This was one of those times where the book definitely lived up to the good things I heard about it.


Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A classic by a new-to-you author): 2/12
Classics Club (#37 on my list): 84/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 5





Friday, January 15, 2021

Wilder Girls by Rory Power



For my next read, I decided to try a book that's been lurking in the back of my mind ever since I bought it in 2019-- Wilder Girls by Rory Power. I first saw this novel in an article about upcoming summer releases and was immediately struck by the cover art. This has got to be one of my favorite book covers of all time. It's absolutely stunning. The summary in the article raised my interest even further. It was being billed as a female Lord of the Flies, and that was all I needed to hear. I added this book to my shelves on its release day. Of course, I didn't get around to reading it right away, but it remained one of the titles I would always think of when considering what to pick up next. My Clear the Shelves Challenge gave me the perfect excuse to finally give it a try.

The plot follows a trio of teenage students attending Raxter School for Girls, Hetty Chapin, Byatt Winsor, and Reese Harker. Raxter is a boarding school located on a small island off the coast of Maine, and is very isolated. As the story begins, the girls have been trapped there for over a year due to the emergence of a contagious disease called the Tox. They've all been infected and are under quarantine until the government can develop a cure.  The Tox is unlike any other illness. It attacks the girls in waves and triggers strange and painful mutations in their bodies. One girl grows a bloody set of gills in her neck. Another sprouts a second spine. Some can't endure the changes at all and die immediately.  It's a horrific and gruesome disease, and it's taking over the island. Even the plants and animals that live there are affected.

Tensions are high and supplies are very limited, so the girls have turned tough. They work in shifts to defend the school from increasingly bold animals in the surrounding woods, devise a system for rationing their food, and take care of each other as much as they can. Everyone is hoping for a cure to be discovered soon, but as more and more girls are succumbing to the Tox, it's starting to feel hopeless. Hetty, Byatt, and Reese grow very close, and their relationship helps give some comfort to their chaotic, messy lives. Their group becomes fractured, however when Byatt's condition takes a turn for the worse and she disappears from the island. Hetty and Reese are determined to find her, but their investigation turns up several disturbing secrets that threaten to overturn what little stability they have. There is more going on at Raxster than what is on the surface, and Hetty and Reese must solve its mysteries in order to save their friend.    

I ended up really enjoying this book, mostly because it was so strange. The story is a like a fever dream filled with pretty graphic body horror as the characters suffer under the effects of the Tox. I liked that it was all girls too, because we got a chance to see them be the ones shooting, fighting, and controlling the situation. It's not often that you have feminine characters covered in blood, puking, etc. in young adult fiction. I was struck by how gross it was, but in a good way. This story is definitely not for the squeamish.

Power's writing style was suitably dark and deliberately hazy throughout the story. This isn't a "nice" book. The characters are all dealing with horrific events, and the writing reflects their reality. She reveals information at a decent pace and creates a good amount of suspense throughout. The characters are pretty intriguing as well. Hetty, Byatt, and Reese all have distinct personalities and issues in the story. It's hard to like any of them, because we are seeing them all at their worst, but that doesn't matter so much here. 

This ended up being a quick read for me, because I was anxious to see how it would end and kept on turning the pages. I did have a few issues with it though. Since the plot is tightly focused on the action and the mystery of what's happening on the island, we don't get to learn as much about the characters as I would have liked. Byatt, especially, had an interesting back story hinted at, but we don't get to discover many specifics about it. The same is true of the Tox and the island. Due to the novel's quick pace, a lot of the details about how the disease worked were glossed over. Similarly the deeper mysteries of the island, including the information about what people on the outside were doing regarding testing and cure development were not detailed as clearly as they could have been. I wouldn't have minded this story being a bit longer, so it could have included more information. It would have felt more complete this way.

As it was, however, those issues didn't prevent me from enjoying the novel. I wouldn't exactly call it a "female Lord of the Flies," but it was still a very enjoyable read. I'm not sure if Power is planning a sequel to Wilder Girls or not. The ending was open enough to leave room for the possibility though, so I think I'm going to hang onto this one, just in case.


Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 2/50 (keep)

Total Books Read in 2021: 4





Thursday, January 14, 2021

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

 

**This review contains mild spoilers**

In an effort to finish more books from my Classics Club list this month, I picked up Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. This book is one of the newer books on my list, having been published in 1985, but I'd heard enough praise about both the title and the author to feel comfortable with considering it a "classic." I started off my reading knowing nothing about the plot except what was on the back cover, and this turned out to be a mistake. I'm going to get myself into trouble with this review. I did not like this book, and I know that I'm in the minority with that opinion. Still, I write this blog to reflect on my own personal feelings, so I'm just going to record my honest experience here and brace for disagreements.

The plot is set in Colombia between the late 1800s and early 1900s. It follows two characters, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall passionately in love with each other during their adolescence. Fermina's strict father does not approve of their relationship, so it must be carried out in secret. They get to know each other over the course of several years exclusively through letters and stolen glances at each other. They plan to sneak off and get married at the first opportunity, but when the moment finally comes, Fermina rejects Florentino. She realizes all at once that her feelings were infatuation and not true love, and she ends up marrying a wealthy local doctor instead.

Florentino is devastated by her decision. He believes that the love he feels for her is real and true, so he vows to wait for her husband to die so that she can come to realize the same. He is prepared to wait however long it will take and in the meantime, he begins a campaign of bettering himself. His plan eventually works, and he becomes wealthy and successful over ensuing fifty years. To fill the hole left in his heart from Fermina's rejection, he engages in a series of romantic liaisons with hundreds of different women. While he grows more attached to some of them than others, he always considers himself as belonging to Fermina. Eventually, the day he has waited so long for finally arrives. Fermina's husband passes away and he is free to pursue her once again, hopefully rekindling the love they shared when they were teenagers. 

I'll start with the positives. This was my first book by Márquez, and I was immediately impressed with his writing style. His prose is beautiful and like poetry to read. There is no doubt that this author has a special way with words. I also liked the general idea of the plot. Waiting so long for your one true love is a nice, romantic structure to hang a story around, and it and fits in well with Márquez's fairy tale-like, magical realism style of prose. Unfortunately, that's where my enjoyment of the novel ended, because while idea of it was lovely and the words he chose for it were lovely, the actual plot events and attitudes were not. There was a lot here I just couldn't get over.

I knew from the first chapter of this novel that I was uncomfortable with how Márquez wrote about women and sexuality. As the plot progressed, and the examples piled up, my discomfort only increased. A lot of this story has not aged well at all. The biggest example of this, and what bothered me the most, was the way Márquez romanticized rape throughout this story. This happens numerous times; rapes occur frequently, both perpetrated by Florentino and by others, and each time it happens it's treated as an expression of uncontrollable lust or love rather than a violation. One instance of this is Florentino's first sexual encounter. An amorous woman pulls him into her cabin during a boat trip and rapes him. It is an aggressive and impersonal act. Florentino never learns her true identity, and becomes obsessed with the mystery woman for the rest of the trip. He wishes for it to happen again. He continues to think about her fondly long after the voyage is over. This type of reaction to sexual assault returns again much later in the story when a female character is raped by a stranger when she was a child walking home one night. Afterwards, as she lay bloody on the ground, she is filled only with intense love for this stranger. She spends the rest of her life trying to find him again. 

Yet another example of this type of abuse of power comes when Fermina's original husband, Dr. Urbino, engages in an affair. He makes his first overture to this other women by touching her inappropriately during a medical exam he is performing. If something like this happened to me, it would be one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. The woman in this story, however, enthusiastically accepts his advances and it starts off their illicit relationship.

There are more examples than this. This is a pervasive motif throughout the novel that deeply impacted how much I could enjoy the text. These rapes are a male-fantasy version of assault where a man just can't help himself and the woman is okay with it (or vice versa). I couldn't overlook it.

Also difficult to overlook was Florentino's behavior as he makes his way through his sexual conquests. The way he describes encounters that were consensual were often rude or demeaning to the women involved. One woman, for example, he describes as an "uninspired lay." The way he writes about heavier women and older women was not flattering either. His encounters that were not consensual were extremely off-putting. At one point in the text, it is casually revealed that he raped a maid in his household, left her pregnant, and had to pay her off to keep her quiet about it. Márquez slips this into the text as an inconsequential side note, to contrast how weak he has become after suffering an injury. Other people in the story know about this and don't seem to care much. 

By far, the worst example of his behavior is in his grooming and rape of América Vicuña, a young relative sent to live with him for a time while she attends school. América is 12 years old when they first meet, and he sets out to molest her immediately. 
She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse.
América enthusiastically accepts his advances and falls deeply in love with him. When Fermina becomes available again, he breaks off their relationship. Devastated, América falls into a deep depression and kills herself. This is all narrated in a very poetic way, like it's a great romantic tragedy. Florentino suffers some pangs of guilt, but is reassured by the idea that no one will ever know his part in it. The fact that he completely destroyed a child's life is not explored; it's not the story Márquez is telling and América is treated as an accessory to Florentino's sexual desires, as nearly all the female characters in the novel are.

In exploring some of the reviews on Goodreads for this novel, I can see that other readers are very split when it comes to these parts of the story. Some, like me, react quite negatively to them. Others justify their inclusion by saying that Márquez intends for these sections to be this way. They claim that Love in the Time of Cholera is not a love story at all, but a sneaky commentary on the dark side of desire and relationships. Florentino is meant to be creepy and the story is meant to be disturbing. Love can be as insidious and deadly as cholera, as the title hints towards. This is probably true. I'm certainly no literary scholar. What I can say, however, is that I did not get the impression that this was a deliberate strategy to explore a dark topic while I was reading. Márquez's style of storytelling paints Florentino as a romantic hero, and his quest to win back the love of Fermina is very positively portrayed. I did not pick up on enough clues or comments to truly feel like this book was saying something else, especially considering how it ended. While I do think that Márquez was consistently commenting on the all-encompassing, sometimes damaging nature of love, I also feel that there are simply misogynistic and outdated ideas rooted deeply in this story. I couldn't forgive it, not even in the face of some intensely beautiful prose.

I found that once I was truly uncomfortable with the way Márquez wrote about sex and women, I was unable to get lost in the plot of the story. My brain constantly wanted to pick apart each sentence and analyze it negatively. I came to think that Florentino's love for Fermina more closely resembled obsession, and that his endless letters and strategies to win her heart were closer to stalking than courting. I haven't even gotten into the naked racism shown towards black characters, but that was there too. Once I got to the point where I was hoping América would reenter the story and murder Florentino for what he did to her, I knew that this book was a lost cause for me. 

Of course, I have classics-guilt now for feeling critical of this novel. Gabriel García Márquez has won the Nobel Prize for his literature and lots of people consider this novel to be a masterpiece. Surely I must be reading it wrong. In all likelihood, I probably am. However, the fact remains that whatever is special about this book did not reach me. I couldn't see it. All I could see were women being repeatedly placed into situations that robbed them of their power, their safety, and their dignity while the author called it love. 

I should have tried One Hundred Years of Solitude instead


Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#19 on my list): 83/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 3




Saturday, January 9, 2021

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


For my next read, I decided to start on my Clear the Shelves challenge and just pick something I already owned that I felt like reading. I was in the mood for some hard-hitting young adult contemporary, so I selected Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson. I picked this up randomly at a bookstore ages ago based on the intriguing title and summary on the back cover. This seemed like just the kind of gritty, emotional read I was looking for, so I was excited to dive in.

The plot follows Mary B. Addison, a sixteen year old girl living in a group home. She was recently released from prison after serving a manslaughter sentence for allegedly killing an infant that her mother was babysitting when she was just nine years old. Mary never confessed to the crime; in fact, she refused to even speak about the incident when questioned by the police and a series of psychologists. The testimony of her mother combined with circumstantial evidence was enough to convict her, however, and she's spent the last seven years of her life in prison.

The group home she was released to isn't much better than being behind bars. The other girls that live there are violent and aggressive, and the adults who are supposed to care for her are abusive and neglectful. Mary is in constant fear for her safety, but she also has some small hopes for the future. She is very smart, and has been studying hard for the SATs. She has a secret boyfriend at the nursing home where she does community service that she loves deeply, and she hopes to go to college and find herself a good job and living situation once she turns 18. Her plans are thrown into disarray, however, when she becomes pregnant with her boyfriend's baby. 

She desperately wants to raise her child, but she knows that she won't be able to in her group home. As she is a ward of the state, her baby is also a ward of the state and will be taken away from her when it is born. Her only chance is to get herself exonerated for her crimes and get emancipated. In order to do that though, she must reveal what really happened to that baby that was killed seven years ago and reopen all the painful wounds of her past.

I ended up liking this book, but I really wanted to like it a little bit more than I did. One aspect I did enjoy was how Jackson wrote realistically and graphically about the issues Mary was facing in the system. Her life in the group home is cruel and brutal. There's cursing, violence, and endless abuse, and Jackson didn't soften anything for her young adult audience. At times, it almost seemed like the negativity was over the top, or that Mary was enduring an unrealistic amount of hardships, but I suspect that's my privilege speaking. I know from teaching that there are some children that deal with trauma on a constant basis and that group homes are often nightmarish experiences. While's Mary's experience felt overwhelmingly bad, I think it probably was somewhat realistic. It was often difficult to read this book, but that is to its credit. Jackson did a good job showing the harsh realities that kids in the system go through.

Another aspect of the novel that I appreciated was how Jackson included an exploration of race in the story. Mary is black and the baby she was accused of murdering was white, and this difference played a big part in the public perception of her case. The public was calling for her to be tried as an adult and calling her a murderer when she was only nine years old, and Jackson isn't shy about implying that the reason she ends up facing such harsh criticisms and punishments is due, at least in part, to the color of her skin. While any crime involving the death of an infant would be very serious and anger the public, we know data shows that black teens are over-represented in the criminal justice systems and tend to receive less benefit of the doubt and harsher punishments than white teens. In Mary's case, she was successfully prosecuted on very little evidence, and her seemingly clear mental health issues were ignored, pointing to racial bias in the system. I was glad Jackson included these elements in the story as it made it feel more relevant and gave the reader something to think about.  

Something I didn't like so much was Mary's boyfriend in the story. He's got his own difficult past, and by the time Mary knows all of it, I think she forgives him a bit too easily. The way Jackson depicts him is too sympathetic and does not provide a particularly good or meaningful message to her young adult readers. Also, a large part of the story deals with Mary's fears about the age difference between her and her boyfriend. At the start of the story, she is fifteen and turns sixteen almost immediately. He is eighteen. Throughout the book, she makes a lot of decisions out of a desire to protect him, as if their relationship is illegal. In New York, where the story is set, it would definitely not be illegal. They have a "close in age exemption" there, so there was nothing wrong with them being together (even though an eighteen year old sniffing around a fifteen year old gives me the creeps). As a legal adult, I assume he would have rights to their child if the state wanted to take it away from Mary. However, if he could have taken custody of their baby when it was born, the whole story wouldn't have worked. I suppose that's a plot hole.

I also didn't like the ending very much. Jackson was going for a big twist, but I don't feel like enough clues were woven into the text along the way to make the twist successful. If felt too abrupt and didn't match up the the prior behavior of the characters. I thought that too many of the plot events were left hazy too. I wanted a clearer picture of what really happened in Mary's past and I never got it. I can't go into more detail without spoiling major plot points, but I feel like the ending placed the delivery of a twist over the delivery of a deeper message to readers, and it was kind of a shame.

Despite those issues though, this was still a compelling novel and I do think it was worth reading. It shined a light onto a portion of society that is often ignored or vilified and brought up a lot of interesting things to think about. It fell short of being a really meaningful read in the end though, as Jackson's final twist really changed the trajectory of the story. I have another book by Jackson on my shelves, Monday's Not Coming, and I'm interested to see if I will like the construction of that one any better. I don't think I'll be rereading Allegedly, so I will be donating it. That makes this the first book cleared from my shelves for my challenge this year.


Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 1/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 2




Monday, January 4, 2021

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

 


For the sixth year in a row, I started off my reading for the year with Jules Verne. I ran out of Verne books that I had heard of before by year three of this tradition, so I've had to do a bit of digging in recent years to find new stories to read. With this one, however, I got rather lucky. I came across From the Earth to the Moon in a used bookstore about a year ago, so I saved reading it for now. Based on the title and cover art on my edition of the book, I assumed that this would be a novel about a space mission to the moon, full of dense scientific descriptions of moon topography. Basically, I was expecting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but in space. As usual, my assumptions proved to be totally wrong.

The plot begins in 1865 with four members of the Baltimore Gun Club: President Impey Barbicane, General Morgan, Major Elphiston, and Secretary J.T. Maston. Each of these men are enthusiastic inventors of artillery that distinguished themselves with their creations during the Civil War. When the war ended, however, they found themselves without purpose. With no wars going on, and no conflicts on the horizon, there was no need for them to develop new weapons. To assuage their boredom, President Barbicane suggests a massive new project--to build a giant cannon and shoot a projectile all the way to the moon. Their overall desire is to achieve something that has never been done before with artillery, and they also hope to attract the attention of any species that might be living on the moon and open up a line of communication between them. The entire gun club, and the general public, enthusiastically agree to the project and they start working on it straight away. 

Their first priorities are to determine how to make the projectile, how large to build the cannon, and how much powder to use for propulsion. They use data from their past creations and mathematical calculations to decide these issues, and then set about raising money and choosing a location to build in. As they want to keep the entire project housed within the United States, they end up choosing Tampa as their launch site. They ask for donations to fund the project, and people from all over the world are so enamored with the idea that they have no trouble raising what they need. Before long, they are in the building phase and everything moves along according to plan.

While their cannon and projectile are being constructed, they receive a mysterious telegram from a Frenchman named Michel Ardan. He proposes to seal himself inside the projectile and make their mission to the moon a manned one. After meeting with him, the group must decide whether they will allow him to do this, and then see if they can have a successful launch.

I ended up enjoying this book, but I think you have to be a specific type of person to like it the same way I did. From the Earth to the Moon is a very fitting title for this novel, because the entire story is about the process of getting to the moon. It ends on a big cliffhanger and we don't get to see the full results of the project up close at all. If you want the rest of the story, you have to read the sequel, Around the Moon. This is a book about drafting plans and constructing artillery. Verne leaves no detail out, and most of the pages in the novel break down the math, physics, astronomy, and costs associated with the project. He is as accurate with his information as someone writing in the nineteenth century can be, and it's clear he did copious amounts of research to make the plot of this novel as believable as possible. I was absolutely blown away by his prediction that either Florida or Texas would be the best place to launch the projectile from, as both of those places are closely tied to the U.S. space program now. As a perfectionist who really enjoys planning, I liked reading about the meticulous process Barbicane and his pals went through. I would assume that a lot of readers, however, might get really bored with this.

The characters were very typical Verne characters. With Barbicane you have the stalwart, preternaturally intelligent leader. With Maston you have the overly-enthusiastic and loyal sidekick. With Ardan you have the likeable French guy. All of his classic archetypes were there. I do have to say that none of the characters here particularly grabbed me, as the text was more about the process of making the projectile rather than about the characters as individuals. There was no one as distinctive as Captain Nemo, for example. What made them fun. however, was all the gentle ribbing Verne does about their American-ness. I thought it was hilarious how he poked fun at the American enthusiasm for guns and firepower. Towards the start of the novel, he explains that, "the sole preoccupation of [the Baltimore gun club] was the destruction of humanity from motives of philanthropy, and the perfecting of firearms considered as instruments of civilization." He goes on to describe its members as, "an assembly of exterminating angels, otherwise, the best fellows in the world." Almost all of them are missing a limb or two from their creations, but that doesn't cool their ardor for gun design in the slightest. His sense of humor was excellent, and it was pretty amusing that the jokes he was making back in 1865 were still funny today. He wasn't mean-spirited with his teasing though, and you could tell that he rather admired his heroes' uniquely American grit.  

I would probably stick From the Earth to the Moon somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to ranking the Verne novels I have read. It wasn't too heavy on the scientific exposition (at least compared to some of the others I've experienced), but it wasn't super-memorable either. I also think it was a little bit of a disappointment to leave the story so incomplete. It's basically half of a story. If I didn't have a tight schedule to maintain with my Classics Club list, I've probably just go ahead and read Around the Moon next, but as it is, I might end up waiting until January 1st of next year to see how this one ends. It's still a great read though, especially for old school science fiction fans like me.    


Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A Travel or Adventure Classic): 1/12

Total Books Read in 2021: 1




Friday, January 1, 2021

Clear The Shelves 2021

 


One of my reading goals for 2021 is to do more mood reading. I tend to participate in lots of reading challenges, which require to me read specific titles. That's fun for me, but sometimes I find myself wishing that I had more time to just pick up whichever book I actually feel like reading in the moment. 

Another one of my goals for this year is to start getting a handle on the piles and piles of unread books on my shelves. I'm buying way more books that I can read and they are pretty much taking over my home. I've got multiple bookshelves and two rolling carts overflowing with unread novels. I have a tag on Goodreads for books I own but have not read yet. There's currently 593ish books on it. Seriously. I need to stop acquiring so many new ones and start reading the ones I have. 

I rarely keep books after I've read them. I only hang onto ones that I truly love and can see myself reading again. I want to work on reading and donating this year to get that number of unread books down a bit.

So, in an effort to work on both of these goals this year, I'm bringing back my Clear The Shelves Challenge. I did this once before, back in 2018, and I ended up donating 21 books by the end of that year. I want to do much better than that this year. I would love to read and decide to keep or give away 50 books. I'll pick books to read based on my mood at the time and I'll keep track of the titles I finish here. I'm also going to try and reduce the amount of books I purchase in 2021, which might actually be the hardest part of this whole challenge.


Books Read: 

Reading Resolutions: 2021

 


It's a new year, so once again it's time to outline my reading challenges for the year. I'm keeping things relatively simple this time around. I'm mainly working on my classics and then trying to read books I already own. My overall goal is to incorporate more mood reading into my routine in between the classics I have to read for my challenges. Here's the breakdown:



My Goodreads reading goal this year will be the same as previous years. I want to read at least 50 books in 2021. I'm also going to try using Reader Voracious's reading spreadsheet, so that I can have better stats on my reading at the end of the year.



This is a big year for my Classics Club Challenge - it's the final one! I have all of 2021 to read the 18 remaining novels on my list and to reread War and Peace if I really want to finish the thing up right. This is not going to be easy. Despite a conscious effort to read some of the longer ones as I've gone along, I'm left with a lot of seriously thick novels. It's actually not certain that I will finish this in time at all, but I'm going to do my best.



I will also be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge again for the seventh year. Luckily, most of my picks this time around overlap with my Classics Club list. My sign-up post is here.




Lastly, I will be participating in a challenge I made up myself - Clear the Shelves 2021. I want to read books I already own and decide whether to keep or donate them. I'm hoping to make decisions on at least 50 books. Again, this won't be easy with all the long classics I have to read this year, but I think this will be a good way to read more books based on my mood.


All of this is definitely going to be a challenge, but I'm going to try my best to get it done. I'm excited to see what this year will hold for me, and to see if I can actually finish my Classics Club list on time!