Recent Reading Fails

I used to be a book completist, but in recent years I’ve been learning to cut and release when a book is just not working for me.  It’s not just a matter of too little time, too many books. I’ve found that forcing myself to finish a lack-luster book is a surefire way to land myself in a reading slump.  It’s been surprisingly difficult to let go, and I’ll still power through a book if I’m not loving – particularly if it’s popular or acclaimed – if only to make sure that I’m not missing something.

Here are some recent reading fails along with some of the reasons why.

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Belzhar by Meg Wollitzer

Literary fiction author takes on YA and Sylvia Plath. I’ve drifted away from YA in recent years, but I gave this a chance because a lit fic author slumming it in YA is always of note and because I enjoy a good update/retelling/meditation on “classic” literature. Seemed promising.

Not so much. My frustrations with YA still stand, but my issues with this book went beyond that. If your starting point is the Bell Jar, you really ought to bring on a more nuanced understanding of depression and mental illness than “depression comes from bad things happening.” For someone who has had a few (thankfully brief) experiences with depression, the book felt a little insulting and quite frankly dangerous (apparently journaling can cure depression, no medication needed!). The “twist,” which I found out about thanks to a delightfully hilarious retelling by a dear friend, was clumsily telescoped in the first 20 pages and makes my issues with the books take on mental illness one billion time worse.

The above is based on reading around 100 pages of the book.

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Shades of Meh Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

I was led to this book by a posting about books for fans of the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Billed as “[t]he fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written” how could I possibly resist? I had no idea before seeing this post that I wanted a Jane Austen fantasy novel, but I do! It makes sense. I love Austen. I love fantasy. Throw in a little romance, maybe a brooding Darcy figure, and I’m yours!

This was most definitively not the Austen fantasy novel I wished for. The thing about Austen… she could write. Very, very well. The writing here is very, very poor. All tell, no show. Your standard regency romance author runs circles around Kowal. The dialogue was stilted, artificial, and cringe-worthy. As for the characters? Oh dear. ONot every character has to be pretty, witty, and intelligent Lizzy Bennet. Austen has her share of sad-sack heroines (Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price), but I need a teensy bit of spine, maybe a smidgeon of humor, intelligence, character? Something. Instead we get Jane Ellsworth, unattractive spinster, talented glamourist, doormat.

Then there’s the magic, or glamour. Admittedly, I did not get far enough into the book for it to find out where they were going with it, but so far, it’s felt superfluous and confusing. Glamour appears to be another of the accomplishment expected of young women: painting, music, needlepoint, etc. That was sort of an interesting idea, but in execution, I just didn’t get it. Glamour seems to involve ether and “working folds” and making things smell better and sparkly? *shrugs* I dunno.

Gave up after 65 pages. Should have spent my time playing this. Better writing, more well-rounded characters, and more compelling plots. No magic though. Perhaps for the next version?

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