Book Bites 2

I have got to learn to bake scones.

Scones seem to be a predominant theme in cozy mysteries, or at least in the ones I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks. First there was The Secret, Book & Scone Society, which features a bakery that specializes in “comfort scones” completely customized to each diner. Then there was Brownies and Broomsticks, whose protagonist regularly bakes cheddar-sage scones. Fortunately for me, Brownies and Broomsticks at least had the decency to include recipes in the back.

I’ve been curious about cozy mysteries for a while and liked the general idea of the genre, so I finally decided to investigate. And I can’t mince this: the writing really threw me for a loop. My judgement of books is generally predicated on the quality of their writing. If the writing is bad or typo-ridden, it’s very unlikely I’ll give the book a good rating. The fact that I gave the first two books I read four stars apiece is a testament to the addicting nature of the stories, and possibly also to my newfound ability to lower my standards. (Look, that tends to happen as you get older and more disappointed with the world. I’m not proud of myself, I’m just saying.) I had originally planned to give each book three stars because that was what I honestly thought they deserved until probably about the last quarter, when everything suddenly became fascinating and the endings turned out to be extremely satisfying. I don’t know how they managed to hook me in, because the writing was uniformly awful. The prose was dumb. The dialogue was bad. The first two books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. One of the three seemed to have a typo every other word, either because it wasn’t proofread or because the proofreaders didn’t know what they were doing. Two of the three had at least one serious error involving a homonym. I get that we’re all human and there’s only so much we can do, but the number of errors I’ve found in these books is ridiculous. It’s almost like the publishers are cutting out the proofreaders so they can print these faster, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.

In any case the writing clearly hasn’t put me off yet because I’ve read two of these things and am working on a third, so I suppose we’d better get on with it.

Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.

Theme of the week: Cozy mysteries.


To Helvetica and Back
Paige Shelton

I’m a graphic designer and a card-carrying type/print nerd, so To Helvetica and Back seemed like a great place to start. This was the one that most convinced me that proofreading is not A Thing anymore, because it has at least one major continuity error, the prose is repetitive, and it gratuitously dips into the pluperfect several times mid-scene for absolutely no reason. There were innumerable typos that I would consider common among native English-speakers on the internet, but which are inexcusable in a professionally published work. It also became clear to me that Shelton doesn’t know the difference between “discrete” and “discreet.”

The valley was spectacular though. You could see part of the monastery’s walls and a few discrete houses around the perimeter.

Generally I take it for granted that most houses are separate units, given that we’d be calling them townhouses if they weren’t, so I’m assuming the intention here was to describe the houses as unobtrusive. I weep for the future of English.

The trouble for me, at least as far as abandoning this book and my headache went, was that the story was irritatingly addicting and I needed to know what was going to happen because I’m nosy as hell. The narrator, Clare Henry, is a mid-to-late-twenties (I think?) dork who works at The Rescued Word, a typewriter repair shop owned by her grandfather, Chester. Her duties also include restoring vintage books, selling stationery, and supervising her 17-year-old niece, Marion, who handles the custom stationery orders. They have a resident cat named Baskerville, son of their first cat, Arial. This shop is fucking GOALS. The details are something that Shelton actually did really, really well, because the type nerd in me was screaming like a little girl and wondering why The Rescued Word couldn’t be real and in Maryland. (And then, like the type snob I am, I started thinking I would’ve named my imaginary cats Avenir and Aperçu. Go figure.)

Clare and Chester generally have a quiet time at the shop, but things turn upside down when they discover a dead body in the alley out back of the shop, and they get swept into a murder investigation. Along the way Clare discovers strange numbers and letters scratched into the bars of a client’s typewriter and meets a hunky geologist, Seth Cassidy, who asks her out after she restores his copy of Tom Sawyer. I normally don’t go for romance, but this one was unobtrusive enough that I didn’t mind it. It was an important part of the story, but it didn’t overtake the plot. Seth was adorably dorky and apparently makes a mean lasagna, and I actually really liked him, even though I was suspicious of him for half the book. Their relationship almost seemed to be going a little too smoothly, though from what I’ve seen from both Helvetica and Book & Scone that seems to be somewhat typical for the genre.

Overall this book was kind of a mixed bag. It was riddled with typos, the dialogue was clunky, and the prose was just cringey, which is a shame because the book was actually genuinely funny.

Jodie honked the horn, causing Seth to jump and turn toward us.

Jodie smiled and waved. Seth waved hesitantly, until Jodie pointed at me in the passenger seat. Then Seth smiled and waved back confidently.

“It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,” I said without moving my lips from a smile.

JFC. This is what I meant when I said these books read like they were ripped off of Wattpad. I loved this exchange until I got to “without moving my lips from a smile.” That sentence should have ended after “I said.” If Shelton was really convinced that I, the reader, would not understand that Clare was joking without her help, then she maybe could’ve written “‘It’s a wonder anyone has ever wanted to date either of us,’ I said, still smiling,” or something similar.

My other major gripe was that the plot was pretty predictable. There were a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming, but the general shape of it isn’t hard to grasp when you see these numbers:

11111438802966NW

I’m not sure why everyone in the book had such a hard time figuring out what these were. I mean, come on, those are clearly coordinates. Even if you don’t know how many digits there are in coordinates – I didn’t – the NW should give it away, and did give it away in my case. Given that there were coordinates scratched onto the typewriter and given that somebody was murdered shortly after demanding said typewriter, it wasn’t a big stretch to figure out that those coordinates probably led to a treasure of some kind. (Spoiler alert: I was right.) It also seemed clear to me that Seth would be able to identify those numbers, which he was.

Despite all these problems, I thought this was a good first installment: it was interesting, it was funny, it was easy to read, and it introduced me to an engaging cast of characters. I love The Rescued Word and I wish I could live in it. I probably won’t be pursuing this series, because I read the synopses of the next two books and wasn’t wildly intrigued, but I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things during this quarantine and may very well change my mind about this.


The Secret, Book & Scone Society
Ellery Adams

I usually don’t buy scones unless there’s literally nothing else to eat in the bakery case. This book is going to change that because Merlin’s Beard I really want a scone right now.

The story is narrated by Nora Pennington, a thirty-something woman living in Miracle Springs, North Carolina. Miracle Springs is a healing destination, and Nora has established herself as the owner of Miracle Books, a defunct train depot that she bought and turned into a bookstore. Her store is packed with books and shelf enhancers (tchotchkes used to brighten up the bookshelves), and she also provides comfortable chairs and coffee for those who want to sit and read. She calls herself a “bibliotherapist,” which means she helps people overcome their private issues by recommending a certain set of books for them to read. When a prospective client is murdered, Nora is called in to give a witness statement and connects with June Dixon and Hester Winthrop, who also met this client shortly before his death. Despite their testimony, the death is ruled a suicide by the corrupt sheriff, and the three women form the Secret, Book & Scone Society along with Estella Sadler, who owns the salon next door to Miracle Books. Together they make it their mission to solve the case and ultimately succeed, sharing their most intimate traumas with each other throughout the course of the book.

Bad news first: The writing in Book & Scone was just as cringey as it was in Helvetica, and the dialogue was pretty bad. On the other hand, there weren’t as many typos, so maybe it went through some form of proofing, and the book overall is funny and interesting, though the characters tend to fall into archetypes more easily than they do in Helvetica. There’s the shy, traumatized woman who just wants to keep herself to herself and avoids men like the plague. There’s the “town Jezebel,” who dresses provocatively and dates whatever she can get her hands on but – surprise! – has daddy issues. There’s the one obligatory character of color, who literally seems to be on her own as far as diversity goes. There’s the former “good girl” who made a mistake and became estranged from her family. And there is, of course, the evil real estate agency whose leadership has been popping in and out of each other’s beds and defrauding  local townsfolk on a grand scale.

Honestly, I don’t mind the archetypes too much. The characters were still fairly engaging, even if they were a bit flat. I don’t really know what it is, but I didn’t get into them as much as I’ve gotten into others; still, they weren’t unsympathetic, and they didn’t ruin the story, though they could on occasion be irritating.

“If you threaten those things, Estella, he’ll be your enemy. And what if we’re not around to rescue you the next time he gets angry?”

“I’ve never needed rescuing. I’m no helpless princess,” Estella snapped.

Before June could reply, Nora performed a referee’s time-out gesture.

Gag. Personally I would’ve said “Nora made a time-out gesture,” but that’s just me. And the thing is, Estella did need rescuing. She baited a terrible man and then started asking him stupid questions like “Just how ruthless are you, Fenton? Would you pay someone to push your partner in front of a train?” What the fuck? I thought these women were supposed to be smart. It’s true that Estella was smart enough to make sure she wasn’t truly alone with this man, but luring an entitled prick to a pool at night, stripping naked, and asking him really unsubtle questions about his possible role in a murder doesn’t seem smart to me. What exactly was the plan if her friends hadn’t been there? Would she have been able to fight him off, or was she banking on her friends to save her? Did she have any plans in the event that he, oh, I don’t know, maybe came to her salon after hours and tried to assault her again? Fill me in, Estella, because I’m kinda lost. I’m a huge fan of the “I Rescue Myself” thing, but I really don’t think the poolside interrogation would’ve ended well if June hadn’t intervened.

Of course, none of this really matters, because I will be continuing with this series. I can complain as much as I want, but in the end I can’t resist a series based around a bookstore and a scone shop. There’s two more books after this one, so I’ll be all set when the fourth one comes out in January. Maybe I’ll even have learned to bake scones by then. We’re still in lockdown and you can learn a lot when you’re bored, so the sky’s the limit.


Brownies and Broomsticks
Bailey Cates

I’m only on page 123, but Cates writes better than Shelton and Adams and I’m a sucker for witches and bakeries. The story is narrated by Katie Lightfoot, a 28-year-old pastry school graduate who’s just signed on as the head baker at Honeybee, a Savannah-based bakery owned by her Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ben. Aunt Lucy and Katie’s mother are hedgewitches, which means Katie is too, because it’s hereditary. Their powers deal primarily with herbcraft, which is why Katie has always had a green thumb, to the point where she jokes that she couldn’t kill a plant if she tried. While preparing for Honeybee’s grand opening, Katie meets Mavis Templeton, a grouchy old bitch who threatens to shut down Honeybee before getting her neck broken, most likely by somebody whose life she ruined. To be clear, I am 100% onboard with this. The back cover describes Mavis as “curmudgeonly.” This is an extremely generous term. I was picturing an endearingly crabby old man with a heart of gold. Mavis Templeton is a wealthy, entitled c*** who has no qualms about using her money and influence to shut down businesses, get people blacklisted within their industries, and just generally destroy lives. She can’t even be bothered to pay the full catering fee she agreed to in writing, and that kind of behavior infuriates me. She gets bumped off on page 32 and that’s still not soon enough because she is genuinely awful and I will be so pissed off if I get asked to feel sorry for her later. The book is kinda hinting that she might become more sympathetic later.

My overall impressions so far have been positive. I really, really really love the premise. I had a feeling going into this book that this might be the one cozy mystery series that really gets me invested in the genre, because it’s pretty much what I was looking for. It’s funny and easy to read, it’s not badly written, and it has a magical bakery and a little black Cairn terrier named Mungo the Magnificent, who might or might not become Katie’s animal familiar. (I figure it’s either that or he’s a human who crossed the wrong witch, but I’m okay with that as long as he stays a dog.) If you don’t know what a Cairn terrier is, look them up because they’re seriously adorable. There are amazing foods scattered liberally throughout the 123 pages I’ve read, including but not limited to fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, crab cakes, spicy rice and beans, and peanut butter swirl brownies. There’s a couple recipes in the back, which I fully intend to try because SCONES. There’s even more than one character of color.

My main problem is pretty major, but I’m not actually sure if it’s a problem. Shortly after moving to Savannah, Katie mentions that she only sleeps for an hour at night but doesn’t seem to suffer for it.

For a while I’d wondered whether I was manic. However, that usually came with its opposite, and despite its recent popularity, depression wasn’t my thing.

Okay.

Not gonna lie, I had a full-on “You wanna run that by me again?” moment with this one. I had to wait almost a full 24 hours to cool down. I don’t want to rush into judgement, because I know I wouldn’t want my entire character to be judged by one misfired joke. Cates is clearly trying to be funny here. I know a failed joke when I see one, and this one is a failure of monumental proportions if it means what I think it means.

The trouble here is that Cates is suggesting that depression is a choice. She is implying that people decide to become depressed because they think it’ll make them cool. As somebody who has been living with a mental illness and will continue to do so despite the large body of people who think mental illness is self-indulgent and can be overcome through sheer force of will, I find this incredibly offensive and patronizing. Depression is not suddenly “popular.” The fact that celebrities have been increasingly talking about their struggles with depression and other assorted mental health issues doesn’t mean that depression is trendy or cool. Depression has probably been around since the dawn of man. We just notice it more nowadays because it is becoming more socially acceptable to talk about your feelings. The stigma is by no means gone and it’ll take a lot of hard work and social change to improve general attitudes towards mental illnesses and the people who have them, but we’re sort of getting there.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily what Cates meant to say. I don’t want to assume ill intent from bad phrasing. Maybe she just wanted to point out that more people are openly suffering from depression than before and it came out more flippant and dismissive than she intended. Maybe she thought it would be funny and didn’t have the background to consider the full ramifications. Maybe she’s suffering from depression herself and this is how she copes with it. Maybe in the future Katie will meet someone with mental health issues and acquire deeper empathy. (That one doesn’t seem too likely because these things aren’t that deep, but you never know.) I don’t have the context to make this call. This is the first book I’ve read of the Magical Bakery series, and the first of Cates’ works. I don’t know her, and I don’t know her style well enough to say if she was poking fun at depression. She hasn’t mentioned it since page 8, so I’m trying not to let it ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the book. On the other hand, if she did indeed mean it exactly how it sounds, then she and this series can go to hell. She is of course entitled to her own opinion and she has every right to write what she wants, barring hate speech, but I have the right to choose not to read things that piss me off.

My only other problem so far has been the slightly old-fashioned attitude towards courtship (Katie meets two hunky-dunkies, one of them keeps insisting on opening the car door for her and helping her down from his truck), but Katie likes it and that’s all that matters since she’s the one being wooed. The book has a host of promising female characters who all have names and talk to each other about something other than men and the men have all been playing supporting roles, so I don’t really care about this one.


Final Thoughts

Overall I’ve been enjoying this new genre (which isn’t new to other people, but is new to me). Cozy mysteries haven’t really been on my radar until fairly recently, and, yeah, they’re silly and cheesy and kinda dumb, but they’re also engaging, addicting, and pretty fast-paced. I like that each installment is quick and doesn’t require you to pay too much attention. I like reading about all the foods these characters eat, particularly in Brownies and Broomsticks. Of course the problem with that is that it makes me hungry, but yesterday I was prepared. I feel like I’m going to end up pursuing the Magical Bakery series with or without my qualms because any book that gives me an excuse to bake brownies is all right by me. For some reason I was really in Kitchen Mode yesterday and I wanted glass noodles and brownies, so I ended up making a three-course dinner for myself and my parents. We started with tofu with pickled mustard greens, which I made with both silken and medium-firm tofu, then had spicy glass noodles with ground pork (ma yi shang shu [蚂蚁上树], “ants climbing a tree”). I know, weird names, but I swear they’re both amazing and they don’t have ants in them. After dinner I made the brownies and omg they were AMAAAAAAAAZING. 😭❤️ We usually don’t make brownies but I’ve been craving them recently, so my mom brought home the Ghirardelli chocolate chip brownie mix.

So good. ❤️❤️❤️

Quarantine Day 62

I realized today that it’s been three months to the day since my quarantine began. That would explain why I no longer know what year it is.

I’ve been watching a lot of Try Guys and GoT lately and it does things to your brain, which is why I decided I needed to draw Margaery wearing Blake Lively’s 2018 Met Gala dress at like 2:30 a.m. Overall I’m pretty pleased with how she turned out, even if I did get lazy with the details. Mostly I’m pleased that I actually can draw something other than fat little people in onesies. Maybe I’ll clean her up later, though to be perfectly honest I probably won’t.

I also suffered a rather rude shock when Rusalka referred to my duck as a goose, which led to some rather hysterical googling on my part, during which I (1) concluded that the duck was a duck and (2) ran across an article about a blind, bisexual, and polyamorous goose. Go figure.

But I digress.

Lately I’ve been rolling around between numbness and irritability, which I mostly figure is the quarantine’s fault, though this hasn’t exactly been a cheerful year. At the same time, it worries me when people talk about reopening because I really don’t want us rushing into the projected second wave. On top of everything else, Maryland got hit hard by The Pollening right after the May polar vortex (???), which means itchy eyes and marathon sneezing. I hate spring.

On the slightly brighter side, things have evened out a lot work-wise since my last quarantine update, which is good because four of my projects ganged up on me and decided they all wanted to be shipped this coming week. I also finished Empress Dowager Cixi, so I finally got to start on some new books!

May has been pretty slumpy so far, but I got my second wind after finishing Cixi and celebrated by jumping into three books I’ve never read before. I haven’t gotten too far in any of them, but omg The Book of Longings is so good!!! I peeked at the first page when it arrived and liked what I saw, and later found it really hard to put down. The writing is gorgeous and I love Ana, and I can’t wait to see where this goes.

The Map of Salt and Stars is another one I’ve been looking forward to – I put it on hold at the library but then we went into quarantine, and I finally lost patience and ordered it from BN. I’m not really sure how I feel about this one yet, but I’m only 25 pages in and it’s very promising so far. I also started To Helvetica and Back, which has been sitting untouched on my shelf for years. Helvetica is my first foray into cozy mysteries, which is a genre I’m fairly certain I’ll love, and I’ve mostly been enjoying it, but I also keep getting distracted by the plethora of typos. Are cozy mysteries not usually proofread? The mistakes I keep finding in Helvetica are things that should’ve been caught, and they’re making me seriously wonder if I need to read the rest of the Dangerous Type mysteries. I really really really wanted to love Dangerous Type, but if this is a typical sample of the author’s writing I may have to pass on the rest of the series. Either way, I’m at the stage where I’m trying to finish Helvetica quickly so I can get back to the more promising books. I’m currently four books short of my goal of reading 15 books by the end of May, so I really need to get my ass in gear.

In food-related news, I’ve been eating extremely well, which is one of the bright spots amid the general quarantine gloom. This helps both me and the local restaurants, so I don’t feel too bad about going out because I want these places to still be around when we reopen.

Taiwanese popcorn chicken was one of the first things on my list:

THIS CHICKEN IS SO GOOD and now that I’m looking at this picture I’m legit thinking about hotfooting it down to the Taiwanese joint tomorrow and picking up some chicken and maybe a mango ice smoothie oh no oh no 😭 Now that I’ve said that it’s probably going to happen because I have the self-control of a five-year-old.

Mother’s Day weekend was a particularly good time, because we finally had an excuse to visit the new(ish) Choong Man Chicken in Germantown. The curry snow onion chicken was exactly as amazing as I remembered, and the nice people at CM threw in a couple of tubs of pickled daikon. I have a severe weakness for pickled daikon, and this one was particularly good. If you ever want to bribe me, feed me pickled daikon. I wish I were joking.

Not pictured: maguro sashimi from our favorite Japanese place, fried chicken wings, rice, curly fries, Japanese potato salad, and EVEN MOAR DAIKON PICKLES. It was a really good Saturday. Then on Mother’s Day proper we had homemade chili burgers and the leftover CM curly fries, because my mom happened to find a recipe for a copycat Tommy’s chili. We’re not actually sure if this is an accurate copy because Tommy’s is in LA and we don’t exactly have access to LA, but we’ve all agreed it’s amazing anyway.

Celebrations in quarantine have been pretty good so far because we can still pick up nice treats, like these cakes I got for my dad’s birthday:

And the Lindt chocolates I grabbed while I was at CVS, because I’d just read that damn Chocolat book and it really made me want chocolate:

And these adzuki donuts and mini stroopwafels, which I picked up by chance because that’s just who I am as a person. I didn’t even know stroopwafels could be that small but they’re really good so you sure as fuck won’t see me complaining 🤣

Rounding out the post with more pics of the Senior Nap Manager, because obviously I don’t photograph her enough.

Good night, world. x___x

April Reading Summary

It seems like I’m always in the middle of a crisis. Yesterday the crisis happened to be my foreign language dictionaries, which were blocking my document organizer for a while because Past Karo thought that would be a really swell place for them to live.

Don’t ask, I have no idea. Long story short, I needed to get to the scrap paper on the middle shelf, got fed up, and found a new home for the dictionaries on an actual bookcase. If you’re ever curious about the kind of chaos that tends to accumulate around me, just look at my printer table. That printer doesn’t even work but it’s been sitting there for months while I keep forgetting to call Epson because that’s just how I roll.

Anyway, it is now May and I’m currently at 40/60 books, which is pretty respectable, even if I am still working off that manga credit. I’m also in the middle of a reading slump, which hasn’t been helped along by the mild insanity this week inflicted on me, but I have time again so hopefully things will pick up this weekend because I have one giant obstacle standing between me and all the new books I’ve ordered during quarantine and I really want to read them naaaAAOooooOOooOOWWWwwwWW.


April Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Three Souls – Janie Chang
  3. Chocolat – Joanne Harris
  4. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
  5. Herding Cats – Sarah Andersen

Total Pages Read: 1,476

Ugh. Comparing my progress over the last three months, I’ve realized that my page count keeps decreasing from month to month. I’m insanely OCD about dumb shit like this, so if this doesn’t motivate me I don’t know what will. On the bright side, my goal of diversifying my reading list is going pretty well, even though it may not look like it yet.


April Highlight

I was going to recap all five April reads but then I cut it down to my three faves and then my thoughts on Purple Hibiscus gained sentience and ballooned out of control, so now we’re down to one. The rest will have to wait for a later post.

Warning: Heartbreak and spoilers ahead.

Purple Hibiscus
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

WOW THIS BOOK. 😭💔 The thing is, my timing was horrible. I read Purple Hibiscus before I was done being upset with The Dove’s Necklace, so it caught me at a particularly vulnerable moment, although to be completely fair I’m 99.99999999% sure it would’ve been heartbreaking even if I’d gotten to it after a more cheerful book.

Purple Hibiscus is the story of a 15-year-old girl, Kambili Achike, who was raised in a super strict Catholic household. Her father, Eugene, is a devout Catholic who uses his vast wealth to improve the lives of the people in his community. He gives generously to both people and organizations and is generally good to the community, but he also holds his wife and children to impossible standards and inflicts insane punishments on them when they inevitably fail to meet his expectations. Over the course of the book he beats his wife to the point of miscarriage twice, pours boiling water over his children’s feet, throws a missal at Kambili’s brother Jaja, and beats Kambili almost to death. He does all this not because he enjoys hurting his family, but because he believes he needs to keep them from going down the path of sin and takes extreme measures to get them all into Heaven. As the story progresses and his life grows more stressful and less controlled, they also become convenient targets. (Point of interest: I thought abortion was banned by the Catholic Church. Don’t the forced miscarriages count as a mortal sin?)

Living in constant fear of her father, Kambili grows up quiet and withdrawn, to the point that she doesn’t really know how to interact with normal children when she finally meets some. Her life takes a drastic turn when she meets her father’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, and the cousins she barely knows. Aunty Ifeoma is an outspoken professor employed by the University of Nigeria, and she’s wonderful. She has no patience for Eugene’s controlling ways, and gives Kambili and Jaja a safe space to learn how to be children. She also tries to encourage their mother to leave Eugene, though this is ultimately unsuccessful. (And, yes, Aunty Ifeoma does slap her children, but never without a reason, and never to excess. As far as I can tell, they get one smack and then a lecture. They never get their feet boiled in the bathtub.) As Kambili and Jaja grow closer to Aunty Ifeoma and their cousins, they grow further apart from their father, who notices the distance and fights to maintain the control he’s exerted over them for the last 17 years, until he finally erupts and puts Kambili in the hospital.

The most heartbreaking part of Purple Hibiscus is not the steady pattern of violence, but Kambili’s continual desire to please her father. She doesn’t hate him; she loves him and wants to make him proud. If you take away the abuse, he actually is a caring father who loves his children and wants only the very best for them. Unfortunately, you really can’t take away the abuse and he’s still a controlling POS who can’t figure out how to keep his children on his idea of a Heavenly Path without resorting to violence. And yet, even after he puts her in the hospital, even after everything he’s done, even after her mother finally snaps and puts poison in his tea, even after he’s gone and is no longer able to punish or reward, Kambili still tries to behave in ways that would’ve made him proud. She is devastated when her mother tells her about the poison, and, though half of my heart was going “GOOD FOR YOU GIRL,” the other half was crying for Kambili, because she never wanted her father to be murdered. Even though I wanted Eugene out of their lives, even though I spent a lot of the book wondering how many of her children Eugene would have to kill before his wife finally left him, in the end it didn’t feel good when my wish came true. And that, for me, was the most powerful part of Purple Hibiscus: it never lost sight of its humanity. It never celebrated Eugene’s murder, but neither did it excuse him for the harm he had done to his family. It was just so, so good.

CliffsNotes: I love the story. I love the characters (except Eugene fuck that guy I hope he’s burning in Hell), I love Kambili and Jaja and Aunty Ifeoma. I love that Jaja always tried to protect Kambili from their father, and from unfamiliar social situations. Even if it never really worked out the way he wanted it to, he was such a good brother to her. The only (very minor) obstacle was the snatches of Igbo dialogue, which obviously I didn’t understand, but I didn’t need to understand it to follow the story. I’m going to go back through the book and make a list of all the Igbo words Adichie used and all the foods she talked about so I can look them up, and hopefully Google Translate is going to cooperate with me. If not, no big deal. 10/10 recommend this book, with or without accurate translations.


Current Reads

With nothing else to distract me, I’m currently working my way through this monstrosity:

It’s not really a monstrosity. It’s only 436 pages, which kinda pisses me off because it’s just shy of the Chunky Chunkster requirement (450+ pages). It is surprisingly readable, which I hadn’t really expected when I picked it up – it is, after all, a history book – and it’s very interesting. I like Chang’s style: it reads more like a story than a textbook, which is always a plus. So far Cixi has lost her son, survived an assassination plot, gone to war with eight countries, and pissed off both the Western Hemisphere and the Boxers, so there’s always something going on. (Full disclosure: I thought Cixi was the empress who chopped her enemies into pieces and stored them in wine jars, and was very disappointed when I realized I was confusing her with Wu Zetian, who came about 1,200 years before Cixi. Go figure.) I also had a bizarre dream I was telling my mom about the difference between the Pinyin and Wade-Giles systems of romanization, to which she said “Thanks, no wonder I was sleeping” when I told her about it the next morning because my mama savage af 🤣 It turns out my information was wrong anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve been enjoying the book and am actually thinking about buying a copy after I finish it, but right now I can’t wait to get done with it because I’ve still got 156 pages to go and I have a long list of other books I want to read, such as this one that Rusalka just sent me.

I’ve seen this book floating around the internet but never really paid attention to it but it’s got a trash panda on the front so I don’t see any reason I won’t love it. 😍😍😍


Miscellaneous Reading News

I suckered out and signed up for a Barnes & Noble membership goodbye paycheck 😭 #whywasIcreatedthisway

Jade Attempts to Write a Book Review (on “Where the Crawdads Sing”)

As it turns out, being even more socially isolated than I normally am reminded me that I am actually capable of reading actual books and not just deeply depressing news articles or finding things I want and don’t need from Buzzfeed listicles. Who knew?

So, upon the recommendation of one of my best friends, I bought “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens – the real book, partly because I’m a bougie bitch who likes to read off of paper pages and not blue-lit screens, but also because, inexplicably, the physical book was decidedly less expensive than an e-book. Suffice to say, I never expected to live in a world where something that required actual printed materials and takes up warehouse space and must be shipped costs LESS than something that is entirely digital, but here we are.

Anyway, on to the actual book. I don’t know that I can say I’ve ever read a book quite like this. It’s parts historical fiction, coming of age story, and murder mystery with ecology and biology factoids and copious poetry sprinkled in. It feels very much like someone wanted to mash up the writing styles of David Baldacci, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee, but add their own “secret blend of 11 herbs and spices” called science factoids and poetry. I did not realize until I had the book physically in my hands, and only thanks to the dust cover, that apparently this is a book from “Reese’s Book Club” –  I am assuming this means Reese Witherspoon? Anyway, that would explain how and why this book had well over 45,000 Amazon reviews. So my two cents is clearly needed, no?

Overall Thoughts:

  1. Jumping timelines. This story crosses decades frequently; years are entirely left out (though upon reading about the main character, Kya, you can understand why). I actually really like the idea of doing this, though I don’t always love exactly how it’s done in this particular book. I didn’t find it distracting personally, but I could see how someone would.
  2. Potentially jarring dialogue. Anyone who wasn’t raised in or around the South, specifically the mid-Atlantic, or isn’t a big fan of Mark Twain, may find the dialogue very grating. It’s a lot of “sho’ was the finest shoes I ever saw” type of dialogue that may take some getting used to and some might even find themselves frustrated trying to “translate” it, or put-off by what seems like an overdone cliche (but from my limited knowledge of the time period and my stronger knowledge of that specific area, I suspect that dialogue isn’t too far off from what it would have been at the time for the characters involved, potentially minus some perhaps inaccurate colloquialisms, like fireflies versus “lightnin’ bugs”).
  3. Character development. There aren’t many characters that we “need” to get to know throughout the story, but despite the 350+ pages in this book, we really only ever get to know each character on a pretty surface level. The only exception being Kya as the main character, whom we get to understand a bit more, though it’d be concerning if we never got to know any of the internal workings of a main character in a book that follows decades of their life. I digress. On the one hand, it’s understandable given the whole plot of the book that Kya, who is – by design – an outsider, doesn’t know much about anyone, but the other characters that we get to know anything tangible about fall into their archetypes exactly as you’d expect. “Formulaic” is a descriptor you might not hear any arguments against. No new tropes here.
  4. The science. If you like nature and ecology in general and birds specifically, you’ll likely enjoy how frequently they appear throughout the story. An abiding love of these things is one of the major aspects of Kya’s character/personality/development.
  5. The poetry. There’s probably at least a dozen references to song lyrics and poems throughout the book. To some degree, it eventually makes sense why (won’t give a spoiler on that except to say SPOILER ALERT), but if you couldn’t stomach Frost in school, well, you probably won’t like this any better. But also shame on you. Because Frost is sensational. (… just to be clear no Frost poetry is in the book; just poetry with similar thematics)
  6. Suspended disbelief. Alright, OBVIOUSLY, this book is a work of fiction, BUT chances are a lot of people reading it will find at least one instance in which they are unwilling or unable to suspend their disbelief. Maybe it’s about Kya’s entire background; maybe it’s about what she ends up doing with her life; maybe it’s about the parts of the book that surround the murder and resulting trial. But suffice to say, plenty portions of this book require the reader to suspend their disbelief, though not more than plenty of other pop culture shows, movies, or books do. Personally, I find it harder to suspend my disbelief in things that are “historical” since history, even in fiction, requires some more adherence to the parameters of “what actually happened” (and I don’t just mean from the white man’s perspective – because fuck that) and what was really possible or even in existence at the time. But that’s just me.
  7. The flow of the story. Kind of tying back to the first point about jumping timelines, I daresay if there is something people won’t like about this book it’s the flow (part of which is the timelines) in the sense that it is a) really slow going for the first part (and unless you really like her writing style – which admittedly I did –  you might find it difficult to want to keep reading), b) jumps around, as mentioned, and, c) is a little bizarrely broken into two “parts” (I guess to make clear to the reader that “we’re staying in this decade now”?)
  8. The actual plot. I could understand (and to some degree agree) with claims that this book has a kind of vague plot that could have been developed in a stronger or different way. The slowness of much of the book doesn’t help that case, but, honestly, MOST stories (whether book, TV, or movie) don’t have the greatest plots – so this is no worse or more far-fetched or underdeveloped than most other popular fiction in my personal experience. Just don’t be expecting Agatha Christie. You’re not getting Agatha Christie.
  9. The ending. Who doesn’t care how a story ends?! Without directly spoiling the ending, I would say the ending is a bit bizarre (just in what it is, not what it contains, if that makes sense) in that if felt like a forced wrap-up, the vast majority of which honestly wasn’t needed. There is a means to an end, but the path to get there… well, not my favorite but not the worst ever, either. I’d say it falls into the category “if you’re going to bother to do it, don’t half-ass it” –  it felt like a half-assed after-thought, and a quick “oh, fuck, I should probably actually let them know XYZ” as opposed to “this was my plan all along.” It tries to be clever, and to a degree is and has a beautiful element to do that, but there was a lot of unmet potential in that ending.
  10. And, finally, Jade Attempts to Write an Actual Book Summary in 100 Words or Less: Set across multiple decades, this story follows the coming of age of the abused and isolated main character – Kya. It captures her volatile family life, her endless thirst for knowledge, and her unique experiences with bouts of companionship among a lifetime of loneliness and heartache. The suspected murder of the town golden boy sets the stage for the reader to get glimpses of outsider Kya’s interactions and connections to various members of a community that has always shunned and shamed her, and her trial and tribulations on the rough roads of adulthood, relationships, and self-sustainment.

(It’s 95 words – on the first try?! GO ME – unless you count “self-sustainment” as two words because you don’t understand how hyphens work. Punks.)

Overall rating: 3.5/5 Stars: NEEDS MORE COWBELL (and by cowbell I mean plot development) but otherwise a worthwhile read if you appreciate art, nature, and science.

March Reading Summary

I know. I’m late.

I had the foresight to summarize my February reading on the first day of March, but now we’re halfway through April and it only just recently occurred to me that I hadn’t yet made a March reading post because this quarantine has been kinda killing my motivation. While I don’t object to the idea of staying inside and never going anywhere, it’s actually made me less productive because the TV’s always on and there’s Pokémon to be caught and a huge backlog of Forged in Fire episodes to watch. Look I’m not proud of myself okay 😭

Anyway: today I happened to be unusually motivated, partly because it’s the weekend but mostly because I decided I was going to support my favorite sandwich shop, which makes the best tuna sandwiches I’ve ever had.

This was a very good decision, because it motivated me to clean up the hideous black holes that my bookcases had become, not to mention all the random-ass books that were scattered around my desk and on the floor.

Apparently it’s been a while since I’ve dusted the black bookcase, because two of my bookends left prints on the shelf. I was amused.

I was originally going to go through my books and see if I wanted to donate anything to make room for all the new books I bought but haven’t read, but then I realized that I haven’t read probably about 90% of the books on my shelves and I didn’t actually want to give any of them away, so I ended up opening up a new shelf on another case and moving all the anthologies there. This somehow turned into me pulling all the books off their shelves, dusting the shelves, and putting all the books back in alphabetical order by author. I mean, it’s not like I’m going anywhere.

OMG I ACTUALLY HAVE SPACE……………………..FOR MORE BOOKS

I even had extra room on the new anthologies shelf for my library books, so now they’re not blocking the children’s section anymore!

Unexpected hazard: I kept knocking my duck off her shelf and just narrowly catching her. I’ve really gotta find a better home for her.

Bonus: I actually did manage to find a pile of books to donate.

PROGRESS. 🥳


March Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. The Great Passage – Shion Miura
  2. Snow & Rose – Emily Winfield Martin
  3. The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto
  4. The Girl in Red – Christina Henry
  5. The Dove’s Necklace – Raja Alem

Total Pages Read: 1,531

My March page count is significantly lower than my February page count, but February was padded out by twenty 200-page mangas, which really added up fast. In February I only read three books that I would consider “real” and in March I read five, so I’m pretty pleased with my progress. Even if it doesn’t happen within the next year or so, I want to eventually get to the point where I don’t have to rely on mangas to meet my reading goal.


And now, a moment of silence for my expectations.

The Dove’s Necklace
Raja Alem

Warning: Spoilers and a lot of confusion.

March’s crowning achievement was the completion of The Dove’s Necklace, which was………really something. I’ve never been this upset by a book, not even when I was slogging through The Amber Spyglass. The last time I wrote about The Dove’s Necklace, I thought I was going to love it because it was supposed to be “nuanced as a Nabokov novel.” The main difficulty that I for some reason did not anticipate is that I usually don’t understand Nabokov novels.

I think part of the problem was that I just didn’t get this book. I know absolutely nothing about Arabic history and culture, and I kinda get the feeling that the book would’ve made more sense if I’d been better informed. It didn’t help that the prose did indeed remind me of a typical Nabokov novel, in that it was so intricate that I spent most of my time trying to figure out what the author was saying. I hated all the characters, didn’t always recognize them when they popped up, and ended up doing a blitz read just so I could finish the book without getting hung up on the prose. I skimmed through the five-page character monologues and neverending emails/diaries so fast that I might as well have skipped them, but I think I caught most of the major points.

I missed a lot of finer details while I was blitzing, but the gist of the story is that a young woman is found naked and presumably murdered in the Lane of Many Heads, a low-income neighborhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The case is assigned to Detective Nasser al-Qahtani, who learns that the victim may be either Azza or Aisha, two young women who grew up in the Lane of Many Heads and recently went missing. Over the course of his investigation, Nasser reads the extensive love letters Aisha has written to her German boyfriend and gradually becomes obsessed with her. In a parallel storyline, Azza’s childhood friend and adoptive brother Yusuf learns that he is descended from a family that had something to do with the key to the Kaaba, most of whose history I have forgotten.

As far as I can tell, the dead woman in the alley was Aisha. I’m 99.9999999% sure that Aisha jumped off the roof following the stillbirth of her illegitimate child, and that Azza, who was secretly seeing a wealthy property developer named Khalid al-Sibaykhan, took advantage of her suicide to fake her own death and run. Azza briefly alludes to Aisha jumping, and also has disturbing memories of helping Aisha both deliver and bury her child. The other possibility is that Aisha was murdered by her runaway husband, who found her naked and video chatting with her boyfriend, but she seems to have fought him off and I’m not sure if he went back after that. Either way, Azza runs away to become al-Sibaykhan’s mistress and doesn’t directly appear in the story until the last third of the book, when she is introduced as Nora. I wish I could say she’s happy and fulfilled, but she is in fact trapped in a deeply unhealthy relationship with a man who thinks nothing of selling her into prostitution as a punishment for running away from him. And, at the end of the book, nothing changes: though Azza turns out to be a talented artist and starts putting on exhibitions of her work, though Yusuf unexpectedly appears and tries to get her to run away with him and she almost makes it out of the parking lot, she balks when she realizes that Yusuf is accompanied by Nasser, who turns out to be al-Sibaykhan’s personal assistant. Her story ends with her walking back into al-Sibaykhan’s office, with the understanding that she is going to be punished, while Yusuf is incapacitated and either arrested or killed by Nasser.

This was what pissed me off more than anything, because I struggled through 500 pages of Arabic philosophy to end up in exactly the same spot. Azza is back with al-Sibaykhan, Yusuf is back in jail, and al-Sibaykhan is still going to bulldoze the Lane of Many Heads. I understand why Azza went back. I understand that she had nowhere else to go and would probably not have been safe from al-Sibaykhan even if she had found somewhere to hide. I understand that she had nothing of her own and would not have been able to live off her art. It’s certainly a realistic ending, but it also means that after a 500-page slog there’s zero payoff. The other major obstacles for me were Yusuf’s articles and Aisha’s babbly emails, which extensively quoted D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and often came with several multi-paragraph postscripts. I’ve never been a fan of the Character Writing Letters device, and this book did not change my mind.

This isn’t to say that the book was bad. I would call it upsetting rather than bad. The prose, though hard to follow, was (when I understood it) lovely and often funny. My favorite part was probably the Lane of Many Heads, which was treated as a character unto itself and often served as a narrator. I may not have been able to appreciate this particular book, but I’m definitely going to look up other Middle Eastern writers. My reading list to date has been very homogeneous, but that’s going to change. I’m tired of visiting only one part of the literary globe.


Miscellaneous Reading News

I’ve told myself all along that I wouldn’t make an Instagram just for my books, which is why I now have one. 😬 I decided this week that I wanted a dedicated bookgram so I could spam everybody with gratuitous book pics connect with the reading community on Instagram without random junk pictures getting in the way, so my book photos will be posted on bookycnidaria moving forward. If you know any good bookgrams I should follow, please let me know. My follow list is rather sparse at the moment.

Book Bites 1

It’s been a fucking long-ass week.

It seems strange to say that we’ve only been in quarantine mode for a week, because it already feels like we’ve been doing this forever. The office is closed, the entire creative team has been teleworking since Monday, and we’ve started a New Thing on the blog, which Jennicorn aptly named quaranticles. The world may be falling apart and we may all be in the middle of a story that was probably written by a ten-year-old with a cynical imagination, but at least we can still blog about it.

While we’re at it, I’ve started a new thing too, which I’m naming Book Bites. This can be literally translated as “short little half-assed reviews of books that I meant to review in great detail on my honor I did but I’m really fucking tired so this is what you’re getting instead.” If you really wanna go for my underbelly, you could probably translate it even more literally as “tiny rants cobbled together from my goodreads forum posts,” though I really hope you don’t.

Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.

Theme of the week: Books That Made Me Want To Eat. This was actually a coincidence rather than a formal theme.


The Great Passage
Shion Miura

I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I don’t usually use the word “charming” to describe books. That’s changing today. This book is charming.

To summarize, Kohei Araki is a lexicographer who has spent his entire life pursuing words and found a career compiling, editing, and publishing dictionaries. (Also, sign me tf up.) He is currently embroiled in his struggle to publish The Great Passage, a dictionary dreamed up by himself and Professor Matsumoto, an elderly linguistics scholar. To this end he recruits Mitsuya Majime, an exceedingly awkward 27-year-old word geek, and trains him as his successor. The book has two stages: it introduces Araki and goes through Majime’s first months as a lexicographer, then jumps ahead 13 years to the final two years of publishing The Great Passage. In the 15 years that it takes them to finally publish The Great Passage, they are joined by extra staff swiped from elsewhere in their publishing company; Majime meets and marries the girl of his dreams, who is as single-mindedly focused on her career as he is on his; and Professor Matsumoto struggles with old age and esophageal cancer.

One of the things I love the most about this book is its complete lack of internal drama. There are issues that have to be resolved, but everything is very civilized and there’s no fighting or even angry shouting. The characters are genuinely invested in their work and go out of their way to help each other. There are three very gentle romances that don’t involve screaming accusations, name-calling, or any of the other unpleasant quirks romances tend to accrue. Even after a critical error is discovered in the final stages of the publishing process, everyone pitches in to meet the deadline and nobody gets thrown under the bus. It’s lovely. This may be my Japanese genes talking, because this book is very Japanese. I can’t even articulate why it feels so Japanese. It just does. It also feels very anime in places, particularly the part where Majime checks out for five minutes after his dream girl asks him out, and actually there is an anime version and with any luck I’ll be able to hunt it down and watch it.

And, though this usually doesn’t happen, I love all the characters. They’re not described in the depth you might find in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. They’re more like sketches than paintings, but those sketches are all you need. I don’t know how Miura does it, but by the end I even liked Nishioka and I never thought I’d like Nishioka. I especially love Majime, who even in his forties is still awkwardly, childishly cute. I love that he writes his future wife a rambling 15-page love letter with lots of Chinese poems and classical references and it works. I love that that letter is included in its entirety at the back of the book, with commentary from Nishioka and Kishibe. I love that his wife, Kaguya, is a professional chef holding her own in a male-dominated field and that after the time jump she’s running her own restaurant. There are so many elements in this book that are just so cool, from the characters to the word analyses to the obligatory Pokémon reference. This is, as has been stated, a thoroughly Japanese book.

Favorite scene:

“It’s a nice day. You want to go somewhere?”

“Where?”

“How about Korakuen?”

His heart started pounding hard enough to knock his soul right out of his body. This must be what was meant by the phrase ten ni mo noboru kimochi, “being on cloud nine,” literally “rising to heaven” with joy.

In that moment, the difference between agaru and noboru became clear. Words that had been floating in chaos swiftly grouped themselves into interlocking sets.

There’s a long passage after this in which Majime rhapsodizes about the difference between agaru and noboru, which I for hopefully obvious reasons will not be transcribing here. Go get the book yourself. It was really cute.

Second Favorite Scene:

He was the genuine article. Araki looked on with admiration. It had only taken seconds for Majime to work out the underlying meaning of shima. Back when he’d put the same question to Nishioka, the results had been dismal. Nishioka had never considered any possible meaning but “island,” and his answer had been “something sticking up from the sea.” Appalled, Araki had yelled, “Idiot! Then the back of a whale and a drowned man are shima, are they?” Nishioka had looked flustered and then laughed foolishly. “Oops. You’re right. Gee, that’s a tough one. What should I say, then?”

Things This Book Made Me Want To Eat: Soba. I really want soba. Somebody please give me magic powers so I can summon a bowl of soba. Don’t quote Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration at me, idgaf.


The Girl in Red
Christina Henry

Official rating: 3.75 stars. I was wavering between 3.5 and 4 and finally settled in the middle.

Somewhat appropriately, the last book I read before the office shut down was about a plague. The Girl in Red is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, only Red is a twenty-year-old sci-fi geek walking 300 miles through an apocalyptic plague-ridden world to get to her grandmother’s cabin. I kept waiting for a wolf character to show up, but none did, unless you count the toothy creatures that are never actually explained. In retrospect, I suppose Sirois qualifies as the hunter character, though he doesn’t actually do anything and Red is the one who kills the maybe-wolf.

This was my first Book of the Month read, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I LOVE IT. On the other hand, the writing drives me bananas because Henry writes like an engineer. For context, I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life translating giant engineering reports into a form of English that most English speakers can understand, and one thing I’ve noticed is that engineers like to throw in as much information as they can to make sure that their readers really get what they’re saying. There are (so) (many) (parentheticals). The unnecessary title casing is really irritating too. I feel like Henry could have made her point without Title Casing Everything She Could Think Of.

It’s a real pity about the writing, because otherwise this book is so good. I really really really love Red. She is intelligent, iron-willed, and tough as hell. I love that she’s a walking encyclopedia and isn’t shy about sharing what she knows. It is so refreshing to see a heroine who (1) speaks her mind, (2) doesn’t hesitate to defend herself, and (3) isn’t pushed around by an overbearing supernatural boyfriend. No offense to YA fans, of course.

My biggest frustration, apart from the writing, was exactly the same as Red’s frustration, because I spent most of the book wanting to give Adam a good kick. I could really feel her frustration with her family’s apparent inability to understand the scope of the problem, and with their refusal to take her warnings seriously. I wanted to scream when mom took off her mask and started breathing in the infected air, and then again when they heard a truck pulling into the yard and Adam’s first impulse was to go to the window to see who it was are you fucking kidding me how can they see a pile of burning bodies in the middle of the street and still not understand 🤬 I actually was honestly hoping he would end up in one of those quarantine camps he really wanted to go to, because he was seriously cramping Red’s style. The whole thing with the chest-bursting-parasite-that-might-be-a-Xenomorph was so creepy that I stayed up watching YouTube videos till three in the morning for two nights in a row because I couldn’t go to sleep. At the same time, I was grateful that the book wasn’t just a rip-off of Alien because that’s really been-there-done-that and it would’ve been beyond lame if the book had spent all its time gently parodying sci-fi movies and then ended up exactly the same way.

Then I actually finished the book and I was livid because you can’t just dangle a toothy monster in front of me and then not tell me why somebody thought it would be a good idea to breed it in their lab. Don’t get me wrong: I’m really glad that Red, Sam, and Riley made it safely to Grandma’s house. I’m really glad that there actually was a Grandma who was demonstrably alive and still inhabiting her house. On the other hand, what the f*cking f*ck is the deal with those monsters?! I get that the book is skewering sci-fi/Chosen One conventions and that, realistically speaking, there is no real reason for Red to learn about the origins of the parasite and the Cough, but COME ON! Why was the parasite created? Was it supposed to be a weapon? How is it getting into people in the first place if it’s able to come bursting out of their chests? Is it related to the Cough at all, or is it just unhappy timing? How many of it are there? I would suspect that the government was injecting it into people with their little tranq gun thingies, but they seemed pretty bent on rounding up and destroying as many parasites as they could find, so that seems unlikely. Either way, this book needed to be at least 100 pages longer because somebody’s got some splainin’ to do. At the very least I feel like Red is owed an explanation for the thing that killed her brother, but I also suspect that that’s one of those things the author intentionally left unanswered because she doesn’t know it herself.

On the plus side, I liked the story. The writing may have dampened my enjoyment of it somewhat, but it was still a good read. I love the part where they stumble across D.J. and he feeds them bibimbap. I love how chill he is even when he’s the only one left in town, carrying on with his life while the kidnapping militia is running riot. I kept waiting for something bad to happen after Red separated from her group and abandoned her pack, but I was glad that nothing did. It was good that not all of her suspicions turned out to be true. I wasn’t really a fan of the 2x-Sirois-deus-ex-machina thing, but, since this is kind of a parody, I’m okay with it.

And, although I’m disappointed that Red gave up on finding out about the parasite, I can understand why the author went in that direction. Red is not, as she says herself, a hero or a Chosen One. She’s a young woman who’s trying to reach her grandmother’s house. From that perspective, I’m okay with her not learning absolutely everything. I’m maybe being too forgiving, because I love Red so much. I loved the total slaughter of Toothpick and his band, (1) because they deserved it and (2) because I am unspeakably sick of wimpy, self-righteous characters who find themselves in mortal peril but somehow still suffer a crisis of conscience along the lines of “Oh no! Who am I to try to kill these people who are trying to kill me/my loved one(s)???” and end up getting themselves and/or others killed or injured. Red knows what needs to be done and she does it, and I really respect the hell out of that. She may not enjoy it, but she’s not stupid enough to let her conscience get her killed.

On a completely unrelated note, now I really want bibimbap. 😬

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.


Happy International Women’s Day! 🥳 I’d completely forgotten about this day until Snapchat reminded me of it an hour ago, but it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of the latest addition to my badass women shelf. I’d been planning to post this review today anyway, but it’s nice when things work out.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the sweet, hilarious, and heartbreaking story of a young woman who has come through horrific abuse, both at the hands of her mother and of her college boyfriend, and somehow still made it into her thirties. Following the institutionalization of her mother and the removal of her boyfriend, she has been living by herself and working as an accountant at a design agency. Given that she was raised by a mentally unstable mother and then shifted from foster house to foster house for the rest of her childhood, she has very poor social skills, and is more comfortable with classical literature than she is with other people. Though she is repulsed by the people she interacts with on a day-to-day basis, she also quietly wishes for connection, and eventually finds it when she is befriended by Raymond Gibbons, the office IT guy and her complete antithesis.

Eleanor Oliphant struck a chord with me because I am a book-inhaling, literature-reciting nerd who has been muddling along for about a decade in a life I would consider “fine.” In the thirty or so years she’s been alive, no one has ever told Eleanor that life should be better than “fine,” and it shows. She goes to work every day at the same time, comes home at the same time, and eats pasta with pesto and salad every night except for Friday, when she buys a frozen pizza from the supermarket. She has nothing to do on the weekends, and spends every weekend waiting for Monday to come while drinking herself blind. It sounds depressing when I say it like that, but Eleanor is actually really good company. For someone whose weekly highlight is a frozen margherita pizza and a bottle of Chianti, she’s surprisingly funny. She never actually means to be funny, but her day-to-day observations are hilarious. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Eleanor vs. Sports Day

How they loved to wear those badges on their blazers the next day! As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.

Eleanor vs. Rock

It was, I thought, the sound of madness, the kind of music the lunatics hear in their heads just before they slice the heads off foxes and throw them into their neighbor’s back garden.

That’s………..really specific.

Eleanor vs. Clients

Clients, I soon learned, could be very demanding; I still had limited direct contact with them, which suited me just fine.

From what I could gather, they would routinely be completely unable to articulate their requirements, at which point, in desperation, the designers would create some artwork for them based on the few vague hints they had managed to elicit. After many hours of work, involving a full team of staff, the work would be submitted to the client for approval. At that point, the client would say, “No. That’s exactly what I don’t want.”

There would be several torturous iterations of this process before the client finally declared his or herself satisfied with the end results. Inevitably, Bob said, the artwork that was signed off on at the end of the process was virtually identical to the first piece of work submitted, which the client had immediately dismissed as unsuitable. It was no wonder, I thought, that he kept the staff room well stocked with beer, wine and chocolate, and that the art team availed themselves of it quite so frequently.

OUCH. 😭💔 As a professional designer employed by a multinational corporation, I can tell you that none of Eleanor’s observations are exaggerated, and that chocolate is a welcome and necessary part of most of my days.

This was what sold me on Eleanor: I’d seen the book making the social media rounds and had been somewhat interested, but I was put off by the romance vibes in the synopsis and ultimately decided against it. Romance has never been my thing, and this one sounded particularly sappy. I might never have read the book if I hadn’t received a photo of the Eleanor vs. Clients passage from a friend who knows me waaaaayyyyyyyy too well. I was mildly disappointed to discover that Eleanor herself is not one of the tortured designers, but her perspective on the matter, first as an accountant and then as the interim office manager, somehow makes her observations even more pointed. And, although there is a love story involved, it’s a very quiet kind of love story, the kind that doesn’t make me want to hurl fox heads into my neighbors’ gardens.

One thing I really, really love about Eleanor Oliphant is that, although it’s gently hinted that Eleanor and Raymond might eventually get together, as of the end of the book they don’t. I love that they end the book as besties rather than as a couple. I love that they’ll both have time to process and figure out what they want from a relationship. I love that Honeyman didn’t feel like she had to pair them off, either with each other or with other people, by the end of the book.

I’ll admit I had concerns. One of the most prominent story arcs is Eleanor’s growing obsession with Johnnie Lomond, a local musician generally held in low regard by other characters. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Johnnie is a pretentious, talentless asshole, but Eleanor forms a massive crush on him after seeing him perform just once, and proceeds to stalk him for most of the book. To this end she buys her first laptop and smartphone and follows him on Facebook and Twitter, and frequently fantasizes about their first meeting, which she spends most of her time trying to orchestrate, and their life together. But all great fantasies must come to an end, and she eventually realizes that her imaginary relationship is never going to fly. This was an enormous relief and part of the reason I was really really glad she’s going to have time to be single and think about what she wants from a boyfriend, even if I did occasionally want to shake her and scream “RAYMOND IS SO MUCH BETTER FOR YOU!”

I was concerned about this arc not because it’s bad or unrealistic, but because by that point I loved Eleanor so much that the thought of seeing her throw herself at a man who would only hurt her was unbearable. I had a couple of theories going: (1) Eleanor would meet Johnnie Lomond, and he would say or do something awful to her; or (2) Eleanor would eventually realize that she liked Raymond, and would completely forget about Johnnie. In the end neither of these things happened because Eleanor, like the sensible, intelligent person she is, realizes completely on her own that her “love” is only a crush, and that she has been behaving like a starstruck fifteen-year-old.

The moment in which she realizes that Johnnie doesn’t know her from Eve is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because she’d built up a whole world around a man who was unworthy of her and then found it crashing down around her ears in the space of one evening. This realization leads to a mental crash, which in turn leads to a crushing, alcohol-fueled meltdown and almost suicide attempt. Fortunately, Raymond notices she’s suddenly gone missing and turns up at her door, and eventually manages to steer her into therapy. With the help of Raymond and Dr. Temple, she restabilizes and begins to learn to love herself, and also learns to cope with the loss of her sister and her mother, whose deaths she has been repressing – somewhat predictably – for most of her life.

This is one of the very few gripes I had with Eleanor Oliphant: it’s mildly predictable. It doesn’t even come close to the usual romantic formula, but the biggest influences on her life are easily guessed. On page one she says she went to her first job interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth, and a broken arm, which tells you that an abusive boyfriend will be coming out at some point in the book. It’s not that you can completely rule out abuse by family, but at that stage in her life an abusive partner seemed more likely. In chapter 22 her mother says “I was cursed with daughters,” which tells you that Eleanor had a sister at some point, even though she has no memory of this sister and thinks she is an only child. Looking back over the rest of the story, I’ve begun to see other clues that I missed during my first read-through, little hints of Marianne. I really need to read this again, because I’m starting to realize how smoothly Marianne was integrated into the story, even if she wasn’t explicitly introduced until the end. And, even though I could predict the missing sister and the abusive boyfriend, the death of the mother came as a complete surprise. In retrospect, it did seem a little funny that this awful woman was still allowed to verbally abuse her daughter from whatever institution she’d been put in, but it makes perfect sense that she’s just an elaborate construction created by Eleanor as a coping mechanism.

Even with all of the above, Eleanor Oliphant still wasn’t done with me, because I also bought the audiobook and listened to it during work this past week. It was excellent. The narration was wonderful. The story didn’t get old or tiring because there were so many little clues and references I’d missed the first time around, including a reference to The Wire that completely went over my head. I will say I’m really glad I read it first, because I really would’ve struggled with the Scottish accent if I hadn’t already known the story and the dialogue.

CliffsNotes

Pros: This is hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. Of course, the year is still young, but the statement stands. If you’re on the fence about Eleanor Oliphant, read it. I recommend both the print and audio versions. As a random bonus (for me), Eleanor and I share a birth year. 🙃 As a more general bonus, fans of classical literature should have fun finding her treasure trove of classical references. My favorite:

When the buzzer sounded on the heat lamp, the color-mixing girl came over and led me to the “backwash,” which was, by any other name, a sink.

I feel like Eleanor is going to make me even more literate, because she’s seriously making me want to start reading Jane Austen and the Brontës. For instance, I only just now realized she foreshadows Marianne in chapter 13, when she mentions her love of the characters Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. This requires further investigation. I can see I’ll be visiting the library a lot this year.

Cons: Mild predictability, a certain idiot musician who’s not worth Eleanor’s spit, unclear passage of time. In the beginning she says she’s “nearly thirty,” later she says she’s just turned thirty-one. What’s up with that? Also Reese’s fucking book club sticker is still stuck on the front wtaf 🤬 This doesn’t actually affect my enjoyment of the book – I mean, I’m not insane – but I still don’t see the need for these gorram stickers. If you’re somebody who doesn’t care about the stickers, I envy you.

Random Brain Farts

I had trouble finding the book at Barnes & Noble because I was absolutely convinced it was written by Elin Hilderbrand and I have no idea why. Luckily it wasn’t too far down from the Hilderbrand section, so I still found it anyway. Then I was convinced it was written by someone named Gail Honeymoon. I actually typed “Honeymoon” earlier in this review and only caught it by chance. I seriously have no idea how my brain works sometimes. Maybe I associate it with Hilderbrand because it’s on the same shelf as the Hilderbrand books idk man

February Reading Summary

BOOM BABY it’s March and I’m currently at 30/60 books!!!

Soooooo to be totally honest 25 of those are mangas because I spent most of February blitzing through Soul Eater, which I finally did finish. On the other hand, hooray I’ve read five books that didn’t have pictures!

For anyone who might be curious, here’s a brief timeline of my relationship with Soul Eater:

2010
My high school best friend makes me watch a few episodes of the anime. I get hooked and start collecting the manga.

2011 – 2020
I collect the entire manga but stop reading after book five or six for reasons I am currently not sure of but may have something to do with my pervasive laziness and declining reading skills.

January – February 2020
I get fed up and read the entire series over the course of 1.5 months.

Overall I enjoyed the series. There were some things I didn’t like and some things that made me go WTF, but I liked the premise and loved the ending, even though I’m still salty about Arachne. The only thing about the ending that’s got me scratching my head is Gopher and his 9,000 Noahs, (1) because I’m still not sure what the point of Resurrected!Noah was and (2) I’m not really sure that Gopher actually deserved a happy ending. Still, he’s probably going to spend the rest of his life getting pushed around and verbally abused by those 9,000 Noahs, so I suppose it evens out in the end.


February Reading Stats

Books Finished:

  1. The Merry Wives of Windsor – William Shakespeare
  2. The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker
  3. Soul Eater 6 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  4. Soul Eater 7 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  5. Soul Eater 8 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  6. Soul Eater 9 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  7. Soul Eater 10 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  8. Soul Eater 11 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  9. Soul Eater 12 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  10. Soul Eater 13 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  11. Soul Eater 14 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  12. Soul Eater 15 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  13. Soul Eater 16 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  14. Soul Eater 17 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  15. Soul Eater 18 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  16. Soul Eater 19 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  17. Soul Eater 20 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  18. Soul Eater 21 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  19. Soul Eater 22 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  20. Soul Eater 23 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  21. Soul Eater 24 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  22. Soul Eater 25 – Atsushi Ohkubo
  23. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Books Abandoned:

  1. The Siberian Dilemma – Martin Cruz Smith

Total Pages Read: 5,103

About that abandoned book: I don’t plan to make a practice of abandoning books at the drop of a hat, but I really couldn’t get into The Siberian Dilemma. Maybe it would help if I had the rest of the Arkady Renko series as background – this was the first Martin Cruz Smith I’ve ever tried, so that might’ve had something to do with it. In any case the characters didn’t draw me in and the writing was very choppy and non-sequitury, and before I knew it the book was due back to the library. I tried to renew it but it for some reason was unrenewable (maybe somebody had it on hold?) and I refuse to pay fines for books I don’t like so back it went.

To be fair, it wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. Maybe I’ll try reading Gorky Park and work my way back up to Siberian Dilemma if I end up liking the series, but otherwise I don’t see myself trying this again anytime soon.


Current Reads

With Soul Eater safely out of the way, I finally got to start some new books!

Eleanor Oliphant was wonderful and I will be buying the audiobook as soon as I get to work tomorrow. The only thing that pisses me off is that stupid little sticker they keep insisting on grafting onto the covers of random books. I don’t care if this book is part of Reese’s Book Club. I don’t care if it’s Oprah’s pick. Get that shit off my book cover or at least make it removable so I can take it off myself. 🤬

Also I might’ve gone a little crazy at the library after getting Soul Eater off my list, but, hey, we all do that, right?

Last Saturday we had lunch with one of my uncles, who mentioned he’s been reading a lot of Japanese books and named names. He specifically recommended The Great Passage, so I picked it up at the library.

I’m only on page 73, but Great Passage has been speaking to my soul on many different levels: it’s about a man who has dedicated his life to words and all their possible meanings; he has this really awkward apprentice who’s so deeply invested in words that he literally checks out for five minutes to analyze the difference between the words agaru and noboru (both meaning “to rise, ascend”) when the girl of his dreams asks him to go to an amusement park with her; these two men are trying to produce a new dictionary before their publishing company can shut their project down; and, possibly most importantly, they eat a lot of amazing food in between dictionary work and now I really want Japanese food.

More seriously, I’ve also made it a goal to read more books by writers of color, particularly Asian writers. I realized some time ago that, although I’ve read hundreds of books, comparatively few of those books were written by people of color. If this is something you’re struggling with too and you want some more diverse reading options, take a look at my writers of color shelf. I only have 133 books on this shelf so far and some of the authors are repeats, but I know I’ll find more. 133 may sound like a lot, but when you compare that with the 725 books I currently have on my Want to Read shelf, it’s rather sobering. Of the almost 800 books I’ve marked “Want to Read,” only 18.3% were written by people who were not white. I did okay(ish) with my reading list last year, but I just realized that if you take away the mangas and miscellaneous graphic novels, which I generally don’t count, my 2019 book diversity percentage goes down like a lead balloon. Looking back over the five books I’ve read this year that weren’t mangas, only one of them was by a writer of color. I need to get better at this. 😭

On that note, I’m really looking forward to reading my latest library haul, particularly The Dove’s Necklace. The only thing that’s kinda giving me pause about this book is that it only has 2.98 stars on goodreads, which seems strange to me, given that it won the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Hopefully the rating is just the result of angry bigotry and not actual valid objections, because the inside cover descibes the book as a “brilliant, funny, profane, and enigmatic fever dream…as gripping as classic noir, nuanced as a Nabokov novel, and labyrinthine as the alleys of Mecca itself,” and I already kind of love it even though I haven’t actually started reading it.


Miscellaneous Reading News

I’m only in one book club on goodreads. I used to be in three, but I left the other two at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t been participating in them and I wanted to focus on the Coffee Break book club, which I’ve been actively participating in since joining. I’m not really sure what’s so different about this group because the other two were perfectly nice, but for some reason this one really lit a fire under my tail, possibly because it was the first group I’d seen that did monthly reading trackers and my OCD had spent its entire life waiting for this chance. This was the group that got me to sign up for my first-ever buddy reads, and I’m actually starting to consider the possibilities of the Book of the Month threads. I’ve never done a Book of the Month read but this month they’re all reading The Girl in Red, which happens to be on my Want to Read shelf and looks fascinating.

Actually fuck it I just checked the library catalog and found out there are seven available copies so now it’s on hold and I’m doing a Book of the Month read!!! Wish me luck!!! 😍😍😍

Life Goes On

Welcome to adulthood. You get excited now when you use your day off to buy a new keyboard and go to the Korean market.

That keyboard was not cheap!!! 😭💔 Unfortunately I really needed a keyboard with a number pad, which makes life a lot more pleasant, and even more unfortunately my new computer did not come with one because Apple really knows how to soak you for every penny. Of course the real tragedy here is that I decided that I needed an expanded keyboard and immediately ran off to buy one but we won’t get into that ORZZZZZZ

Anyway, the reason I ended up at the Korean market was that I’d stumbled across a recipe for ganjang guksu (Korean soy sauce noodles) and wished to try it immediately but did not have somyeon noodles. My brother was moving home from Atlanta that weekend and our parents had driven down to help him move and I had the run of the kitchen, which is a polite way of saying I should probably never be left on my own ever because shit like this happens:

It was really good.

I was also left alone with Her Imperial Majesty Empress Zuri, who was Very Displeased with the snow that showed up around the same time as her late-night walk. It was only a few flakes, but she has spindly legs and almost no fur and overall it wasn’t a good experience for her.

On the bright side (for me), I caught her using the sleeping bag I bought her for Christmas! I’m not actually sure she knows what it is or how to use it – it took her a while to get used to it when I first put it out for her, but after a couple of hours she curled up inside it and we couldn’t get her out. Since then I haven’t really seen her use it, but suspect that she uses it as a substitute for a human lap when no human laps are available (i.e., when we’re all out of the house). Since that was its intended purpose, I suppose it’s worked out.

In this case she had to resort to the sleeping bag because I ran off for a few hours in the middle of the day and didn’t return until almost dinnertime. Everything always seems to stack up on the same damn days, and on this particular weekend Heather and I had already made plans to visit Historic Savage Mills, doggie or no doggie. I was mildly concerned that I might come back to find little doggie gifts on the floor, but luckily that didn’t happen and we still managed to see a lot of fun stuff.

This trip was a definite improvement over the last time I visited Savage Mills, (1) because I had company and (2) because we saw a lot more and also got food.

If you offer me a hot sandwich with ham and melted cheese, the answer will always be yes. :3 My favorite store (after the bookstore, of course) was probably the one with these rubber stamps, which took me straight back to the 90s:

I really wanted to buy stuff at this store but I’ve always been terrible at traditional media so there wasn’t much point. We also saw this hysterical sign outside a bridal consignment shop:

and of course it wouldn’t be a shopping trip if I didn’t pick up at least a couple of new books 😬


Reading Corner

YOU GUYS I FINALLY FINISHED A BOOK FROM MY TSUNDOKU SHELF OMG /flails

To be totally honest, I love reading, but I really, really love being able to obsessively track every page online and set actually realistic goals. On Saturday I finished Memory of Fire: Genesis, and today I remembered to remove it from the tsundoku shelf. I mean I’ve already added at least five other books to the tsundoku shelf, but still. PROGRESS.

Genesis was already discussed and extensively quoted in my last reading update and doesn’t need to be reanalyzed here, but it was really, really good. I highly recommend this book, both to people living in America and people with an interest in pre-Columbian history and mythology. (And, uh, maybe don’t read it while you’re in a good mood cus it’s gonna bring you waaaaaay down.)

On a slightly less progressive note, I have now read 23 of the 60 books I’m planning to read this year. Four of them were regular adult books without pictures. The other nineteen were mangas. This is mildly embarrassing because, even though mangas are books, the long-term plan is to be able to hit my reading goal without needing to include mangas. That’s in the future, though, and in the meantime I’ve had 25 Soul Eaters sitting on my bookcase for years and years and years. I think I must’ve gotten up to book five or six before I stopped reading them, but now I’m up to nineteen and am almost done with the series. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to look back on the series to date and say What the fuck?

I don’t know if other Soul Eater fans feel the same way, but one thing I’m noticing is that the conflicts don’t last very long, and it’s kinda starting to bug me. There are extended story arcs and side villains and Medusa is definitely still fucking around with her black blood experiments, but most (if not all) of the arcs so far seem to have been resolved very quickly and easily. The bad guy turnover rate is ridiculous. At the beginning of the series, there are a few minor antagonists who either get defeated quickly or turn out to be DWMA teachers in charge of remedial lessons. Medusa is introduced as main villain and puppet master, but is seemingly killed during the first major battle. She and her team manage to release Asura, who seems like he’s all set to become the next main villain, but he quickly fucks off to god knows where and hasn’t come back so far. Medusa later comes back by stealing a little girl’s body, which she inhabits while we are introduced to her sister Arachne, who also seems like a good candidate for main villain. Then Arachne dies a few books later and it turns out she was only a side villain and the other major villain is in fact Noah, only then Noah dies too and now I don’t know what the fuck’s going on.

This is what I’m talking about when I say all their problems get solved way too easily, because Arachne and Noah were presented as powerful antagonists but in the end went down with hardly any fight. The battle scenes were extremely short. I loved the idea of using Soul’s music to turn Arachne’s own web against her, but Maka should not have been able to defeat her as quickly as she did. It makes slightly more sense for Noah to be defeated fairly quickly because he was up against a handful of powerful Meisters and didn’t seem to have any fighting abilities of his own, but Arachne’s defeat was incredibly anti-climactic and disappointing. It was one of those defeats that had me going “I bet she’s got some other trick it couldn’t be that easy,” but she had no other tricks and it really was that easy. I suppose I can’t really count Noah out just yet since Medusa came back and all and Noah did have access to a lot of demon stuff, but now Gopher’s run off with the Book of Eibon and I wouldn’t put it past Ohkubo to make Gopher the new villain even though he couldn’t villain his way out of a paper bag.

I feel like I should clarify here that I actually have been enjoying Soul Eater and have also been rewatching the anime, but I’m not a fan of the villain situation and I wish Arachne had had more of a role because I really liked her and all she did was wait around and work on her magic before Maka chopped her head off. It’s also not really clear to me why everyone and their mom wants to absorb Asura, or what they hope to get out of it if they succeed. What is the long-term goal here? I’ll admit I’ve been reading these really quickly because, like I said, there’s 25 of them, so it’s possible I’ve missed things, but I wouldn’t mind some more clarity with the general plot.

P.S. Justin is pissing me off and he needs to go. 🤬

The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.


Alternate title: I Suddenly Remembered I Promised Book Reviews.

This was an interesting read. I’ve been on kind of a Greek mythology kick ever since I read Circe, so The Silence of the Girls made its way onto my reading list the minute goodreads suggested it.

The Silence of the Girls is a woman’s-eye view of the Trojan War, a first-person account narrated by Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus. Following the sack of Lyrnessus, Briseis is captured and given to Achilles as war booty. She lives in the Greek camp for about a year (I think?) before the sack of Troy, during which time she observes the people around her, forges new bonds with her fellow slaves, and tries to survive as best she can. Eventually, of course, she becomes a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon, and is used and abused by both men in their fight for dominance. Later in the book her narrative is interspersed with chapters narrated by Achilles, whose mental state can be described as fragile at best.

I’ve always loved Greek mythology, so I found Silence fascinating. Though it’s still a retelling of the Trojan War, it added a number of new things that I hadn’t read before: Briseis, who in other retellings is most definitely not a queen, is the wife of Mynes, son of the king of Lyrnessus; Patroclus has a girlfriend/war prize of his own, named Iphis; Hector’s body and face magically rejuvenate every night after his death, causing Achilles to drag him all over the camp in a furious attempt to obliterate him; Briseis tries to run away, but thinks better of it five minutes later; Achilles has mummy issues. (Okay, that one I kind of knew.)

One of the best things about the book is Briseis’ observant and often dry-humored narrative, which gives a face and a voice to some of the thousands of women who were enslaved and then forgotten during the course of the war. Unlike other authors, Barker doesn’t glorify the war or try to portray Achilles as heroic; though he is a nearly undefeatable demigod, he is also described as a thug, a butcher, an overgrown child who clings to Patroclus and Briseis because they remind him of his mother. She doesn’t force Briseis to fall in love with Achilles, or with any of the other Greeks. Though Briseis decides not to run away from Achilles later in the book, her decision is based on a very painful logic: even if she does succeed in running away and hiding in Troy, she knows that Troy will fall within weeks, and that she will suffer more than she already has when she is recaptured. And, though she ends up married to one of Achilles’ servants, this is also for a practical reason: Achilles, knowing that Briseis is pregnant with his child and that he only has days left, arranges the marriage and instructs her new husband to take her and her child to his (Achilles’) father’s court. There is some sliiiiiiight Stockholm Syndrome towards the end, as Briseis grows somewhat more accepting of her life with Achilles, but, given that she had by that point been badly abused by Agamemnon, I can understand her softening a bit towards Achilles and wanting to make the best of things. I went into this book wanting sweeping heroics from her, but, in retrospect, I think that’s the point Barker is trying to make: that sweeping heroics are not always possible, and that sometimes, in terrible situations like the one Briseis is forced into, the best you can do is survive. This is never made clearer than it is in this powerful passage towards the end of the book:

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.

And yet, despite the horrors she has witnessed and even though escape would be pointless, Briseis still realizes that she and the other slave women have survived and will continue to survive.

There they were: battle-hardened fighters every one, listening to a slave sing a Trojan lullaby to her Greek baby. And suddenly I understood something – glimpsed, rather; I don’t think I understood it till much later. I thought: We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too.

In the end, Silence isn’t particularly emotionally fulfilling. It is not a revenge epic. It is not a wish fulfillment fantasy. It is the story of a woman struggling to survive and eventually making a new life for herself after her world is destroyed. The book ends with these words:

Now, my own story can begin.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be a review if I didn’t complain at least a little bit…

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m really not sold on the writing. The book wasn’t badly written. Some of it was lovely. Unfortunately, the slang and a lot of the dialogue in general was very………..British. I had no issue with the profanity; presumably every language has its own version of fuck and all variations thereof, so it makes perfect sense that the Greeks – particularly the Greek soldiers – would’ve been singing something like this:

Why was he born so beautiful?
Why was he born at all?
He’s no fucking use to anyone!
He’s no fucking use at all!
He may be a joy to his mother,
But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

Other quotes made less sense.

  1. “Look at the cheeky little sods,” he kept saying. “Look at them.”
  2. Bribe him, plead with him, kiss his sodding arse if you’ve got to, but for god’s sake, make the bugger fight!
  3. “Me mam sent the midwife downstairs in the end. ‘You go and get yourself a cup of wine,’ she says. ‘I’ll stop with her.’ And the minute the midwife was out the room, she whipped the covers off and I don’t know what she did, but oh my god, the relief. Ten minutes later he was born. ‘Oh,’ the midwife says, ‘I didn’t think she was as close as that.’ Me mam just smiled.”

I realize with that last one you’re supposed to understand that the character is speaking with a different accent, but that was a peculiar way of conveying the class of a Trojan woman. The book also frequently uses the word “bloody” (okay, I guess…….I suppose ancient Greek could’ve had a comparable word) and “for god’s sake.” The Greeks worshipped many gods. Barker clearly knows this. Everyone who’s ever picked up Greek mythology knows this. To which god are the characters referring when they say “For god’s sake”? Surely they’re not referring to the Christian god whose name most of us take in vain nowadays? Was it really that fucking hard to write “For gods’ sake” instead? THIS IS KILLING ME.

The writing, for me, was the greatest obstacle in reading the book. It didn’t go quite as far as “Reader, I married him,” but the modern slang, Briseis’ internal arguments, and other minor irritants sprinkled throughout the book all added up to a very jarring, aggravating style. I was in Troy – and then I wasn’t. I was in the Greek camp on the beach, and then Myron was talking about “cheeky little sods” and suddenly I was in a pub watching the Greek army get hammered and yell about soccer. The Britishisms constantly dropped me out of the narrative, which overall walks a blurry line between beautiful, acceptable, and irritating. Barker also tries to dictate the reader’s internal pronunciation with hyphenated words that shouldn’t actually be hyphenated, such as “We-ell,” “List-en,” and “Ye-es.” Even more aggravating than the British slang and hyphenated words is Briseis’ habit of speaking to an unseen person, who seems to be her own internal interrogative voice:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

I just don’t know how you could do that.

Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave.

This is an extremely valid point and one that I’m glad Barker consistently made, but it’s wrapped up in such a self-righteous bit of dialogue that it didn’t have the same impact it would’ve had if she’d written it differently. Between the hand-wringing “I just don’t know how you could do that!” and the self-consciously morally superior “Well, no, of course you don’t,” I came out of this particular chapter annoyed, which is probably not how the exchange was intended. In case you missed it the first time around, Barker considerately copied it and pasted it into a later chapter:

You were trying to arrange your marriage [to Achilles]…How could you do that?…I don’t understand how you could do that.

Perhaps that’s because you’ve never been a slave.

Also, I don’t actually remember her trying to arrange a marriage to Achilles at any point after Patroclus’ death? Did I miss something, or did Barker delete the scene where Briseis tried her luck? Whatever the case, I feel like there are better ways of explaining Briseis’ decisions than forcing her to argue with the handful of clueless voices camped out in her head. The narrative as a whole leaned rather heavily on the “I Must Make It Sound As If The Character Is Speaking Directly To The Reader” device, which, rather than making it sound natural and conversational, wrecked the flow of the prose and made it more contrived. Here’s a few examples:

  1. He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me.
  2. We-ell, in a manner of speaking I’d survived.
  3. Oh, yes, I got that story too.

CliffsNotes

The story was interesting. The writing drove me crazy. I personally prefer The Song of Achilles, which didn’t use stupid words like “shlurping,” but The Silence of the Girls is still very much worth reading.