12/30: No Surprises
It is that time of year when everyone wants to cozy up with a book. Not just cozy up, but read in its entirety. There is time to read and we want to use it. I am not immune from this, even though I read much more than the average bear. But it has been an uphill battle!
I am in one of those streaks where I am not slumpy exactly but where nothing hits the way I want it to. I want to sit down with something that absorbs me entirely, that I can pass hours reading. And I just can't find it.
Those books, the ones that transport you, are not made to order. They tend to take you by surprise. And I do love those surprises. But also I could really use one right now and I would like one to just appear in front of me.
This could be an excellent time for rereading. I do very little of it anymore. It is probably the only drawback of having access to hundreds of books for free pre-release, that I feel this need to get through them and move forward forever rather than going back.
On the bright side, I do now have my dream reading chair. I decided to get it about a year ago, realizing that I am a grown-up and there is room in my house and my budget and why shouldn't I have a reading chair? I do far too much reading (almost all of my print reading) in my bed, which is a terrible place to read. It took me literally months to choose a fabric and then even more months for the very backed up furniture industry to make and deliver my chair. But it is finally here and even though I have to compete with the children for it, we are all enjoying it immensely.
If you are considering a reading chair of your own, I highly recommend a Chair And A Half so there is adequate space to curl your whole self up and an Ottoman so you can put your feet up when they are not hanging off the arm. Multiple positions is the key to the dream reading chair. I am also in the process of knitting a big chunky throw to serve as blanket and/or pillow. Looking forward to decades of enjoyment.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: March 8, 2022
Let us be clear: this is a heavily fictional boarding school book. One of those books where these characters do not look or talk or act like real people, where the school itself is a setting more than a school, where it is more about the idea of it all than anything resembling reality. This is not the first boarding school book to do this and it won't be the last, it might as well be its own fantasy subgenre.
The other thing it's important to know is that I suspect a lot of readers will find our protagonist, Laura, totally unrelatable and not very real. But Laura is quite real. It's just that you have to have been a highly strung, highly romantic, self-righteous virgin as a teenager to really understand her and luckily I was. I have never seen those qualities from my teen years brought to life quite so vividly than I have here.
This is more than a little of The Secret History (but make Richard and Henry girls) mixed with the philosophical boarding school vibes of A Separate Peace. (The comps in the copy are The Girls meets Fight Club and lol nope.) Laura's story centers on Virginia, an even more highly strung self-righteous virgin, who has her own little band of choir boys she orders around. Laura has come to St. Dunstan's (which you would be forgiven for thinking is in England but is in fact in Maine) because she read the classic novel written decades ago by an author who fictionalized his time there and then subsequently went off to fight and die in a war (inconveniently for his legacy, on the side of the fascists). Laura has read his novel a hundred times and wants the kind of romantic, ponderous life that the novel strives for. In Virginia she finds someone who also has high ideals and wants a different kind of life than the students around them. And it isn't long before Laura is totally in Virginia's thrall. Happily this is not a queer subtext book but actively queer text, though sometimes when you are a highly strung teen virgin you do not catch on to these things right away.
From here, it goes much farther than you think it will. It starts with minor machinations and steadily builds. I find Burton to be quite propulsive, I tore through her previous novel Social Creature as well.
It has been a while since I was feeling pretty good about a book and then the ending kind of ruined the whole thing. Here there is one particular plot point that never makes sense and is never explained and isn't at all in character for any of those involved, and of course it is the one thing that is necessary to set up everything that follows. This book has a big multiple-gut-punch ending, and I usually like those, but here it undermined what we know about the characters. It was too much and it really didn't work for me. I left that half a star because I really was enjoying myself before that.
I also just want to note one thing because it drove me so up the wall at the beginning that I almost put the book down. Virginia and the "choir" she runs are a major part of the book but if you are a choir person please just know that what this book calls a "choir" is not a choir at all and you have to just accept it and move on so you do not lose your mind. I could list for you the many ways in which this choir is not a choir and that it would not have the pure and beautiful sound Burton describes but it must be the way Burton says for the book to work so just actively suspend your disbelief.
Content warnings for suicide.
Release Date: Originally December 28 but appears to have been pushed back to March 8, 2022
Shelves: Thriller, Audiobooks
This does a pretty good job of twisting its way slowly through its reveals in a tight timeline. Set over just a few hours, we follow Jade as she is held hostage by a man who seems to have an unusual interest in her husband, Cam the celebrity chef.
I really just have one note: the middle drags a lot. Through each small moment, we get pages and pages of Jade's or Cam's thoughts, stretching out this minute or so with plenty of things we already know and emotions we've already run through. It can get a little repetitive.
That said, the dragging middle still has high stakes and the twists of the final third are satisfying. (One of them was good enough that I said, out loud to the audiobook, "Good twist!" Yes, I really do this.)
I did the audiobook, I tend to like audio for thrillers, and it worked pretty well. Appropriately has multiple readers, as it should.
Release Date: March 22, 2022
I see what this book was going for, multiple storylines that at first seem to not be connected but then overlap in unexpected ways. Skyla, newly a widow and newly vision impaired, takes an interest in her new tenant. Linelle reconnects with an old flame and reconsiders her long marriage. Jeremy accepts a writing assignment that sends him back to the city he grew up in, an opportunity to connect with a woman he still hasn't forgotten decades later. But as the stories went on, it wasn't so much that the characters became more unlikable (they were never particularly likable) but that they were harder and harder to connect to. And when it all came together, there was no longer a whole lot of stakes in the reveals.
Characters like these, who make a lot of bad decisions and whose motives are increasingly suspect, are tricky. They have to somehow feel relatable or interesting or charismatic to really bring you into their stories. More than anything, these are characters whose whole personalities are grudges and resentments. Skyla, who starts the book, never really becomes more to us than a nurse who loved and hated her cheating husband. Jeremy resents his mother and all the women who have rejected him. It's unclear what these characters do outside of these pages, how they move through the world, what they think about. They never became more than the plot to me and the plot had a few twists but not the rewarding kind.