Jan 18: Switching It Up

I listen to a lot of audio, about a third of my books last year. I am trying to get better at figuring out when a book is right for audio. This has become more important with my more-frequent reading slumps during pandemic that are almost always print reading slumps. Yes I will sometimes read a couple audio duds in a row but I mostly listen while I do other things, multitasking through cooking or driving, while in print I focus my full attention and I suspect that's why my frustration in print gets so much stronger.

I have some audio preferences, I like genre novels and books that move. I like a book with a strong voice. First person narrators are great. I avoid things that are too complex where I might lose the thread. Sometimes I think I have more patience on audio, but I suspect I would lose patience with some of the mediocre thrillers I will still speed through in print because I can go fast. Audio doesn't let you do that. (Or at least it doesn't for me, as I rarely listen above 1.2x.)

Last week I switched from print to audio for a book I was stalled out on. It wasn't bad, I was just really feeling my print slump and wasn't feeling any excitement. I could tell I wasn't really getting what I should from the book. So I switched to audio and suddenly it was enjoyable and fun and I was happy to get all the way to the end. It's funny how that happens.

Switching to audio isn't always an easy thing. Especially if a book has a hold list. The timing has to be just so if you aren't going to have to start back at the beginning.

I am also a fan of switching from audio to print or vice versa when I reread. I don't reread a lot, but switching format helps the book feel like something new. That kind of jolt to the system is more important than ever for me these days when my reading can become a slog each time the world is burning. I do what I have to do.

New Books Out This Week

How High We Go in the Dark
“Haunting and luminous, How High We Go in the Dark orchestrates its multitude of memorable voices into beautiful and lucid science fictio...

This is a pandemic novel (a fictional pandemic starting in the near future) which I think you have to say right up front. Especially because it is front and center for the whole story. This is an extremely ambitious debut, a set of interconnected stories over the course of decades, following mostly Japanese or Japanese-American characters. A pandemic is at the center but really the heart of these stories is about grief and loss, how people process, how they cope or don't cope.

It's also a speculative novel with elements of surrealism. Some of the images will be seared on your mind and the prose is quite lovely.

This is definitely one of those books that walks a fine line between dark and bleak (I read a lot of dark but this one went over into bleak enough that it took me a while to get through it) so you may not know which side of that line you'll be on until you try.

Joan Is Okay
A witty, moving, piercingly insightful new novel about a marvelously complicated woman who can’t be anyone but herself, from the award-wi...

A simple slice-of-life novel about Joan, a surgeon with a very straightforward way of looking at the world. Joan is quite solitary and can rub people the wrong way. She cares about her work more than anything else, which keeps her at a distance from her family who want a more traditional life for her.

I really loved Joan and I enjoyed how Wang doesn't treat her eccentricities like they're cute. Characters like Joan may or may not be neurotypical, but I often can't stomach the way many authors approach them, like they are strange adorable aliens. Joan is a person, she feels emotion, she has wants and needs, and I quite enjoyed living in her head.

Note: the pandemic (the real one) does appear at the end of the novel and since Joan is a surgeon in New York City she gets to see it up close.

What I've Been Reading

The Murder Rule
For fans of the compulsive psychological suspense of Ruth Ware and Tana French, a mother daughter story—one running from a horrible truth...

Release Date: May 12, 2022
Shelves: Audiobooks, Crime/Mystery
Stars: 2

Legal thrillers are always on a tricky footing with me because I know too much about the legal system. Usually they make an effort to do their research and while I can tell when they are bending the rules for the sake of the story, I make allowances. But really, a good legal thriller should try its best to work within the framework, it's like a sonnet, when you play within the rulebook and pull it off, it's quite lovely. Here, at first it seemed like perhaps McTiernan had done her research, and every now and then she throws out a term or principle that is in fact real, but otherwise this is absolutely ridiculous and it nearly drove me to distraction.

It's unfortunate (for me and this book) that this book also falls into a particular intersection of law that I have experience with so I could see all the things that didn't make sense with an extra level of clarity. But I don't think you need to be a former criminal lawyer to know that no one would send a couple of law students out by themselves to interview absolutely crucial witnesses. This is the sin the book commits constantly. And like the other ridiculous things it pretends are reasonable, it happens because the book is built on a rather teetering foundation. This is one of those books where it's all the concept and everything else that happens is in service to the concept. I would be more forgiving if it were a better concept but it's also a rather silly one.

I have been on the fence about a few of McTiernan's previous novels, but I liked The Scholar so much that I keep coming back. I was excited to see a standalone from her, but this just did nothing for me.

If it had been another author that I didn't have high hopes for, I wouldn't have finished it. As it was, at a certain point I knew this book was not going to get better so I kept at it partly just to be done and partly to see just how much worse it could get. Unfortunately it ended with a courtroom scene so preposterous it might as well have been in an old episode of Perry Mason.

I am sure a lot of thriller readers will enjoy this very much. It has some twists and plays with a double narrative. But I suspect many of them will be annoyed by the resolutions and see too many of the twists coming to really enjoy it. Hannah, our primary narrator, starts the book out so high and mighty, so obviously biased in her judgments of everyone around her, that her upcoming character arc is basically laid at our feet.

And finally this commits one of the major sins many thrillers commit these days: being about an actual problem in the criminal justice system but ignoring the realities of that problem entirely. Which is why this book is about an innocence project case for a white man who was rich for most of his life before prison. And presents potential law enforcement corruption as an over the top outrageous scandal instead of an actual systemic problem. (For other thrillers that don't do this I recommend Tiffany D. Jackson for starters.)

Content warnings for multiple sexual assaults and violence.

Like a Sister
A twisty, voice-driven thriller for fans of Megan Miranda and Jessica Knoll, in which no one bats an eye when a Black reality TV star is ...

Release Date: March 8, 2022
Shelves: Authors of Color, Audiobooks, Crime/Mystery
Stars: 3

I got stuck in this book about halfway through. I have been getting stuck in a lot of books lately so I knew some of it was just me. But I also knew that this book was not hitting me the way it was trying to. So I switched to audio and it was like night and day. I don't know why sometimes a strong voice doesn't hit the same in print as in audio for me, but this was definitely one of those times. As soon as I made the switch I was happy to come back to it and got to enjoy my listening experience. (Audio is voiced by Bahni Turpin, one of the best out there, and she gets it just right as always.)

I enjoyed this amateur detective novel, where Lena is convinced her estranged sister's death was not the overdose the police say it was. Desiree was a party girl, an instagram influencer, and a short-lived reality tv star. The two share a music mogul father, who left Lena's mother for Desiree's, so they have never had a typical sisterly relationship. Lena is a straight arrow, a home body and a bit of a nerd, happy to stay home, and impatient with Desiree's constant bad choices.

This book is very good about taking you through twists and reveals as Lena talks to people who knew her sister, trying to figure out what was going on. The pacing works very well, a lot like a procedural that goes from interview to interview. My biggest issue was that I could figure out who the killer was at a certain point because, well, there were only so many characters left in the story. The connection was rather tenuous for my liking, but far from egregious.

We Do What We Do in the Dark
A novel about a young woman’s life-altering affair with a much older, married woman. Mallory is a freshman in college, reeling from her...

Release Date: May 3, 2022
Shelves: LGBTQ
Stars: 4

This is a slim and spare but deeply poignant novel of a defining queer love affair. What's most notable here isn't the age difference between our protagonist Mallory (who is 19 or so) and her lover (likely 40's or 50's) or the fact that one is a student and one is a professor. Instead it's the book's insistence on remaining in Mallory's perspective, the narrowness of her view.

This life-altering relationship is often different for queer people than it is for everyone else, often there is an age difference or other significant unbalanced power dynamics, an elder and a youth. It doesn't mean it doesn't get messy, but it is a different animal. We are so zoomed in on Mallory's view that this becomes clear, the fact that her lover is married (to a man) means very little to Mallory, neither does her age or status, even though all those things are clearly part of what creates Mallory's obsession. She is too young to want to figure out her feelings or make sense of them, she simply wants what she wants. She certainly isn't going to spend a lot of time thinking about how she embarks on this relationship shortly after the death of her mother.

Eventually we get to see some of Mallory's life both before and after this affair, and I thought we got just enough of both. Even though we get the short version of what has happened before, getting to see it directly puts the affair in a very different light. And we also get to see her grapple with how to move past the obsession even after the affair is over.

I can tell that I am getting old because so many of my feelings towards Mallory were of the "Oh, Sweetie" type. She is so young through much of the book, and single-minded in the way that seems only possible during that time in your life. We never get to a full version of Mallory's narrative, how she eventually fits the story of the affair into her life, but we do get to see her start moving in that direction and I found that to be just enough.

The prose here is often quite straightforward, both very close to Mallory and also a bit at a remove. It is a delicate balance but I ended up liking it very much.

Just Like Mother
A girl would be such a blessing... The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the pa...

Release Date: May 17, 2022
Shelves: Horror
Stars: 2

This started out really promising: creepy cult, creepy Stepford husbands, creepy dolls, creepy new age startup. But as it ramped up it got more clunky, and I never actually bought anything that was going on.

You don't have to give me something totally believable in a horror novel. It is a given that we are going to stretch the rules of reality. Our protagonist, Maeve, is just fine, it's her long-lost cousin Andrea who doesn't work at all. The two grew up together in a matriarchal cult but were separated after Maeve escaped and the cult was brought down by law enforcement. Maeve has built something of a life for herself, though she's rather aimlessly floating through it, but she's surprised when she's reunited with Andrea to find that her cousin is the head of a motherhood-centric startup, with a perfect husband and a seemingly-perfect life.

We never get a full picture of exactly how the cult worked (boo!) and as we get more into the obviously-going-more-than-it-appears-to-be startup we never really get to understand what it does or what the appeal is. Something about motherhood coaching? Something about bonding with your baby before birth by using a super creepy doll? As both the cult and the startup become more and more important to the plot as Maeve gets more intwined with Andrea, everything just gets more blurry and the raising of stakes just fell flat for me. It's unclear what all of this is that Andrea cares about so much.

I was willing to go with it and was even speeding through it for the first 2/3 or so. But oh boy did it lose me in the last third. Each new twist didn't have me creeped out but instead reacting with, "Ummm okay I guess?" A whole lot happens, not much of it makes any sense, and it got less creepy instead of more creepy. I know a lot of horror has third act problems but here I never understood what it was all about. Like yes society is obsessed with motherhood and perfection but I couldn't see how this was commenting on that or playing with the themes.

I did read it really fast, though.

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