Great Idea, Poorly Executed

They always say you should under-promise and over-deliver, but today I’m going to be talking about books that over-promised and under-delivered. Whether it comes to you via a personalized recommendation or a dust cover, sometimes you hear about a book that sounds just about perfect. There’s not really any feeling like diving into such a book with a load of anticipation and excitement, only to progressively realize what a letdown it is. Here are some of the books that did that for me.

The Circle — Dave Eggers

Concept: A social media conglomerate infiltrates every aspect of the world. Imagine Google and Apple and Facebook were all one platform/company, and that entire company was consolidated on a self-contained and self-sufficient campus where all the employees lived and worked and shopped and partied. Then imagine that monopoly-styled social media/cult decided to apply their policies and insidious over-sharing to the entire world.

Why I was excited: This idea is up there with the recent Black Mirror episode Arkangel in terms of things I think about on a very regular basis (coincidentally, I think Arkangel was poorly executed as well). Social media is becoming an integral aspect of life, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a world in which everything is conducted over those platforms. Super-corps like Amazon and Google are already expanding into new sectors, and I’ve said more than once that someday those two companies will probably rule the world. It’s a spooky concept, largely because it doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to picture a world where social media runs everything and everyone is “transparent”. In our current world of live-streaming, apps that track “likes” and interactions, and global networks of online friends, the world of The Circle doesn’t seem very far off.

the circle

What didn’t work: When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about my pet peeves in female characters, and that post was largely sparked by the main character of this book, Mae. Mae is, hands down, the absolute worst female lead I have ever read. She is an insult to women and it is glaringly obvious that she was written by a male writer. She’s sickeningly one-dimensional (to be fair, the majority of the characters are), excessively contentious, overly and vocally emotional, easily distracted, overtly sexual (all within horribly written and trite sex scenes), and consistently jealous.

The book features very little plot development outside of events that propel the concept rather than the characters, and there is zero understanding of human behavior. People just accept that they are going to be on camera 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives, and the only people who don’t agree with it are painted as these crackpot outliers.  The foreshadowing was obscenely heavy-handed (gee I wonder what that vicious killer shark in the office aquarium could possibly be alluding to). The entire story was undercooked, as were the characters and plot points. Eggers made little to no attempts to make the technological advances believable, and didn’t even bother to give a set time frame so readers could know how far in the future this is supposedly taking place.

“There were a handful of times when I looked something up, or asked the opinion of someone more tech-savvy than I am, but for the most part this was just a process of pure speculative fiction.”

Dave Eggers on future tech

Who did it better: I don’t know if anyone has really delved into this concept yet? Obviously, 1984 does a pretty stellar job with the concept of being watched and how that impacts behavior, but it’s the social media aspect that I’m so fascinated by. If you know of a book that has a similar concept, please let me know because I would LOVE to read a better version of this idea. Social media and oversharing give me the willies.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

Concept: In a dystopian society, children are forced to fight to the death, which somehow serves to enforce the power and control of the Capitol. The various “districts” are kept separated from each other to prevent communication and uprisings, but a teenage girl in this year’s games inadvertently starts a rebellion.

Why I was excited: Honestly, I just really love a good dystopian world with a rebel uprising. Even more so when those rebels are young folks trying to navigate the experience of growing up while simultaneously saving the world. Add in some borderline gladiator fights being broadcast around the world and I’m in.

the hunger games

What didn’t work: I haven’t read these books since they came out… because I really hated them. I remember being over the moon for the idea, but gradually finding myself more and more disappointed (and dare I say, disgusted) with the route things took. Even at the ripe old age of 14, I loathed love triangles with a passion, and Gale and Peeta made me want to set fire to those damn novels.

More to the point though: why kids instead of criminals? Why not force any other group except children to engage in gladiator-style showdowns? Regardless, Collins’s writing style is really not well-suited to this concept. She tends to be descriptive in the wrong places and bland and unimaginative everywhere else– I don’t really need three paragraphs about a dress, but I would like more than two sentences about the giant cornucopia in the arena. Also, Katniss is a total Mary Sue. Sorry not sorry, she really is.

Who did it better: I know that the common comparison is to Battle Royale, which I unfortunately haven’t read. However, if it’s teens fighting to the death that you want, Red Rising really knocks it out of the park and features a far more believable premise in a far more immersive world.

Annihilation — Jeff VanderMeer

Concept: This is a tricky one to describe, given that the book was so damn vague about everything. Essentially, a strange biological invasion is very slowly spreading from the mysterious “Area X”. Expeditions fail to safely return, and a new group is sent in to try and chart further progress. We’re thrust into a world that’s kind of (not really) that different from our own. There are some weird creatures that are eerily sentient, strange lights and brightness, a gelatin monster in a tower/tunnel, lots of words that don’t make sense, and that’s basically it.

Why I was excited: I wrote a full review (see link below) about this book a while back, and I mentioned that I read the book because I saw the trailer. The trailer made it all look very exciting and mysterious, and even the blurb for the book made it sound similarly intriguing and eerie. A excerpt from the dust cover reads as follows: “They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.” I mean come on– what’s not to be excited about?

annihilation

What didn’t work: Aside from the unpredictable narrator, pretty much none of it worked for me. The book presents loads of questions but provides no answers, and the whole thing feels like a long drawn-out fever dream instead of the psychological thriller that the synopsis makes it out to be. It would be the kind of dream where you’re listening to someone tell you about it, and you can tell it really resonated with them because they were there for it all, but they can’t really convey the specific atmosphere that made it resonate with them in the first place. I largely blame VanderMeer’s writing style for the atmospheric shortcomings. It had a lot of potential, but there’s very little that’s actually said and even less to be found between the lines. It spools on and on without actually saying much of anything or creating an immersive world. His descriptions are distracting and his prose is clunky, and it all just serves to take the reader further out of a world that’s extremely challenging to get into in the first place. You can read my full review here, where I complain a bit more eloquently.

Who did it better: I don’t have an exact literary example, but I recently watched The Machinist for the first time and I think this book could have (and should have) felt like that film. I had an elevated heart rate the entire time the movie was playing. From start to finish, there is a tangible tension because you know something is wrong, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Annihilation had the potential to harness that same uneasy energy, and it would have been infinitely better for it. It also would have been infinitely better as a short story instead of a novel.

Uglies — Scott Westerfeld

Concept: A futuristic world features what appears on the surface to be a utopian society that requires all teenagers to undergo a surgery which makes them beautiful and happy. They are told that the operation is the great equalizer and that this way of life is so much better than the lifestyle of the humans who destroyed the planet and decimated natural resources. Plot twist: the surgery actually infects parts of the brain to make people complacent and ignorant. And so begins the epic saga of Tally Youngblood and her efforts to restore free will to the world.

Why I was excited: Are you picking up on a common theme here? I really like stories about dystopian societies and the people who try to fix them. Like The Hunger Games, I read this book back in my freshman year of high school. Unlike The Hunger Games, I really loved this book at the time and found it to be quite successfully executed. In a fit of nostalgia, I re-read the full trilogy in February, and needless to say, I didn’t find it so successful this time around. However, I don’t find the concept any less intriguing. The idea behind the surgeries in the story is that we put so much stock into physical appearances. There are so many references to the old days when people judged others based on their skin tone, or people forced themselves to throw up because they felt inadequate. Sound familiar? The surgery gives everyone the same olive skin tone, the same BMI, as well as similar heights and bone structures. It’s supposed to bring peace by imposing physical equality. It’s easy to see how the leaders of the story’s society thought this could be beneficial. Unlike the other books on this list, there wasn’t a tyrannical dictatorship or a mega-monopoly that took things too far, just a group of people who looked at the world and saw that something needed to change.

uglies series

What didn’t work: The biggest sticking point for me was the surgeries. These reconstructive surgeries completely revamp bodies: they peel back skin, change facial bone structure by shaving down the bones themselves, add height by introducing additional vertebrae, synthesize muscle tissue and hair follicles– all in an overnight surgery. The operations are impossible in their scope and inconceivable in their lack of recovery time. Westerfeld is a talented writer, but his descriptions consistently and repeatedly fall short. He fails to fully explain any of the technology that makes these surgeries (and all the other feats through the books) possible. In this regard– and several others– the trilogy progressively gets worse. The surgeries become increasingly intense and invasive, going so far as to create super-powered humans with faces like wolves (?!?). Of course, this all takes place in the course of a single year, so our MC is only 16 during all of these events.

Who did it better: Red Rising features an important reconstructive surgery, and instead of taking 12 hours, it takes closer to six months. The patient is in excruciating pain, has to undergo extensive physical therapy, and the surgeries come in waves instead of all at once. It’s believable, and because that surgery is the groundwork for the entire plot, it makes the rest of the story more believable by default.


While I was writing this post, I picked up a few common themes between these books: all of them had weak female leads, all but one were made into movies, and all but one were clever dystopian societies. When it comes to the film versions, I felt that all of them were just as poorly executed as the books, but in different ways. For example, Hunger Games vastly improved on the visuals and settings that Collins’s descriptions left lacking. However, it failed on simple items of importance, such as the source of the mockingjay pin.

We all know how much I love a strong female lead, and now I’m realizing how much I gravitate towards dystopian societies. So if you have a recommendation for me, drop it in the comments! As always, thanks for reading ♥

Review: Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight

Sometime last year, I saw a blogger talking about Before Sunrise and how it was her favorite movie. I didn’t think much of it until a week or two later, when something ended up on my dash referring to the Before trilogy. Now that caught my attention: three movies following the same couple, set in real time? Far more interesting than a standalone romance plot, if you ask me. I added all three films to my watchlist, but honestly didn’t think much of them for a while. But then I watched Boyhood and realized that Richard Linklater might possibly be a storytelling genius, which left only one option: a movie marathon. The first lazy Sunday I had in February, I sat down and watched all three movies back to back to back. I don’t know if this post counts as a review or not, but I’ll definitely be rambling about all three movies and my thoughts on each one. Thanks for looking!

Before Sunrise (1995)

While watching this movie, I found myself with a similar reaction as I had to Boyhood, albeit on a lesser level. Despite the quietness and meandering pace of the story, I couldn’t help but be wholly invested in what was happening. It seemed sacrilegious to even think about scrolling through my phone or cooking food while bearing witness to two people connecting in such a human way.

before sunrise

What worked for me: Linklater has a way of telling stories that resonate, and I think that’s largely due to how he captures basic human interactions. A lot of romance movies (and lots of movies in general) feature a plot point or character interaction that is wholly unrealistic. It can make it difficult to relate, even if it’s a beautiful or touching moment. The power of Linklater’s stories is the humanity of them– they’re so peaceful and unassuming. He manages to capture day-to-day moments and frame them in a way that feels a little more charming– as if the light was hitting them just right and making them look almost magical. I think he’s the visual medium equivalent of Billy Collins.

What didn’t work for me: Honestly, I would’ve totally bought into their relationship if not for one thing: Celine is WAY too good for Jesse. She’s clever, opinionated, mature, funny, and honest (and French, of course). He is none of things. He’s cynical and derogatory and irresponsible. In many ways, he feels like a manchild that she will be responsible for educating and elevating. She reminds me of myself in a lot of ways, and maybe that’s why I struggled with their interactions. It was impossible for me to ignore his red flags, and I wished she had been more up front about calling them out.

Favorite moment: The poet writing them the piece using the word “milkshake”.

Before Sunset (2004)

I think the first and third installments would have benefited from being the same length as this one. The impending time of departure carries a lot more weight for the viewer when you can feel the end sneaking up on you. I felt like Hawke and Delpy had even better chemistry here than in the first film, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the natural flow of their conversation and interactions.

before sunset

What worked for me: Chemistry aside, there was one thing that really got my mind to spinning. As a disclaimer, I’m rather a fan of conspiracy theories (my personal favorite: Idaho doesn’t exist). My theory isn’t quite as preposterous as that one, but I googled it and apparently I’m the only one thinking about it! I couldn’t find a single post, review, or article, so here it is: is no one talking about the possibility of Celine being a figment of Jesse’s imagination?? I think he made her up.

What didn’t work for me: I have one huge qualm with this installment: how in the world did Jesse become a writer?? Sorry, but he’s dull as hell and previously showed no artistic inclination or creativity. However, his sudden and miraculous transition into becoming a writer did spark my aforementioned conspiracy theory, so I guess I can’t really complain.

Favorite moment: The last two lines. That was the most impeccable ending imaginable and it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Before Midnight (2013)

To be fair, I think this installment was probably far more profound for viewers in the same age group as Celine and Jesse. Those who had been following the trilogy since 1995 had aged along with the couple, which indubitably made their arguments and challenges far more relatable. However, it was my least favorite, largely because all those red flags I saw in Jesse 18 years ago come roaring to the surface and Celine is stuck with the aftermath.

before midnight

What worked for me: The opening scenes remind me so much of A Bigger Splash, which I mean as the highest compliment. The idyllic nature of Greece just feels so soothing and drowsy. It makes me want figs and sparkling wine on a sun-baked veranda. It was also interesting to see the two characters interact with other people for the first time. It was a risk on Linklater’s part, and I think it paid off.

What didn’t work for me: gaslighting, gaslighting, gaslighting. Jesse invalidates Celine’s emotions, disregards her reasons to be angry, and continuously attempts to sweep her feelings under the rug. He calls her “the mayor of crazy town” and belittles her for “carrying that much feminine oppression”. It was really disheartening to read IMDb reviews and realize how many people thought Celine was “being a bitter bitch” or was “totally overreacting”.

before midnight review

The ending also felt like a total copout. Watching Celine resign herself and dumb herself down at the cafe broke my heart. She had been making compromises for so long, and it felt like each time she did, she lost a little more of herself. You could actually see the moment she gave up.

Favorite moment: Celine storms out of the hotel room for the third time, but this time she leaves the keycard. The finality of that moment was so sublime, and the fact that she intentionally left it behind made me gasp out loud.


Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and admirable undertaking. It’s rare to see such dialogue heavy films, much less ones that successfully execute such a specific stylistic choice. While I had my qualms throughout the series (primarily with Jesse being the worst), it was well worth the lazy Sunday to watch all three films in succession. I’ll probably be perusing more Linklater projects in the future, as I really haven’t come across another storyteller like him.

Recent Reads: Red Rising & Ready Player One

Throughout the process of writing this post, I realized how much easier it is to write reviews for books you don’t like. I read these two books in the middle of March, devouring them in less than two days each, and I was absolutely over the moon for them both. There’s a lot more to talk about when books let me down, but I’m super excited by how great these two stories are, so here we go!

Red Rising –– Pierce Brown

Talk about your pleasant surprises! This book was a total home run for me. It’s like Harry Potter meets Ender’s Game. There’s a dystopian space society featuring a caste system, high powered humans, stunning technology, an undercover rebel, and fierce competitions pitting teens against each other in fights to the death. It’s brilliant. It’s stark and gritty and strategic and it was so much more than I was expecting (I bought a hard copy after reading an e-book version, so you know it’s real). It also introduced a character by the name of Sevro who is quickly on his way to becoming one of my favorite male characters of all time.

What worked for me: I seem to have been reading a lot of books lately featuring young MCs, and it doesn’t always come across as wholly believable (looking at you, Six of Crows). But for the first time in a long time, the youth of the characters feels legitimate. We’re thrown into this group of entitled 16 and 17 year olds and suddenly we’re surrounded by arrogance, emotion, posturing, and unbridled rage. Vendettas arise, lines are crossed, and there’s no shortage of angst. These teenagers are out in a wilderness and are engaging in the most cutthroat game of Capture the Flag imaginable. Some of the characters find themselves stepping up to the responsibility and leading, while others devolve into their basest selves. It’s all very Lord of the Flies and it totally works.

I also appreciated the integration of female characters as a natural and powerful presence. Even though the MC is a male, he surrounds himself with strong women, and at one point, his two military lieutenants are both young women. It brought to mind the part of Black Panther where T’challa was told to surround himself with people he trusted and he chose strong and brilliant women. The ruler of the entire galaxy is a women, and the familial structures alternate between patriarchal and matriarchal. The representation left a bit to be desired, but overall, the female characters were strong, varied, and refreshing.

The writing style is a stellar example of stylistic choices heightening the mood of the story itself. I touched on this way back when I wrote my Annihilation review and referenced the mind-boggling House of Leaves as a benchmark. Red Rising features a crisp, almost stark, writing style that totally plays up the militaristic tone of the entire plot. Everything is written in a clinical and expository nature, which outlines in no uncertain terms what is happening, what is being felt, and what is being planned. The entire book revolves around strategy, and the briskly clear-cut writing styles emphasizes that in the best kind of way.

What didn’t work for me: Although the female leads were solid, Brown does have a bad habit of basing the majority of derogatory comments on feminine traits (“he cried like a girl”/”they flaunt their weapons like girls with new toys”/”you sound like a girl, I thought you were tough”). For a world set centuries in the future and filled with powerful women, the jabs feel out of place and too reflective of our current misogynistic society.

I think  the only other thing that brought me any frustration was the litany of house and family names. It feels very George R.R. Martin-esque in some spots, and in a book filled with planets, moons, and caste titles, the huge amount of characters and their allegiances can be a bit tricky to keep track of. Some of the houses have the same names as the planets, and different families have loyalties to one or the other or both.

Overall rating: Honestly, I think I would give it 9 out of 10 stars. It’s a super enjoyable and immersive read, and I’m so excited to dive into the rest of the trilogy. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s 11 reasons why you absolutely should.

red rising

Ready Player One — Ernest Cline

Ready Player One quickly became one of my favorite books back when I first read it in 2015. It came as a recommendation from a friend, and while I rarely end up enjoying recommendations, I could instantly tell something was special about this one. Over the years, it has become my go-to recommendation for people who don’t really like to read, especially if those people are 20-something year old males. Although I have less than zero interest in seeing the upcoming movie (because boooo, adpations), I saw the trailer in theaters and realized I was sorely overdue for a re-read. I blazed through the book in a weekend– which might have been even faster than I devoured it the first time– and to my surprise, the book totally holds up.

What worked for me: Like Red Rising, the writing style in the book plays up some of the best aspects of the story. Ready Player One takes place almost entirely in an online virtual reality world, and Cline creates this world for the readers. He’s the kind of writer that I could (probably) be if I wasn’t extremely lazy/my mind didn’t go so much faster than my words. His attention to detail is utterly flooring, and all of that hyper-detail helps to make the reader feel like they’re in VR as well. It’s a stroke of genius on Cline’s part, because he doesn’t just say that everything in the online world is perfectly rendered, he actually takes the time to show us that it is. It’s as immersive as writing gets, and for a story about virtual reality, it couldn’t have been more perfectly executed.

Wade, the main character, has a lingering aura of wish fulfillment, but overall, he’s a pretty splendid MC, especially for a nerdy white male. He’s relatable and honest, respectful and brilliant. I knew he was a likeable character when he opens his locker and his only decoration is a picture of Princess Leia posing with a blaster pistol. Anyone who doesn’t choose Leia in her slave bikini is okay in my book.

What didn’t work for me: Like I mentioned above, the wish fulfillment can be a bit heavy-handed in a few spots. Although Wade has spent his entire life in the online world, his incredible hacking abilities and memory retention can feel a wee bit far-fetched. However, there is no doubt that he also has shortcomings in this regard, which become obvious when he doesn’t make a few connections for the second key.

Overall rating: Although this is one of my favorite storylines of all time, there are a few gratuitous plot points that I find pretty difficult to ignore. For this reason, I would give it a solid 7.7 out of 10. For a far more intellectual reaction to Ready Player One, I highly recommend Michael Moreci’s think piece.

ready player one

Review: You (Caroline Kepnes)

I never thought I’d be writing a “review” for a Did Not Finish but I think people deserve to be warned about the dumpster fire that is this novel.

you caroline kepnes

I’m pretty sure this is a new DNF record for me– I only made it six pages before giving up in disgust. I picked it up after seeing a review on Emma’s blog saying it was one of her only favorites of 2017.

It’s essentially a stream-of-consciousness narrative, written in 2nd person. So basically, you’re reading everything that our narrator is thinking. Which would be really great, if our narrator wasn’t a hyper-pretentious, misogynistic man-child and a judgmental piece of trash. Here’s some of the standout lines from the first two chapters:

  1. Your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. (Congrats, Joe. You managed to make me hate you by the second sentence of the entire book.)
  2. “No, you’re not like those girls. You don’t stage Faulkner and your jeans hang loose.” (Anything along the lines of “you’re not like other girls” is an instant and enormous red flag for me.)
  3. “You sneeze, loudly, and I imagine how loud you are when you climax.”
  4. “This guy is, what, thirty-six and he’s only now reading Franny and Zooey?”
  5. “You could be buying it because you read on some stupid blog that she’s Courtney Love’s biological grandmother. I can’t be sure that you’re buying Paula Fox because you came to her the right way, from a Jonathan Franzen essay.” (FYI: there is no ‘right way’ to come across a book or a song or a movie. Different people have access to different things and it’s great that a wonderful piece of literature crossed their path, regardless of how it got there.)
  6. “You giggle and I wish your nipples were still hard.”
  7. “You hand me your credit card even though you have enough cash in there to cover it. You want me to know your name.” (Or you’re an arrogant garbage boy who can’t conceive of people allocating money for things other than you.)
  8. “He waits near her apartment and stages a run-in. Brilliant, romantic. Love takes work.” (Idolizes the stalking is love trope, naturally.)
  9. “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands. Except for you, Beck. These past few days, I’ve learned so much. You put your tiny hands to work on yourself when the mood strikes, which it does, often, which reminds me of another joke in Hannah, where Mia Farrow teases Woody Allen that he ruined himself with excessive masturbation.”
  10. “Besides, I like that you take care of yourself instead of filling your home and your pussy with a string of inadequate men.” (Add a nice dollop of slut shaming and Danielle is out of here.)

I dropped the book after that line. My hypothesis was that Joe was intentionally written to be abrasive and appalling, but I really don’t want to spend my time absorbing an entire book from the POV of an awful person. So I went to goodreads and read the blurb, then proceeded to read all the spoilers, then all the one-star reviews to assure myself that I wasn’t the only one disgusted by this. Then I finally read Emma’s review.

The thing is, I totally get what she’s saying.

It is creepy, because it’s so within the realm of possibility that a boy at the store finds you attractive and then takes it too far. I can understand, in theory, why people like and connect with the book. But I can’t justify sitting through so much slop for a trite and violent end. Perhaps the plot would have been better packaged in a different narrative style to make the entire ordeal feel less normalized? Because that’s what this book does: normalize stalking and violence and the sexualization of strangers.

At least half of the 4 and 5 star reviews I read on goodreads talked about they found themselves rooting for Joe during the book. How even though they know he’s gross and sadistic, they still sympathize with his character. And on one hand, I absolutely think that’s an impressive feat for a writer: to have written their villain well enough that people can associate with him on a human level. But on the other hand, that’s just downright disturbing. That would be like telling Hard Candy from the POV of the pedophile. There is no excuse, no logic, no justification for stalking a stranger and killing people to reach her.

I watched the new Netflix original series The End of the F***ing World last week and was surprised to find that the first episode has a similar premise to this book. A troubled young white male targets a firecracker of a young white female and shenanigans ensue. Except the show handles it deftly and tenderly and creatively. There isn’t any hyper-sexualization of female characters, there aren’t endless asides about how subpar other people are because they don’t like the “right” things, and there isn’t any excessive vulgarity used for the sole sake of shock effect. Because the show is still new, I’m not going to say much about it for those who haven’t watched it yet. But I will say this: it’s a tender coming-of-age story in a wholly unique frame. If you tried to read You and couldn’t make it past the third chapter, try watching The End of the F***ing World.

 

Review: Heartless

-this review contains spoilers-

“But hoping,” he said, “is how the impossible can be possible after all.”

When I started reading Heartless, I totally forgot that it was a Queen of Hearts origin story. I had this book on my reading list for ages because of my adoration for Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, but by the time I finally got to pick it up, I had forgotten what it was even about. That is probably why a lot of my annoyances while reading the book came from the shoehorned Alice in Wonderland references. Between the pepper chef, the rocking horse flies, the smoking caterpillar, the line about the Tweedles, the jabberwocky, hedgehog croquet, and Cheshire himself, I found myself gritting my teeth with the obviousness of it all and how unlike Meyer it was. Then I got to the end and realized that this was actually all backstory for one of the most iconic villains of all time, which placated me a little bit– but not very much.

Heartless-Marissa-Meyer-Book-Cover-Feature

Because with that being said… I don’t think this is a solid origin story. At all. Meyer’s characters and plot points would have worked so much better as a retelling similar to The Lunar Chronicles, which used their original fairytales as a touchstone rather than as a strict reference text. For example: while the traditional Wonderland aspect carries over well in that Hearts is full of frustratingly obtuse folks, I found myself infinitely more interested in Chess than in Hearts. It seemed counterproductive for an entire world to be created (especially one created by Melissa Meyer) only for us to spend no time there. Instead of absorbing a fresh new world with fresh new rules and characters, we had to spend this entire story trudging through a slight variation of the same world we have been force-fed for ages.

For years, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of my favorite pieces of literature. I loved it so much that I did an entire stylized photoshoot around it, was gifted a first edition of the book (swoon), and even considered a tattoo inspired by the story. [Emma of Emma Reads Too Much has some pretty spot-on thoughts on Carroll’s original book that you should absolutely read here.] Unfortunately, there have been so many renditions and interpretations of it that it has lost much of its magic for me. I hated Tim Burton’s two movies on the subject and have grown to loathe the excessive amount of themed gifts found in bookstores and indie shops.

The themes of time and repetition in Heartless were reminiscent of Burton’s concepts, and the endless litany of overt references to the original book felt self-gratuitous. This was the opposite of why I was excited for a Wonderland-themed book by Meyer in the first place– she has left me delighted and entranced by her inventiveness and originality, while still making the reader glow with twists on traditional references (i.e.: a cyborg foot for Cinderella’s shoe, a satellite orbiting in space for Rapunzel’s tower). Sadly, this book left me disappointed by absolutely everyone except Jest and The Sisters.

I was particularly peeved by the Marchioness and ‘Hatta’. The Marchioness was the true villain of the story. She’s controlling, verbally abusive, and is endlessly fat-shaming the main character. I couldn’t believe that no one ever stood up to her, especially in a book by the Melissa Meyer, where the leads tend to be brave and stand up for themselves. I wanted so badly to adore Hatta. Carroll’s Hatter is one of the most off-the-wall and quirky characters of all time, and as much as I disliked Burton/Depp’s rendition, he still managed to make me feel emotional and nostalgic. But Hatta is a sorry excuse for the dynamic and heart-breaking character he could have been. When we’re first introduced, my thought was “a female Hatter would have been a nice change” but that quickly turned into “wow I totally ship Hatta and Jest over Cath and Jest.” Which isn’t out of the normal for me, but then! It turns out! That Hatta loved Jest all along! But never said anything! I cry foul. That’s queerbaiting if I’ve ever seen it. I disagreed with people who claimed BBC’s Sherlock and Watson was queerbaiting. I even partially disagreed with people who felt that Albus and Scorpius’s relationship in Rowling’s Cursed Child was queerbaiting. But this was shameful. To hint at it for 300 pages only to reveal the truth and have Jest killed without ever knowing, leading Hatta to go mad with sorrow, is despicable. I expected so much better from Meyer than half-baked LGBTQ+ representation.

I’ve been so enamored with Meyer’s brand of kickass female leads– with her women and girls who solve things and save people and stick up for others and strive to be better– that Cath was an unparalleled disappointment. She was indecisive, spineless, whiny, and intolerant. As I’ve mentioned before, indecisiveness is a big pet peeve for me. Cath’s repetitive reasoning and cyclical complaining was downright exhausting, especially because she never did anything to actively change her fate. Insta-love also plays a huge role in this story, which is something that automatically sets me on edge. I’ve read The Lunar Chronicles three times, and have always been pleased by the fact that Meyer writes the romance in a way that leaves the reader very invested without feeling that it’s the centerpiece of the story. Heartless utterly fails in that regard. The warring world of Chess and the endless deaths occurring there are apparently insignificant in the face of a month-long love affair.

Long story short, Heartless left me disappointed in more ways than one. I’ve come to expect much better from Melissa Meyer than under-cooked storylines and half-hearted characters. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland always has, and always will, deserve better.

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When I first started this blog, I wanted to do something called Eye-Roll Reviews. The idea came to me after reading The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which had me rolling my eyes on every page. I haven’t read any such books (until this one) since I started writing reviews on here, so I haven’t quite worked out how to format such a review. So for now, I’m just going to list my eye-roll-inducing lines, in case any other readers were annoyed by the same things.

“It had been a hazy, beautiful dream, and in it there had been a hazy, beautiful boy.”

“But she had not realized that he was also quite handsome.”

“Impossible was his specialty. The way he had touched her hand had awoken something inside her she had never felt before. Something giddy, but also nervous. Something curious, but also afraid. And if her dreams were to be believed, he was a very, very good kisser.”

“Romance. Passion. Love. She had never experienced them before, but she imagined they would leave her feeling like that dream had. Like the Joker did, with his quick smiles and witty remarks. She felt like she could talk to him for hours, for days and months and years, and never tire of it.” (Girl, you JUST MET HIM.)

“He did, however, offer his elbow, which she accepted, folding her fingers around his arm and surprised to find more muscle there than his lithe frame would suggest.”

“Overnight her life had become a whirlpool, sucking her below the surface.”

Review: Annihilation

-this review contains spoilers-

“When you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

I should probably preface this with a disclaimer: I read the book because I saw the trailer. The movie is coming out in February and features a pretty incredible cast (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh). I think there’s a possibility that the huge differences between the tone of the trailer and the tone of the book made it a little difficult for me to really get into the book at first. The trailer is colorful where the book is understated, romantic where the book is virtually emotionless, and full of horror-style tension where the book is intentionally monotone.

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Common consensus is that it’s very well-written… to which I wholeheartedly disagree. I don’t think the clinical style of the biologist’s journal entries lends anything to the story or to the characterization. On the contrary, the writing style makes it almost impossible for the reader to empathize with any of the characters. I learned all too well through House of Leaves just how powerful it is to make stylistic choices that mimic the plot points themselves, so I think the writing style in Annihilation could have worked beautifully if done properly, considering the biologist herself struggles to connect with people and form attachment. However, I really do feel that this book could have benefited with a slightly more human tone. I think a good comparison would be to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Talk about your minimalistic writing styles! But in that novel, the bare bones approach works to build the eeriness of the setting, the grittiness of the process, and the despair of The Man. In Annihilation, the sparseness only serves to make me feel detached. The writing is beautiful in some places (e.g. all of the lines of “scripture” on the walls and some of the more tender descriptions of nature) but truly bland in others. There are lines that give me chills, but that effect is primarily due to the fact that they are moments that stand out from the otherwise monotonous narration, not because they are particularly gripping or beautifully written. I saw another review that mentioned reading between the lines to pick up on certain things, but again, I feel like even that was poorly done. Some of the strongest in-between-the-lines writing I’ve come across in recent memory is that of George R.R. Martin when he’s discussing specific things, namely relationships and torture. His characters make hyper-subtle asides regarding Renly Baratheon’s sexuality, and the only way we can even begin to know the extent of what happened to Theon is by picking up on what he doesn’t say. But when it comes to monsters and paranoia, I think it takes an extremely skilled writer to make the less-is-more approach work in their favor. All in all, I was overwhelmingly disappointed with VanderMeer’s writing style, despite the brilliance of his concept. I think the strong point of the writing is that it kept the book short, which allows for it to be read in one sitting and consequently, allows what tension there is to build.

The knowledge that this is a trilogy gives me an ounce of patience regarding the frustrating lack of resolution and reveals. I think I might have truly enjoyed this if there had been a real climax– or even a more clear-cut climax instead of one that made me re-read the scene three times. I’ve been told that the next book features different characters, which makes me more inclined to pick it up. But what I really want is answers. I want to know about the border door and the creatures that came to the lighthouse and the assimilation of Area X and what the deal is with the writing on the wall.

What worked for me: I was really pleased with how deftly VanderMeer wrote the full cast of females. His characterization of these women is the exact opposite of what bothers me in books like The Circle. Each character is unique, has her own set of strengths and weaknesses, and is perfectly capable of doing her respective job. There isn’t any jealousy or petty bickering– all the arguments revolve around the entirely plausible stress of Area X and how to proceed. I was also really pleased by the inclusion of an unreliable narrator, which I tend to adore (a la Catcher in the Rye and The Girl on the Train). Our entire touchstone to the world and the other characters is through the eyes of the biologist. This makes it increasingly difficult to know how much is accurate and how much is just her own personal bias speaking. Is the world actually changing and dangerous or is the biologist’s mind playing tricks on her?

My overall takeaway is that there is too much emphasis on presenting the mysteries without any emphasis on solving them. We are presented with the feelings of being observed by their surroundings, the anomaly of this ecological wonderland, the strange hybrid creatures everywhere (not to mention the ones climbing the lighthouse) and the frustratingly vague “brightness” within the biologist. But when it comes down to it, the best explanation we get is that Area X is a thorn thrust into the side of the earth. Literally, that’s the explanation.

“Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic.”

This may sound like I hated the book, but I didn’t. Was I disappointed by the stylistic choices? Yes, very much so. However, I do think it’s an intriguing storyline with some plot points that really caught my fancy (e.g. all those hidden journals, like holy jeebus). Based on the trailer, I think it’s safe to say that the movie is going to deviate massively from the book, and to be honest, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Annihilation