Reading Rush 2020: Hoopoes, Romance, and Racism

Sunday, August 2, 2020

I decided to participate in my first ever Reading Rush this year and had a lot of fun doing it. I only finished five books unfortunately, but I really hit a moment where I was burnt out on reading! I'm still including my sixth book in this post even though I didn't finish it in the set amount of time.

Another thing I wish to address is the controversies surrounding this year's Reading Rush. The hosts, Ariel and Raeleen first ran across some mixed feelings from the participants when one of the challenges included reading outside which for so many is not a viable option during the Pandemic. They quickly amended it to reading a book outside or a book that has a title relating to outside, or to become creative with it, which I felt was a good compromise. They also had a book club pick that everyone was supposed to read together. Their pick was "Such a Fun Age" by Kiley Reid. They later did a live Q&A where they were going to discuss the book but revealed they hadn't even read it and made fun of the fact that they hadn't. "Such a Fun Age" is the debut novel of Kiley Reid, a black woman, and the novel deals a lot with performative allyship, which was just the icing on top of this unfortunate cake. It all comes across as careless and extremely insensitive, and people are rightly upset with them. For more information I recommend this video from Joel at FictionalFates (he addresses it towards the end of the video) and this video from Myonna at Myonna Reads. They put it much better than I ever could!

For some fun and inclusive book clubs I highly recommend Hotties Book Club, The Crusty Club, and Bibliophiles Book Club!

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Length: 112 Pages
Genres: Fantasy
Rating 5 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: Read a Book on a Different Continent

"One drunken evening, many years on, In-yo would say that the war was won by silenced and nameless women, and it would be hard to argue with her."

So this may be cheating because this book not only takes place on a different continent but actually in a whole other world! This gorgeous novella by Nghi Vo takes place in an Asian inspired fantasy world with fox girls, talking birds, and codes sent through star charts. We follow the cleric Chih and their neixin, a hoopoe named Almost Brilliant, as they travel to Lake Scarlet where the now dead Empress was once exiled by her husband. With her she took many different girls, some of the Emperor's other wives, and one, a servant girl called Rabbit because of her jutting front teeth. Chih is there to learn the truth behind the legend from Rabbit, now elderly and the only person left at Lake Scarlet. This story was told with such poetry that I was entranced by the very first words on the page. 
I loved learning the history of the barbarous Empress from the North, In-yo, and her rise to power using her wits and, sometimes, acts of violence. 

This story was one of the most original fantasy ideas I've read in a long while and can't wait to pick up the next novella in the series. My review really doesn't do it justice. It's a must-read for any fantasy lover! If you would like to learn more about how this novella came to be read this wonderful interview with Nghi Vo!

Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian
Length: 200 Pages
Genres: Historical Romance and Historical Mystery
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: A Book with a Cover the Color of My Birthstone

"Secrets were the invisible skeleton of society. Everything depended on the strength of secrets, and on not being to see them; like a skeleton, once the secret was visible to the naked eye, something had gone drastically and irretrievably wrong. That was when people started to die."

Trigger Warnings in this book for scenes featuring PSTD and murderous goings-on

I absolutely adored this novella by Cat Sebastian, who've I've heard of but never read anything by. Hither, Page, follows James Sommers, who was a surgeon during WWII who has now settled into the boring domesticity of country life in Wychcomb St. Mary, and the mysterious Leo Page, a spy charged with finding out the truth behind the death of the local charwoman, Mildred Hoggett. Mildred had the dangerous habit of going through peoples things, and now Leo suspects its cost her her life. This was so comforting and fun, while also doing its best to fully flesh out more serious topics - like James' PTSD. 

The mystery was one that actually kept me guessing to the end, and while I felt things were wrapped up a little too neatly, I understand that this was the type of story where it fit to do so. James and Leo's relationship is a lovely, romantic thing, and I loved the Christmas setting in an English village. I also liked almost all of the supporting characters, and was impressed by how fully-realized they felt despite the short length of the story. I can't wait to pick up the next book in this series!

The Patient by Jasper DeWitt
Length: 224 Pages
Genres: Horror and Thriller
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: A Book That Starts with "The"

"Inside Joe's room, someone was laughing. But it wasn't Joe; it couldn't have been. It didn't sound human at all. Instead, what emerged from that room was a sepulchral, moist, hacking chuckle that sounded like it came from a rotting throat."

Triggers Warnings in this book for child abuse, rape, sexual assault, antisemitism, mental illness, and animal death

I was quite looking forward to this book by debut author Jasper Dewitt, and while it was certainly entertaining (I blazed through it), I found myself a bit disappointed, too. My interest was piqued when I found this book had originally been a story posted to the Reddit Nosleep, a place where people post their scary stories, and this book smacked of it. At about 21% into it I had encountered antisemitic slurs (not very helpfully crossed through like most of the curse words in the book) and child sexual abuse. It felt shocking for simply the sake of being shocking. Similarly, a supposedly intelligent doctor makes an interpretation that is laughably Freudian when this story is supposed to take place sometime in the early 2000s. The depiction of mental illnesses, specifically schizophrenia, was done in such ham-fisted way I was left reeling.

The main character, a young doctor who we only ever learn the first name of - Parker - has experienced mental illness first hand. His mother was schizophrenic and he says that she is the reason he became a doctor in the first place, while also portraying her as some snarling, urine soaked monster. We follow him as he comes to work at CSA, or the Connecticut State Asylum, where he learns of a patient that has made his home there for more than twenty years, one who drives every doctor who tries, and fails, to treat him, to suicide. The monster of the book was so interesting and it reminded me a bit of Pennywise in the way it operated. I was really glued to the page during the interactions between Parker and the patient, Joe, who is in my opinion the most intriguing character of the story. DeWitt is really quite good at giving us descriptions that sink us right into the scene. I loved how he made use of not only sight, but sound and smell, which I think too often authors neglect. It's obvious that he can write an excellent story, I just wish he hadn't relied on tired and harmful tropes to do so.

Budding Romance by Lara Kinsey
Length: 36 Pages
Genres: Historical Romance
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: Read a Book Outside

"Something about the spindly Miss Smythe-Barney reminded Nicolette of a delicate plant. Something that resisted cultivation, like wild violet or back raspberries. They needed just the right soil, just the right mix of light and shade, just the right amount of attention to make them thrive."

I purposely chose something quite short for my pick to read outside because I live in Texas and on the day I chose it was 93 out (not too bad, really) and while the tree I read under provided my ghostly skin the coverage it needed, it also provided lots of ants. Budding Romance by Lara Kinsey is a sweet little story featuring Dorothea Smythe-Barney, a former governess who has recently bought a chateau to make into a girls' school in France. Along with the chateau comes the unruly, overgrown gardens that need a strong hand to shape them into something beautiful. So she hires Nicolette Laurent, an in-demand gardener with a rakish personality. I deeply enjoyed their flirtations (especially when Nicolette buys Dorothea four chicks!) and thought it was really beautiful. Another thing I enjoyed was the delicious descriptions of food and all the talk of flowers. I'm giving this a 3.5 only because I wished they had been a little more fleshed out, and that the writing, while lovely, consisted mostly of telling vs. showing. In such a short book I understand it's hard to really convey the love between two people, and I think it would have benefited from being a bit longer. 

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Length: 333 Pages
Genres: Mystery
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: Read a Book that Inspired a Movie You've Already Seen

"Mrs. Allerton shivered. 'Love can be a very frightening thing.'
'That is why most great love stories are tragedies.'"

Trigger Warnings in this book for racism and murderous goings-on

I'm a big fan of both of the Poirot and Miss Marple TV shows so I've been long needing to actually read one of Christie's novels! I chose Death on the Nile and enjoyed it very much and even though I had seen the 2004 adaption of it I still found myself shocked by the ending. I think that this book is a fine example of not only the original mystery novel, which is such a popular genre today, but also of the style of that time - the often dry descriptions and straight to the point dialogue, which I understand is not everyone's cup of tea. I personally found it refreshing and intriguing to see how much styles have changed. 

Death on the Nile's mystery is a clever one - that of the murder of heiress Linnet Ridgeway on a steamboat in Egypt. She is recently married to Simon Doyle, a man who was once the fiance of her good friend Jacqueline de Bellefort who has now taken to stalking the couple. Written in her blood is a damning piece of evidence, a J. As with any Christie there are a plethora of characters each with a mystery of their own - from the Italian Archaeologist Richetti to Linnet's American trustee Andrew Pennington to the lovely, but cowed, Cornelia Robson. My favorite character from the outset was Jacqueline de Bellefort - she is complex, sympathetic, and dangerous. My other favorite was the serious Rosalie Otterbourne, who secretly hid a tender heart. The only thing keeping this novel from easily being a four or five star read was the racism.

I know the common excuses - "it was published in 1937, after all" - but Christie has a history of racism against about anyone who wasn't white and English. The black characters are treated as inhuman, something to laughed or marveled at. One character even ascertains that Asian people are uneducated so they take death better than the Englishman. I could not, in good conscious, give this book a four or a five star rating because of this.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
Length: 388 Pages
Genres: Mystery and Thriller
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Prompt: Read a Book in a Genre You Want to Read More Of

"Hal straightened, trying to make out the letters. They were tucked behind one of the bars and hard to see, but as she tilted her head to one side, suddenly the morning sunlight caught the marks at just the right ankle, illuminating them so that they glowed as if written in white fire.
HELP ME, it said, in tiny crabbed letters."

Trigger Warnings in this book for mental and physical abuse, violence and murderous goings-on

My sister has been trying to get me to read this book forever and so I decided to make it one of my reads for the Reading Rush and how happy I am that I did! The main character, Hal, is a new favorite of mine. I loved her strength and determination, her unwillingness to give up even when it was what she wanted most. 

Harriet "Hal" Westaway is down-on-her-luck. Reading tarot cards on the Brighton Pier hasn't made her much money and now a man who lent her some money is looking to collect - in blood or money. She's desperate to keep her little attic flat, the one she shared with her mother who tragically died in a hit and run. So it seems like fate when she receives a letter claiming that she may be the recipient of the fortune of a woman named Hester Westaway. But it can't be right, this Margarida Westaway cannot be her mother because her grandmother was not Hester, but Joan. A plan forms in her mind, and a solution to her problem. She'll pretend to be the right Harriet Westaway. There she meets three sons, each tormented by the memory of their childhood at the mysterious Cornish estate, Trepassen House, and at the hands of their cruel mother. And even more concerning is the fact that the woman who is supposed to be her mother has been missing for more than twenty years.

This mystery was perfect for me. I adored the Cornish setting, and the Gothic old Trepassen House complete with bitter old housekeeper Mrs. Warren, who follows the same vein of the classic Mrs. Danvers. I didn't put the pieces together until they were spelled out for me on the page and I loved that. I actually sat up in the bed and gasped! The only thing that made me a little wary was the depiction of the gay relationship in the book, but it was so insignificant that I was able to ignore it. Please pick this up if you need a dark book perfect for a stormy night-in.

A Bit of Agatha Christie...

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