This Week, I Read… (2020 #7)

26 - Kitchens of the Great Midwest

#26 – Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

  • Read: 2/11/20 – 2/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 26/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with more than twenty letters in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a recipe
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Ultimately, it’s too cute.

I like the ideas behind it more than the actual execution of it. Have a woman’s life described mostly in her absence, by the people around her, by people increasingly far from her, sounds like a great high concept, especially if the woman the story is about is a wildly popular but mostly reclusive celebrity chef. And the food item that titles each chapter is part of the story of her life, as well.

But I hated the ending. There, I said it. I read the whole book and saw the stories of why these foods were important to her, and then they’re on the menu for the dinner her long-lost mother gets to attend, and look how pretty and cute and meaningful it all is! Look at how well-constructed! But it’s so obvious, so artificial, and and it doesn’t really finish the story at all. By ending with the arrogant self-satisfaction of Cindy, who is just happy she birthed an incredible daughter even if she had nothing to do with her raising…that’s just not motherhood, and it’s not a happy or satisfying ending to me. It smacked me in the face with how obnoxious this book was at its worst.

At its best, though, it captures beautifully the slices of the Midwest that are strange and incomprehensible to outsiders. I saw some of my own childhood in this, and I had to laugh about how perfectly the Norwegian Minnesotans were depicted, not because they’re my people, but because I have a relative by marriage from that pocket of the Midwest and absolutely everything the book said, I’d heard from stories about her family and community.

So the central strength of the book–using a succession of different POV characters to capture as much of the Midwestern food traditions as possible–also becomes its central weakness, because it’s all in service of a narrative and ending that don’t really mean much.

27 - The Return of the Black Widowers

#27 – The Return of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov

  • Read: 2/15/20 – 2/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 27/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: An anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Waaaay back in high school, I did a term paper on Asimov for my American Lit course, but it was entirely focused on his science fiction. I didn’t know he wrote mysteries at all until I found this tucked away on a low shelf at a used book sale. Of course I bought it.

The wit and precision I remember from his other work is present here, and the cleverness, too. As individual stories, I have few real complaints, despite generally disliking mystery. These are much more puzzlers than they are whodunits, and most of the stories resolved with a ending, a revelation, that I found satisfactory. (I say most because some of them are highly academic, and you don’t have a chance of figuring it out if you aren’t familiar with the exact same canon of knowledge as the author.)

The problem I have with this is that putting together this many stories in an anthology is that it shows clearly how formulaic they are. The details repeat in a way that would make sense of stories published over months and years, but are completely redundant when read back to back. The structure of each story is brutally identical, and despite the small idiosyncracies of each man in the Widowers, they all speak with the same high-handed posh manner that made me think they’re British, even though a) this is set in the US, and b) they use none of the British slang that I would expect from male-only rich-people puzzle-solving dinners. They’re all horribly elitist, and it’s grating.

So what it really boils down to is that I like the style of the puzzles, they’re the sparkling gemstones in a terrible setting that detracts from their beauty. I can admire the wit and cleverness while hating that this is an old white boy’s club that makes it a point never to admit women.

28 - Fiona's Flame

#28 – Fiona’s Flame, by Rachael Herron

  • Read: 2/18/20 – 2/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 28/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The longer this went on, the less I liked it. In the first half, I was still thinking this could be a four- or even a five-star read, if it stuck the landing, but it all fell apart so disastrously by the end.

I have so much to complain about that I’m not even sure I can put together a review with coherent flow. Bullet point time!

The Good:

  • Even without having read the first four books in the series, Cypress Hollow is a town with a lot of personality, and this work felt very different from other “small town” romances I’ve read. Points for originality.
  • Both Abe and Fiona start out as quirky but believable characters, and believably compatible. There was a reason I was on board with this story early on, and it’s because they do have real chemistry at first. There are cute moments, and I did like Abe at the beginning, though it didn’t last.

The Bad:

  • Abe is hung up on his ex who left him at the altar eleven years ago, to the point where the first time he hops into bed with Fiona he calls her the wrong name. I’m not annoyed about this because it makes him a jerk, I’m annoyed with the author because it’s really stretching. Eleven years ago? Is he still pining for her or not?
  • Fiona is ALSO hung up on Abe’s ex, because when she’s prettied up apparently she looks enough like the ex to draw comparisons from random townsfolk. Which sends her off into an inferiority spiral that is just exhausting to read.
  • Abe’s ex then manages to get herself cheated on by her husband, the man she left Abe for, and in retaliation she blatantly tries to seduce Abe, but that plot line never goes anywhere, and no character ever seems to acknowledge her behavior. Abe doesn’t fall for it but also doesn’t call her on it, and Fiona, despite the inferiority complex she’s developed, is mildly annoyed at the time but never brings it up again, EVEN WHEN THE WOMAN LATER BEFRIENDS HER. Really, Abe’s ex just takes up way too much of the story.
  • Fiona’s intermittent “swearing” using entirely nonsense words isn’t cute and quirky, it’s just dumb. It makes her sound like a child learning to talk badly. They’re not even the same words, it’s a new one every time and they’re all awful. They chipped away at what liking I had for Fiona every time they appeared.

The Ugly:

  • The first time Fiona nearly died was understandable because of a semi-heroic rescue attempt and some extenuating circumstances. The second time? Definitely Too Stupid To Live Syndrome. And why does she need to nearly die twice? Isn’t that excessive? Is nearly killing Fiona again really the only way to erase the idiocy (see my point below) of the final conflict?
  • The central conflict that sets up Abe and Fiona talking–should we save the lighthouse or tear it down–is ignored for most of the book while they deal with more personal issues of personality, Abe’s ex, family drama, etc. Then at the very end it’s trotted back out for one last showdown where BOTH leads act like irredeemable idiots, no better than viciously mean children, and I’m supposed to believe a) they got that worked up over the lighthouse only to have it not matter at all to them anymore after Fiona nearly gets killed again, and b) that either of them can forgive the horrible things they said to each other in front of half the town?
  • Knitting is a central theme of this series, and I’m keenly aware of this because many, many years ago when I was a die-hard knitter and was much more involved in the online knitting community, I “knew” the author as a knit blogger. When I saw this book available for free and recognized the name, I grabbed it on that strength alone, because her blog was charming and personable and I got kind replies the few times I left comments. But this book has NOTHING to do with knitting, until very late in the story when someone tries to make Fiona learn to knit again after doing poorly at it as a child, so the constant chapter-intro knitting quotes from the fictional town’s fictional knitting goddess supreme felt wildly out of place. Had I read the first four books I doubt I would feel as strongly about this, but when the individual books are designed to be able to be read as stand-alones, this kind of tonal clash doesn’t work, and can’t be carried on the backs of the other books being more knitting-related. This one isn’t. This one barely has a thing to do with knitting for 95% of the story and that five percent that touches on it can’t support the weight of cutesy thematic chapter openings.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #6)

23 - A Secret Affair

#23 – A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh

  • Read: 2/5/20 – 2/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 23/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a three-word title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a romance
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What started off with an interesting and original-to-me premise became bogged down in stilted repetition and the stifling confines of Regency propriety, the endless litany of who is where and who is riding in whose carriage and who is attending what ball and who is related to whom.

This is my third Balogh novel and definitely my last. They’ve all gotten two stars from me, and despite how much this author has been recommended to me in the past, clearly we’re not gelling.

I did have higher hopes for this one, based on concept. I’ve never really seen the “it’s just a fling” trope in a Regency setting before. But once the lovers hop into bed together, it all goes downhill, and I’m not saying that as a sex-starved reader who just wants smut and should probably be reading NA romances instead of Regency.

I’m saying it because all the sex scenes after that were either short and summarized, or glossed over with a fade-out from the scene, or in one case, interrupted. If the primary vehicle that these two lovers have to get to know each other is lust, because they’re lovers but not in love, why isn’t there much lust?

So of course, with this trope, the point is that eventually they realize they’ve caught feelings. That definitely happens here. But the banter it should be happening through also gets less present and less interesting as the novel slowly wends its way along. It takes both characters multiple chapters and repeated internal monologue to convince themselves/admit to themselves that they’re falling in love. Both characters use precisely the same language in the process, both suffer the same doubts, and both have the same qualms about admitting their growing feelings to each other.

Essentially, for all their seeming differences of gender, power, social standing, and personality, the narrative treats them for a good chunk of the book like they’re the exact same person.

That isn’t the only place where the story suffers from excessive repetition, either. During the climax, when the fate of the romance hinges (seemingly) on the outcome of a judge’s ruling on the sentence for a mentally handicapped thief, the story of what the thief did is told by one character to another several times in a chain of “I know this but now I’m telling it to you,” and the story is almost word-for-word each time. They should be similar, yes, but not exact, not when one factors in things like character voice, and the Telephone effect of words or small details changing. The author is clearly aware of how a tale can grow and change in the telling–it’s referenced in gossip among the ton but not in this little tale, which everyone has memorized word-perfect, and I have to read about six times over ten pages.


Thanks to used book sales and the number of times Balogh was recommended to me, I do actually own one more book of hers, but I’ll be donating it back to my library’s book sale room unread, because after three bland and mediocre reads, I think it’s safe to say I’m unimpressed with this author.


#24 – Pantomime, by Laura Lam

  • Read: 2/7/20 – 2/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 24/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book I mean to read in 2019
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In looking to other reviews to help me gather my thoughts, I completely missed the boat on the “twist” that, when the book was newer, thought was either brilliant or the worst thing to happen in the LGBTQIA+ sphere ever. (Though my copy is secondhand and from the original printing, so I have the nonsense misleading blurb on the back, and boy howdy, it’s bad.)

I can’t know for sure what my experience would have been if I had started the book not already knowing that Micah and Gene were the same person. I’ve always known this book was about an intersex protagonist, because once the hype started for it, that’s usually the leading reason for recommendation–the representation. We just don’t get a lot of books about intersex people.

But I hope I would have figured it out long before the narrative states it plainly. The mere fact that Gene’s chapters are all clearly marked “Spring” in the header, while Micah’s are “Summer,” should be a huge clue that Gene’s chapters happen first and aren’t necessarily going to intersect with Micah’s as if they were two separate people. And about a dozen smaller things, but that was the super-obvious one for me.

All that aside, what did I think of the book knowing the big secret ahead of time? It’s a really mixed bag. I appreciate all the care and delicacy that went into crafting Micah/Gene and his experience living as both genders. It was a quick read that didn’t ever get snagged on anything confusing or befuddling. But the setting was bland “generically magical circus vs. fantasy aristocracy with obviously Victorian social values.” Hey, guess what, I’ve seen that before, quite a bit actually, and the incredibly small hints of magic and mythology that should have made this world more interesting were few and far between.

Worse, I have issues with the weak love triangle. Using love interests of different genders is a great way to have Micah explore what living as male means to him and if/how that affects his attraction to others, when as Gene (s)he was only supposed to be attracted to and eventually marry a boy. So I can appreciate that. But at the same time, setting up a love triangle as a choice between genders does play into some negative stereotypes about bisexuality, and Micah is clearly attracted to both Aenea and Drystan; while that’s understandable for Micah, it’s also part of a pattern I’ve seen in YA where bisexual leads face that same love triangle because it’s an easy way to show they’re bi, even while it also reinforces the ideas that bisexual people are indecisive and might drop their love interest to be with someone of the other binary gender simply because. I can see that’s not the case here, but as part of that larger pattern I can’t exactly be happy about it.

Also I generally don’t like love triangles, and this one ending with the death of one of the love interests means Micah didn’t have to choose, the choice was made for him, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The cliffhanger ending raised the stakes a huge amount in very short space, a leap in pacing and tension that I don’t feel the rest of the book prepared us for. Micah is in very little danger for a very long time, and then having the biggest threat to both his chosen way of life and his actual life come from inside the circus basically without warning, rather than the outside threat we’ve been expecting, doesn’t really feel right to me. The foreshadowing for Bil and Frit is pretty weak, so the climax was less of an inevitable surprise as it was being sucker-punched with a plot twist out of almost nowhere.

I’m giving this its third star completely out of respect for its sensitivity in portraying an intersex YA protagonist, but the rest of the book is two stars at best.

25 - Beauty is a Wound

#25 – Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan

  • Read: 2/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 25/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in the southern hemisphere
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a great first line
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with four words in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 90.

I picked this up because, hey, Indonesia! I’ve never read anything about Indonesia or by an Indonesian author! Won’t this be fun! And I definitely want to be a better world reader. But this is not the book for me.

I wasn’t put off at first by the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” quoted on the book flap because I dig absurdist humor and allegory, so the idea of grotesqueness was okay…until I actually started to read it. In those first 90 pages, there’s more rapes than I can list, more bestiality than I wanted or expected, and some light incest thrown in for extra flavor.

Even if this is all integral to the plot, deeply important to the symbolism, I simply don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read about a man sexually abusing sheep and chickens. I don’t want to have basically every female character I’ve met raped, even if the scenes aren’t graphic. In some ways, having them raped in a single declarative sentence is worse, because it’s so mundane, so every-day, that it doesn’t even need to be described. And every woman (so far) is mostly characterized by how available for sex she is, and nothing much else. Every male character is mostly characterized by who or what he has sex with…so I guess that’s equally awful?

In the end, even though I find all of that distasteful to read, the real failure of this work for me is the absolute lack of character development. By telling this in a magical-realism style with a fairy-tale-thin characters, I can’t connect with anyone enough to care, certainly not enough to sit through the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” that saturates every page.

Down the TBR Hole #27


Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide:keep it or let it go?

Running a little behind this month, on the regular features, blame it on working on the novel a lot!

#1 – He Forgot to Say Goodbye, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

2521835Like many reviews of this also say, this is on my TBR because my first book by this author was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and I LOVED IT.

So of course I dug up another novel or two of his to add to my list. I don’t own this one–I do own The Inexplicable Logic of My Life and will undoubtedly read that first–so we’ll see if I’m still as impressed with Sáenz then. I will say, this one has decidedly more mixed reviews than his later works, but I’m still hopeful I’ll enjoy it. I’ll just hedge my bets by getting it from the library instead of buying it. It stays.


#2 – Brooks, by Chris Keniston

31427026I put this on my TBR quite deliberately after reading the first book in this romance series, even mentioning that in my review. But I just reread my review of that first book, and I gave it three stars, and now I’m just thinking I still have too many romances I already own to bother going back for the second book in a series that was enjoyable but not outstanding. I have other authors I like more I could be supporting, as well as many authors still to try. This goes.


#3 – It Devours!, by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

28208687._SY475_Reading Welcome to Night Vale seems so long ago, but I loved it, and I haven’t made the time to reread it yet, and I think I will still want to read this follow-up after I do.

It can stay.

Especially since many reviewers think it’s an improvement on the first novel, which I gave five stars for entertainment value and punching me right in my love of the absurd, despite some clear pacing and stylistic issues. If those got straightened out, even a little, then this will be worth my time.

#4 – Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler

60929I have had mixed luck with Butler’s other works. I’m pretty sure I put this on the list after being highly impressed with Parable of the Sower, which I enjoyed much more than my first Butler novel, Kindred.

But then I couldn’t even finish Wild Seed, which made me so angry I would have thrown it across the room if it weren’t a library book I didn’t want to damage.

I think if I want to read more of Butler’s work, I’d do better to finish the series I started and enjoyed, than starting yet another one. This goes.

#5 – By Gaslight, by Steven Price

28007842I do not have even the slightest memory of how this came to be on my TBR, but since that’s true, I can read the blurb with fresh eyes and check out some reviews.

Okay. Definitely re-thinking this. A) it’s a historical mystery; b) not only is it long, it’s also incredibly slow-paced, and c) many, many reviewers mentioned confusion/irritation with the stylistic choice to forego quotation marks around dialogue.

That’s enough to make me go, eh, maybe it’s good but it sounds like too much bother. This absolutely goes.

#6 – Moment in Peking, by Lin Yutang

1320195No idea where this addition came from, either, but in the time this I put this on my list I have had the most TERRIBLE luck with reading historical novels set in China, by both white and Chinese authors. Like, the only good one was The Night Tiger, and there are at least half a dozen others that made me want to hurt things with baseball bats, they were so bad.

I’m not saying I’ll never read a historical novel set in China again, far from it, but based on what I can see about this one, it’s not going to be where I start when I’m ready to try again. It can go.

#7 – Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

6294I have seen the Studio Ghibli anime adaptation of this novel, exactly once, long enough ago that I remember basically nothing about it.

But I do know that people ADORE this book. Most of my Goodread friends who have read it gave it five stars, and not one of them less than three. It’s pretty safe to call this book “beloved.”

It can stay, though I have absolutely no idea when I’ll get to it. I will. Someday.


#8 – The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund


I put this on the list after reading and mostly enjoying the much-more-famous Millennium trilogy, and I thought, hey, Swedish thrillers are pretty interesting, why not try more?

But since then I have tried more, and not really liked them. Also, by the end I didn’t even like the Millennium trilogy that much.

Do I need more Swedish crime novels in my life? I’ve been doing just fine without them for several years, so I think their moment with me has passed. This goes.


#9 – Wintersong, by S. Jae-Jones

24763621I’m sure this crossed my radar and I thought, huh, a book that’s kind of like Labyrinth but is also heavily focused on music and musicianship.

That concept sold me, but my friends’ reviews are either hyperbolically good or pretty terrible, and the general pool of reviews is pointing things out like “the first half was interesting but I completely lost interest by the end” and “the romance plot is the worst part of the book.”

That doesn’t fill me with confidence. Going to pass on this one.

#10 – Ship of Theseus, by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

34203542._SX318_Sorry, Mr. Dorst, I’m too mad at J.J. Abrams about the new Star Wars disaster trilogy to bother with this anymore. Not your fault.

In all seriousness, every piece of Abrams media I have ever consumed tells me he can have a vision no problem, then utterly fail to execute it properly. The Force Awakens was a tired and safe retread of A New Hope. The Rise of Skywalker was just a fast-paced mess. Going way back, Lost was interesting the first season and failed to keep me hooked through the second, let alone the rest. Felicity had its moments but mostly annoyed me whenever I tried to take it seriously. All of his Star Trek movies are essentially flash (also literally flash, thank you excessive lens flare) and no substance.

Which is the precise description I saw of this book in no less than three separate reviews. Some people love it, obviously, but the high concept that intrigued me at first now just seems like a set up for disappointment when it falls on its face somewhere before the end. This most definitely gets cut from my list.

Wow, I only kept 3 out of 10 this time around! Harsh, but fair, and the last couple of rounds I was keeping a lot. There’s only so much time in a day, right? I can’t read everything. But as usual, if you have something to say about any one of these books, a warning that a keeper might not be as good as it looks, or an argument for one of the books I cut, please let me know in the comments!

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #2


Not a deadline this time–the next one is at the end of March–but as of yesterday, I have a working title and the first draft of a blurb! That seemed worth checking in early.

Please enjoy:


It was only supposed to be a fling.

After the bus crash that ended the second tour, killed one of her band mates, and left her in chronic pain, Amber Riley decided never to return to Punch Drunk Love. She was done with the rock-star life, the high of performing weighed down by the lows of grueling schedules, endless travel, and the uncomfortable intimacy of living two feet from everyone else on the bus.

But when her replacement has to bow out a week before the new tour, the band needs a rescuer, and she answers the call. What else can she do? They’re her family.

Rob Sullivan, as the other new member of the band in their revamped lineup, is doing his best to make a home with them, to prove his worth. He only met Amber days before the accident, and his time with Punch Drunk Love has been defined as much by her absence as his presence. When she returns in their time of need, he sees what the others don’t–how much it’s costing her to save them from disaster. When his support of her becomes attraction, and attraction becomes a secret fling, he may doubt their affair is what’s best for the band, or for himself, though he’s sure it’s the best thing for her.

But what becomes of them when the tour is over?

What happens when you fall in love with someone living a life you can’t share?

I have some really rough ideas for the cover as well, but I’m letting those stew for a bit while I keep up momentum on the actual rewriting. Which is going reasonably well, I’ve just hit a snag where, once I put a tour schedule in place, suddenly a few of my major plot points were simply happening too fast! So I’m tinkering with the outline and moving a few chapters around to improve the flow.


This Week, I Read… (2020 #5)

17 - The Secret

#17 – The Secret, by Elizabeth Hunter

  • Read: 1/29/20 – 1/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 17/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Your favorite prompt from a past PSRC (the next book in a series you’re already reading)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’d give this an actual rating of 3.5 stars, because I do feel it’s better than The Singer, which I gave three, but overall I don’t feel like it’s a four-star read.

It’s complicated.

I love that Ava and Malachi are back together and working on sorting themselves out–they’re a power couple again, in some senses literally, and their banter and occasional arguments and making up are fun, sweet, and occasionally epic.

But the politicking is just as present and just as complicated, and really I don’t feel like the first book (much as I adore it) did enough groundwork to set up and support this intricate a tale of political maneuvering. The second book felt like a complete stylistic departure in its subject matter–the main reason that I didn’t like it nearly as much–and this book is a synthesis of the romance of the first and the sociopolitical mess of the second. So it’s better because we get the romance back, and I like that, but it’s still a whole lot of people yelling at each other a lot about change and enemies and how their society should work in the future. Which isn’t bad, but kind of isn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I started the trilogy.

I’ll be honest–I wanted more of what we got in the first book and less of the epic angel battles and politics. That being said, of course the epilogue is centered on Ava telling Malachi she’s pregnant. Surprise! It might be to him but I saw it coming a mile away. And while it does make sense in this context, it’s a style of happily-ever-after ending that I’m honestly tired of seeing, because the taint it carries from all the times I’ve read it before on stupid books has poisoned me somewhat against it. Not the book’s fault, my personal bias and I’ll own that, but it was a letdown.

So I don’t think this book is bad, I think it’s just not really enough of what I actually wanted from it.

18 - Breakaway

#18 – Breakaway, by Catherine Gayle

  • Read: 1/30/20 – 1/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 18/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a main character in their 20s
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There are a lot of things I truly enjoyed about this book, and a lot of things I think were weak and deserved better treatment. They’re all tangled together, though, so this is going to be a bumpy ride review.

First, the premise. A hockey-playing girl is gang-raped after one of her games, and years later, after nearly every kind of therapy she can reasonably try, she’s recommended by her doctors to try a sex therapist who will both counsel her and also sleep with her, in the name of helping her past her trauma.

So…are those really a thing? I’m almost afraid to research and find out. The idea is very, very squicky to me, and I’m on board with the idea that Dana should not see one of these “therapists.” Instead, she goes to Eric, one of her childhood friends. Her brother’s best friend. (Hey, free trope squeezed in!) And she asks him to fill that role for her.

Eric turns out to be a great guy, one of the best things about this book. After initial, understandable reluctance, and real concern that this isn’t the best thing for her even if it’s with someone she already knows and can trust (him,) he agrees to her plan. And as far as I can stretch my disbelief to accept the premise at all, I’m okay with that. It seems at the beginning that he doesn’t really think she’ll be able to “go all the way” with him, so it’s clear he’s not using her for potential sex down the road and that he honestly cares about her. As things progress between them, he has to push her away sometimes because he’s terrified he won’t be able to keep himself in check and he’ll end up hurting her–which he accidentally does at a few points, though the severity of her reaction varies, and he feels incredibly torn up about it when it does happen.

So I like that. I’m all about thoughtful, caring, respectful heroes.

What I don’t like? I have really mixed feelings about the anxiety representation, and they’re difficult to unpack properly. Dana experiences trauma-triggered panic attacks, and a lot of her attack symptoms line up with my own experience–which is good and feels authentic. But on the flip side, the incredible severity of her attacks, and how often she has them, is almost unbelievable. If they’re that prevalent in her life, or if she’s deliberately exposing herself to her triggers and constantly getting that reaction…well, then, her meds aren’t working for her and need to be adjusted, or yeah, hero, you’re right and she’s really not ready for this yet. I mean, her attacks are constant and debilitating, and yes, that does happen to people even if that’s not my experience, but I don’t think it’s at all realistic to show someone suffering this level of mental illness “curing” herself though exposure to her triggers. And that’s the heart of the story, Dana retraining her body to accept that touch can be good.

Which is so freaking sweet and sad and heartwarming and I love it, even though I don’t think it’s done well. But if her anxiety weren’t so debilitating, so that her journey out of it is more believable, then would it be serious enough that she needs this “therapy” at all? It’s a conundrum.

But here’s the other problem I have with this book: it’s a hockey romance and it absolutely does not need to be. There’s too much hockey. Hockey, in fact, actually interferes with the pacing of the story, because Dana, a hockey player herself, should have known that dropping this in Eric’s lap during the run-up to the playoffs was the worst possible timing. (Even I know that, and I’m not a sports person AT ALL.) So there are long chapters of nothing but Eric on the ice during a game with the narrative doing a play-by-play, and that has nothing at all to do with the romance. If the reader is a hockey fan, great, maybe they’re getting something out of it, but if they’re not (like me) they’re skimming past that because it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. Also, even though I know almost nothing about how to run a sports team of any kind, I found it way past my suspension of disbelief that a) Dana would be okay with literally everyone on the team and staff knowing about her sex life (in that she’s attempting to be able to have one someday) in order to travel with the team so that she wouldn’t be separated from Eric; and b) I can’t believe the team management would go along with that, because it screams UNPROFESSIONAL on every possible level.

Dana’s fear turning to growing confidence is beautiful. Eric’s concern and tenderness are amazing. Of course the two of them are going to fall in love as they go through this strange and intimate experience together, especially since they were halfway there already because of leftover childhood feelings they never got to act on. For that part of the story, I’m 100% on board.

But everything external that should have been a conflict to their relationship, every real-world concern, had to get minimized or dismissed so that the entire focus could be on the huge, whopping, internal conflict of Dana’s own trauma. Even her brother showing up and disapproving of the situation (as brother’s best friend romances usually have to have them do at some point) doesn’t really make a dent in the story, because he can’t object too much or it might be a threat to Dana’s recovery. And it’s just silly how much a struggling NHL hockey team bends over backwards to make this plot line work.

19 - Barefoot with a Bodyguard

#19 – Barefoot with a Bodyguard, by Roxanne St. Claire

  • Read: 1/21/20 – 2/1/20
  • Mount TBR: 19/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a 4-star rating on Goodreads
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Oh, I am such a sucker for a good bodyguard dynamic. And this one doubled down by having him posing as a bodyguard for his own cover story! The tension! The drama!

But in all seriousness, romantic suspense is not my genre, I’ve tried it before and generally been unimpressed, so I didn’t have high expectations when I dug this old (acquired for free) romance up on my Kindle.

Here I am to say how pleasantly surprised I was. Both leads have semi-tragic backstories, both have issues, and both grow with each other through those issues in ways that made me not want to put the book down. The situations they get into posing as newlyweds for their cover identities were awesome, squirm-inducing, and occasionally hysterically funny. I was delighted.

A heroine who needs to learn trust, and a hero who needs to learn tenderness. I AM SO HERE FOR THIS.

Though, again, romantic suspense not being my genre, I was annoyed every time the POV switched to one of the supporting characters in order to advance the suspense plot. On top of that, a very large portion of Gabe’s POV seemed devoted to setting up an unrelated plot for the next book, which seems to be about his sister. DON’T CARE GIVE ME MORE OF KATE AND ALEC. Which is why this doesn’t get a fifth star despite me being about half in love with Alec myself.

20 - Picking Up the Pieces

#20 – Picking Up the Pieces, by Jessica Prince

  • Read: 2/1/20 – 2/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 20/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, this is the worst romance I’ve read this year.

The “hero” is a man who ghosted the girl he loved for eight years, so that she couldn’t reach him to tell him she was pregnant with his kid after he took her virginity then left town two days later. When, at 70%, he finds out that she was pregnant after he left town, his first question is “Who got you pregnant?” presumably so he could go find the guy and tear him limb from limb for touching “his” girl–you know, the one he deliberately cut off contact with for eight years. When she tells him he was the father, he immediately yells, “Where’s my kid?” and threatens to take her to court if she gave up “his” baby for adoption. Yeah, the baby he didn’t know about because he left town and cut off contact with the mother for eight years.

Well, the baby died, and the hero’s a piece of absolute and utter trash. He is irredeemable in my eyes, if not for life, then at least for this heroine, who should shove him out the door like the toxic garbage fire that he is.

But with 30% to go until that magical happy ending that seemed increasingly less possible with every page, I kept reading.

She basically forgives him for no reason! He whines about how he deliberately hurt her then so he wouldn’t end up hurting her worse in the future, because he’s got daddy issues, and that’s supposed to negate all the suffering he caused her by leaving her, not being there for the pregnancy he helped to cause, not being there for their child’s failed birth, not being there for her grieving process, and then waltzing back into town and immediately trying to pick up where he left off like nothing had happened, all the while ignoring her boundaries at every turn: kissing her without consent, pressuring her into sex, trying to go bareback until she makes him stop because she’s not on the pill (but oh wait he does that exact same thing in the epilogue because “I want a family with you” and she lets him because she always tries to stand up for herself then ends up being a doormat) and actually handcuffs them together during the ending so that she can’t get away from him until he’s mansplained his pain to her and she forgives him.

Consent? What’s that? Boundaries? What are those for? Respect? Never heard of it.

And if the plot weren’t bad enough on its own, I could also write a treatise on how terrible the writing style is. Everyone speaks in the same false, over-the-top, drama-laden voice. Everyone has serious anger issues and will cause a scene over anything, anywhere, anytime–even the heroine in the place of business she owns will start a screaming match in front of her customers, and once she just leaves her staff (it’s not clear how many people are there working with her, so who knows if she’s just left her business in trouble or not) to drive the hero to the hospital to deal with his issues, instead of being a responsible adult and BUSINESS OWNER and staying on site to do her freaking job. I mean, emergencies are emergencies, but him finding out his mother is in the hospital but okay is not really the “drop everything and drive him there” type of emergency. He could have calmed down for a few minutes and taken himself, but then the heroine wouldn’t have gotten the scene with his mom, that apparently needed to happen. It’s all so stupid and immature and real life simply doesn’t work that way.

Also, new “friends” are introduced by name several chapters in with no description of who they are or what they look like or in some cases, even how the hero/heroine know them, they just are names that get dropped and I’m supposed to assume they’re friends instead of faceless dream people who speak in the same juvenile, profanity-heavy, melodramatic voice as literally everyone else.

Me: Who is Lizzy? Was there a “Lizzy” before?

Me, three sentences later: Oh, Stacia is Gavin’s girlfriend. But who’s Gavin? I don’t remember a Gavin.

Me, on the next page: Well, I guess they all know each other because they’re all hanging out.

Also there’s fat-shaming and slut-shaming, and all the guys insult each other with female terms like bitch and chick and “growing a vagina,” so let’s add misogyny to the pile, also guess what, the women are misogynists too. There’s so much girl-on-girl cattiness and spite and downright hate, it’s gross and harmful. Yeah, the hero is a bona fide garbage fire, but in a lot of ways the heroine isn’t that great either. I mean, she got all the suffering of the narrative loaded on to her by the plot, but she’s a pretty terrible person too, at the end of the day.

This book was just so, so very bad.

21 - From a Buick 8

#21 – From a Buick 8, by Stephen King

  • Read: 2/2/20 – 2/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 21/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a mode of transportation on the cover
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by an author who has written more than twenty books
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Thank goodness this wasn’t any longer.

I will always rank King among my favorite authors because his best books are some of my favorites, but across a career as long and as varied as his, there are always going to be some clunkers. This, for me, is one of them.

I can appreciate what it’s trying to do from a literary standpoint, proclaiming that not all stories are neat and have tidy endings, that not everything can be or will be answered. I don’t think writing a horror-lite novel with that as the premise is necessarily setting up a successful work, but I can stand by the idea of it.

But King doesn’t commit to it. After rambling for 300 pages across many POV characters with an incredibly basic, dull, “and then this happened” story structure, the big moment comes when the narrative makes its declaration of the novel’s thesis statement. After that? We get a real ending.

What? I thought we weren’t supposed to know what the Buick was. I thought the book wasn’t going to explain, and then it did, and I was disappointed–not just in the explanation, which is little more than confirmation of everything that was laid out and easily guessable before, but also the fact that we actually got an explanation.

You can’t write a story about how stories don’t always have neat endings, and then spoil your own story with a neat ending. It weakens the entire novel.

22 - Make Him Wild

#22 – Make Him Wild, by Christie Ridgway

  • Read: 2/4/20 – 2/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 22/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in the month of your birthday
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I knew this book wasn’t really working for me when I was more invested in the romantic subplot than the main romance.

Alessandra should be a young woman emerging from the shell of her grief to open herself to love again, and instead she’s a caricature, a horny little Italian beauty (and yes, the narrative calls her “exotic” at one point,) who jumps the first out-of-towner she meets who doesn’t know her tragic past and doesn’t think of her as the Nun of Napa Valley.

Penn is a problem because the story can’t decide if he’s a good guy or not. Alessandra figuring out he’s “nice” midway through is supposed to be some revelation, but they’re both so fake, so concerned with appearances (hers as the PR face of the family winery, his as a home-remodeling-show celebrity) that they’re constantly at odds, misjudging each other, misreading true intentions, and Penn usually comes out of that looking poorly.

Sure, they might have physical attraction and chemistry, because the story goes to great lengths to make them both horny on main, but as often happens, the “love” is rushed and unfulfilling and not entirely believable.

It might not have seemed so bad if the secondary love story, Clare and Gil, hadn’t been so delightful and compelling. At first I was like, why is Alessandra’s friend getting her own love plot? Shouldn’t that be a different book? But then I realized that it’s her wedding that’s being thrown at the winery and we have to watch in slow motion while her relationship with her fiance Jordan disintegrates, all the while seeing how in love with her Gil, her best friend, has always been. Now, they don’t have the full setup they deserve–it is a subplot, after all–but even in the smaller space they get, their romance is much more fully fleshed out than the main one.

So I can’t give this book just a single star, since I loved Clare and Gil so much, but it’s a pretty serious problem for the book than the supporting players completely upstaged the main attraction.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: January 2020!


A good and productive month in some ways, not so much in others.

I read 18 books. Yes, I DNF’d four of them at various points, but still, that’s an outstanding month for me. I blame my enthusiasm for starting a fresh year of challenges!

I made my self-imposed mid-month deadline for rereading #rockstarnovel and all the note-taking that required, to organize the rewriting phase, which I’ve started since. I’m almost a quarter of the way through already, just counting by chapters complete, so I’m ahead of the pace I need, in theory, to meet my next deadline for finishing this draft: the end of March.

I barely exercised at all, I admit it. I ran once, I went for a few walks, I did no yoga. Running in winter in Michigan is a difficult proposition, and I was hoping to really push myself this season, and it didn’t happen. (I did run yesterday, since it was above freezing, but that’s February!)

I was also diligent about practicing my drawing at least every other day, for the first weeks of the month, but as I spent more time writing I had difficulty making time for art. The good news is, with a year-long goal, I can use each monthly wrap-up to assess my progress and what I can do to make it easier for myself to keep up.

So the goals for February are as follows:

  1. Read all the books on my challenge TBR and hopefully at least two or three others;
  2. Get at least halfway through the #rockstarnovel rewrite;
  3. Spend time drawing every day (as often as possible) or at least every other day;
  4. Run three times a week (under reasonable weather conditions, so that’s flexible);
  5. And on the video game front, replay the beginning of, then finally finish, Kentucky Route Zero because the final episode dropped after many, many years of waiting.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #4)

13 - Hold Me

#13 – Hold Me, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 1/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 13/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book that passes the Bechdel test
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I loved pretty much every page of this, which was a surprise, actually, because I wasn’t sure any sequel could stand up to how much I loved Trade Me.

But this did, with a nonstandard enemies-to-lovers arc, with science and math flirting, with both leads pointing out each other’s flaws and kickstarting real emotional growth in the other. Jay begins the book as a dismissive jerk who thinks he’s a feminist but only is in the most shallow of possible ways; Maria starts out with trust issues seventy feet deep, for good reason, but she uses those issues as a pole to prod people away from her. They challenge each other, bringing out the worst in each other at first when they don’t yet know they’re also best friends online, and then slowly, carefully changing that to being their best selves (or at least improved selves, with forward momentum) with each other in person.

And I love, love, love, that Maria being trans informs her history and personality without dominating the narrative–this romance isn’t about her trans identity. The same with Jay’s bisexuality, because his history and some of the comments he makes clearly show that, but we’re not subjected to a deep dive into what it’s like for him to be bi. Those identities are part of who they are, but not the sole focus of the story, which is the way to do marginalized representation when it’s not your own identity you’re writing about.

Even though it’s taken me quite a while to get to this book since I added it to my TBR, I’m sad to see that the rest of the series is still only in the planning/pre-publishing stage: I’ve got short story #2.5 to read, but that’s it! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

14 - The Bromance Book Club

#14 – The Bromance Book Club, by Lyssa Kay Adams

  • Read: 1/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 14/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book about a book club
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Fun, serious and yet somehow still very light-hearted, and definitely an interesting take on a second-chance romance. Also an interesting take on unlearning toxic masculinity.

Gavin is not perfect in any way, and he starts out the book almost frustratingly dense and dumb. Thea is so blithely bitter it was actually hard for me to relate to her at first, because I knew the point of the book was for Gavin to win her back, and the pouting and wounded silences on both their parts seemed melodramatic to me. But once I got past that, I got invested fast, and the rest of the story was practically a romp. Aside from the rough beginning, the things I liked least about the book had nothing to do with them.

What didn’t I like? The Russian, not as a character, but as a gross, smelly, non-character stereotype of the guy on the team no one seems to like. Did we need that kind of potty humor? What did it add to the story? Also, I didn’t actually care for the excerpts of the book that the book club was reading. I’ve discovered over many attempts to read Regency romances that they’re usually not my thing, and this one was no exception. I understand the purpose of the parallel plot, and I don’t really think the novel would be better off without those excerpts, but I can value their purpose without actually liking their style.

I did really enjoy some of Gavin’s other teammates, though, spouting their romance-reading wisdom at him in adorably bite-size pieces that sounded almost like a foreign language coming out of a man’s mouth–which is exactly the point of this story, and exactly why this book is necessary, because emotional wisdom shouldn’t be something only women are expected to learn.

15 - Red Rising

#15 – Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

  • Read: 1/26/20
  • Mount TBR: 15/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: The first book in a series that you have not started
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a map
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 50. I might have been able to get used to the old-school, classic sci-fi feeling of weirdCapitalization and an entire society being run according to a color-coded caste system, if only I hadn’t had to drop the book like a hot potato because of pedophilia.

That’s right, I said it. Pedophilia.

Now, I can accept in a situation where a 35-year-old man is considered “old,” truly old, and life expectancy is low because the upper caste is working everybody to death, that the marriage age is going to drop into the teens instead of the twenties. It’s not that our lead and his wife are sixteen that I object to, here, as a general concept. They are physically mature enough to procreate, and they’re both doing adult work and treated by their society as adults, so the actual age isn’t the issue for me.

Or it wasn’t, until the world-building showed me that the wedAge (god, I hate those weird compound words with middle capitals) for boys is 16, but for girls it’s 14.

Why? Why are girls women sooner than boys are men? This is some patriarchial bullshit, that demands maturity from girls faster than boys (you know, like real life, “boys will be boys” and the eldest-daughter-equals-babysitter syndrome and all of that lovely stuff young women have to deal with) and romanticizes and sexualizes the innocence of budding young women.

And then, it got worse. Darrow is constantly referring to his wife, his wife, as a “little girl.” She’s perfect and small and waif-like and ethereal and beautiful and perfect and please just gag me already, she’s so clearly a symbol of the beauty of girlhood and NOT ACTUALLY A CHARACTER that even if I hadn’t read the back cover and knew she was going to die, I would have known she was going to die. She was far too “beautiful” to live. And even when she’s dead, and Darrow decides to pull her down from the noose and bury her, she’s still “a little girl.”

God, at least in Braveheart they were both adults. Real adults. (Didn’t see that reference coming? I know other reviews are calling this “Hunger Games in Space” but I didn’t read far enough to get to the games part, and also I never read THG. But I did see Braveheart and this is the exact same plot, to the point where I gave up. Man’s wife gets killed and he “rises” against his oppressors.)

If the author really needed to fridge a “little girl” for the plot to work–and yes, despite the fact that her sacrifice is her own choice, she’s still in the fridge for her husband’s narrative because otherwise the rest of the story wouldn’t exist–then why did it have to be his wife? Could he have had a little sister to care about, so she was family without being sexualized as an adult while constantly described in child-like ways? Or would that be too Hunger Games?

16 - The Singer

#16 – The Singer, by Elizabeth Hunter

  • Read: 1/26/20 – 1/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 16/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a made-up language
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I think I would have liked this better if I had read it sooner after finishing the first book. What impressed me so much about that one was the romance and the world-building, especially concerning the magic. What most of this book was about was politics.

There’s still romance, in the sense of yearning for a lost loved one, and the contrast between Ava’s grief and Malachi’s hope is a good one. And at first, I thought their arcs, even when separated, would be parallel, as she learned to handle her magic and he relearned his after he lost it. But that was only a very small part of the plot, and most of the book was spent with various characters hopping across Europe in an elaborate cat-and-mouse hunt with their enemies.

It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t what I was expecting, really. And I am interested in the world enough to be mildly intrigued by its politics and more intrigued by the continued mystery of where Ava got her power from, which is a thread from the first book that was strengthened here. But a lot of what I loved so much about that story was missing here, and the disappointment I have at that diminished the rest of the book for me.