#4 – Meant to Be, by Melody Grace
- Mount TBR: 4/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: Character lets out a breath they didn’t realize they were holding
- Rating: 2/5 stars
Highly readable, very basic. It’s not even just that the tropes are worn out for me–romance writer suffers in the big city, goes to a small town to hide out/recover, falls in love–but that nothing was surprising or interesting. The slightly snarky banter between the leads had me smiling sometimes, but their physical chemistry felt forced, and the sex scenes were even more basic than the plot and read like a list of the most-used phrases for sex strung together in a row.
Occasionally it did feel like the story had something interesting to say about love or the writing process or closure–the scene I liked best was actually between Poppy and her ex, when he swings by for a “maybe we can talk through this and un-cancel our relationship” chat–but when the story did have a big point to make, it got on its soapbox and made sure the reader knew exactly what the point was with no subtlety, like the characters were megaphones for the author.
It seemed promising at first, when I zipped through the first 40% in about an hour and seemed hooked, but once the leads got together, things went downhill fast.
#5 – Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
- Mount TBR: 5/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book where the woods/forest are important
- Rating: 2/5 stars
If I had known ahead of time that this book was an expansion on a 9,000 word article on the same subject, I would have tried to hunt down the article instead, or simply passed on the material. My criticism of the only other Krakauer work I’ve read, Under the Banner of Heaven was basically that it was too long, too unfocused, and at the end dissolved into a debate about whether the subjects of the book were mentally ill or not.
While this book is much shorter in overall length, it’s still basically too long for its premise, it’s unfocused (with skittering time jumps in the narrative and many sections about people other than McCandless, including an entire autobiographical chapter on the author himself,) and narrowly avoids my final criticism, because Krakauer decides in this case, there is no debate: he flatly states McCandless was not mentally ill.
But in the absence of any medical evidence, isn’t saying definitively that he wasn’t as much a judgment call as saying he was?
I can see why this book is so polarizing, because many people come out of it hailing McCandless as a visionary who refused to let the world bind him, while others think he’s an arrogant idiot utterly lacking in wisdom, or cruel for cutting off his family, or any number of other uncomplimentary things. The text supports all of those interpretations, and what the reader believes seems to be largely dependent on their own circumstances and worldview. But my opinion of McCandless as a person has very little to do with my opinion of the book, because I do believe that Krakauer is mostly objective in communicating the facts of the story.
I found the autobiographical section about his mountaineering far less interesting, and when he went into detail about his relationship with his father and how it drove him to make the choices he made, I was deeply uncomfortable. The inclusion of that material changed the entire tone of the book for me, from a journalist writing about an interesting story to an insecure man projecting himself onto that story. It would have been enough for me if Krakauer had said “I was similarly reckless in some ways in my youth and that common ground is what made me so invested in this tale,” but he goes into frankly embarrassing detail about his father’s eventual decline and it was so out of place with the rest of the book, so off-putting, that I was relieved to turn to the next chapter and get back to McCandless’ story, no matter how grim it was. A young man’s slow death from starvation was actually less gruesome to me than reading Krakauer talking about his relationship with his father–I can’t properly express how disgusted I was by the tone of it.
I don’t read that much nonfiction to begin with, but I definitely won’t be reading anything more by this author. Whatever a reader thinks about the subject, the book would have been far stronger without the author inserting himself into it.
#6 – Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See
- Mount TBR: 6/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: The second half of a duology
- Rating: 2/5 stars
When I read and reviewed Shanghai Girls back in 2016, I stated that I didn’t intend to go on to the sequel. Of course, by the time this book fell into my hands at a secondhand shop, I’d forgotten my decision and merely thought, “Oh yeah, I read the first one, it was okay, I should read this too.”
I should have stuck to my original plan. Dreams of Joy is not a particularly good book in many respects, and while it does finish the story of this family, I found it to be even more full of misery than its predecessor. (Considering the amount of rape in that book, that’s really saying something. But this time, it’s famine, which is a different and longer-lasting kind of horrible.)
I’m almost ashamed to admit that the beginning of the third act, when things are at their most dire and the suffering is most pronounced, was the most compelling part of the book for me. The tension of wondering what Joy would do to survive and protect her child, and the resulting solidification of her character and her moral compass, was a pleasure to read after watching her waffle between her capitalist upbringing and desire to embrace the Party and its propaganda. (Despite the horrid conditions surrounding this character fulfillment, which were so detailed in some cases that I wondered if I was falling into misery porn and I genuinely feel conflicted about “liking” that part of the book best.) I did not care for Joy at the beginning nor through the middle, because her stupidity and inconsistency made her difficult to root for. And I know intelligent people often fall for propaganda, no one is immune, but I don’t think that covers her decision–I think running away from a family conflict and throwing yourself at an ideal larger than yourself is very different from actually believing in that ideal, and I don’t feel that internal struggle was ever properly realized.
Pearl’s POV chapters were far easier to wade through, almost to the point of blandness. There’s still a lot of the “I wore these clothes and walked down this street” filler that I criticized in the first book; obviously this is well-researched, but how much of that detail actually needs to be included? I suppose there’s the thematic argument to be made that Pearl is more unabashedly capitalist and thus more concerned with material goods, but that didn’t make it less tedious. Still, her unswerving devotion to her daughter carried her chapters well enough.
My biggest problem is the ending, though. Not that they all live–I’m fine with that–but how it happened. Basically everything on from Pearl’s new husband “sacrificing” himself in the art show altercation in order to get Z.G. out–why would he do that? Especially when it threw a serious wrench into their plans that required laborious explanations of how they got around their lack of the official papers he was carrying? (Because the story needed to reunite May and Z.G. at the very end, not because Dun himself gave a crap about the man. Transparent plot-before-character moment, there.) The last events were a grueling series of “we got on this bus then took this ferry,” and the section about Pearl’s long-lost father being the one to drive them over the border hidden in his merchandise truck is basically the same, beat for beat, as the car escape from Green Dragon village, right down to the little boy having to hide in the trunk/a barrel. Why did we have two nearly identical escape scenes?
I’d say it was disappointing, but I wasn’t really expecting it to be great. However, I don’t think it matched even the middling quality I felt the first book attained.
#7 – Most Eligible Billionaire, by Annika Martin
- Mount TBR: 7/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: Set in a major city
- Rating: 4/5 stars
I picked this up as a freebie a while back, and going into it I’d mostly forgotten the premise and did not refresh myself with the blurb. The first 10% was wild, WTF-is-going-on, “how on earth is this premise going to work,” and by far the weakest part of the book. Since 10% is my minimum cutoff to DNF a book but still consider it read, I was, in fact, considering it. I’m not a dog person, and this seemed too out-there for me, concept-wise.
But the female lead is a crafter (or a “maker” as this work prefers to call them) and that speaks to me. I told myself to ditch at 25% if I was still having a hard time, but what do you know, the story found itself and started getting good.
Really good, actually. Because the male lead is also a “maker” at heart, and the romance starts as they shift from enemies to colleagues-who-craft and bond over their similar creative spirit. Also, as billionaire romances go, this was atypical in focusing more on what that sort of money and privilege can deny a person, rather than what it can do for the average-Jane love interest. I didn’t feel like Henry being a billionaire was the point of his character, and plot-wise, the whole point of Vicky’s character was that she specifically wasn’t a gold-digger or scam artist and had to stand her ground about it.
Despite the book’s flaws, that’s a far more interesting dynamic that I’m used to seeing from this subgenre.
What are those flaws? I already covered the beginning being weak almost to the point of putting me off finishing at all. In addition, there are some pretty glaring darlings that needed killing (if I never see the word “blowout” again it will be too soon.) The most systemic flaw I can find for the rest of the book is that Vicky’s tragic backstory is hinted at too constantly for how late the payoff is, and her birth name, “Vonda,” becomes one of those overused darling words. Before I know who “Vonda” was or why she’s really all that different from Vicky, her name is used as a cue that Vicky is being more herself and less her current persona, only I didn’t yet know why, so I didn’t have any solid idea what that meant and why it was so significant. Which leads to my other complaint, that for all the banter between Vicky and Henry, this isn’t nearly as much a rom-com as I was under the impression it would be. The premise is goofy and their interactions can be fun, but most of the book was actually about really heavy, serious issues that were treated as such, which was not nearly as lighthearted as I was expecting.
That being said, the story’s not bad. It’s just not quite as advertised. I did enjoy it a great deal and I put the rest of the series on my TBR, so I can honestly recommend it. Just be prepared for a little emotional whiplash between the beginning and the end.