This Week, I Read… (2021 #40)

#121 – Stay, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Yikes. I rode the coattails of a Hoopla romance binge straight into this from Good Boy and the entire Him series by the same authors, and this disappoints by comparison.

Part of it could be, of course, that we’re moving farther and farther away from the center of this story universe–Jamie and Wes. But even setting that aside, this setup had me uncomfortable right from the beginning. It’s a business/client relationship, and by its nature, one where there’s already some privacy boundaries crossed, and apparently they’ve been kind of friendly-flirty in their chats for a while, but it’s all still business….

Ugh. I really didn’t like it when Hailey started breaking rules for Matt, even though they were minor ones, even though her co-owner never caught her at it.

And I never felt their chemistry was worth all that hush-hush rule-breaking. Hailey was honestly over-the-top irritating in her babbling phases (she doesn’t have Blake’s silly motor-mouth charm, I guess) and Matt was just…a dude? Who likes his kids but has a bitchy ex-wife? He didn’t actually have much personality, and came across as very needy, because the entire basis of his relationship with Hailey is founded on her seeing to his every need/whim/request via her Fetch business.

I’d say this has turned me off the series, only there isn’t any more planned, so that’s a moot point. We’ll just call it a misstep then, from an author pair I otherwise enjoy very much.

#122 – To Do List, by Lauren Dane

  • Mount TBR: 96/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I started having problems with this read right away, so I took some notes, and they ended up being so extensive for such a short novella that I’m just going to use them as my book review directly:

Starting with a kiss between two people that haven’t been introduced yet, beyond the blurb? And it’s a mistletoe kiss? Unsatisfying.

Everyone is commenting on the exact same details about Belle: Rafe, her brother, her mother, and her sister, all in the space of a few pages. They all say at least two of the same three things: she’s pale, she’s lost too much weight, she has dark circles under her eyes. Her mom and sister comment separately on the dark circles four paragraphs apart. I GET IT ALREADY, BELLE IS TIRED.

Can we get commas, please? Some of these sentences go on forever, and they’d read better if I could more easily tell where clauses start and stop.

Aaaand a few pages later grandma has precisely the same complaints about Belle as everyone else. I know this isn’t the point of the story so far, because Belle’s absence from “the family” is attributed to her hours as a junior attorney, but could she also not want to come to visit because everyone in her family is awful to her about her appearance? Sheesh.

Oh, and later, when she’s not even around, Rafe’s brother takes it upon himself to make a joke about fattening her up so she can’t leave. GROSS.

90%+ of the dialogue is either purely expository, or simply repetitive: either two people are talking about something they both already know so the author can inform the reader, or they’re speaking out loud something that was just said in internal monologue, or they’re saying something to one person that we already heard them say to another person.

Rafe brings up the idea of proposing (not in front of his lover, but in front of a family member) about two days after the story starts. Yes, they’ve known each other for most of their lives, but that’s not a reasonable reaction to a romantic relationship that new (when it’s not framed as a love-at-first-sight or other sort of “whirlwind” romance story, which this isn’t billing itself as. Everything I see tells me that I’m supposed to be taking this utterly seriously as a concept.)

Rafe’s page-long monologues where he spills his feelings in detail don’t read as genuine. It’s not even a “men don’t talk that way” thing for me, it’s simply a “people don’t talk that way.” That’s true for everyone, to some extent, for the entire book, but Rafe monologues about Belle like three or four times to different people and it’s just an info-dump of Telling Instead of Showing every single time.

Really abrupt ending–I actually turned the page on my Kindle and was surprised to see the end matter, turned back a page to make sure I hadn’t missed something, no, I hadn’t, it was just over with basically no warning.

#123 – Under His Kilt, by Melissa Blue

  • Mount TBR: 97/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I didn’t like anything about it. Not one thing.

The leads have no personalities, and I’m apparently supposed to be invested (or swooning) over the hero simply because he has an accent. Maybe also because he’s kind of a jerk, but he’s enough of one not to be a great person while not being enough of one to qualify as a bad boy worth reforming (if you’re into that type of thing.) The heroine is bland as hell.

The premise is clear and we jump right to it, but there’s no real chemistry between them so the sex scenes feel kind of mechanical. Also, we only get about one and a half of them before the heroine is already getting weird pseudo-nostalgic feelings about what a shy, retiring, demure flower she used to be before one week of kinky sex turned her life around. That really brought me up short, because I didn’t find the sex to be particularly kinky, though obviously where that line is depends on the person.

Also, I know hardly anything about what setting up a traveling exhibition at a museum is like, so I could be wrong, but these people don’t sound like they have real jobs: when they’re shown at work together (so they can flirt because this is a workplace romance) they’re mostly dressing mannequins in historical clothing. Okay, obviously someone has to do that–but the curator and the traveling consultant that’s responsible for the exhibit? When the items were described as replicas, I thought workers lower on the totem pole could handle it, but then later they’re “priceless artifacts” so yeah I guess only the higher-ups can deal with them. (Which are they? Please be consistent with your details!) But what is Ian’s job exactly, anyway? If he’s in charge of the exhibit as it travels, why is he leaving as soon as it opens? If he’s not necessary to the safety/protection of the items in the exhibit, then why is he even there at all? I simply don’t understand how any of this works, either in real life (my fault) or in the story (the author’s fault, because it’s not clear at all.) And they do spend a lot of time at work together because that’s the basis of the story.

The puppy subplot? Poorly thought out. No puppy is that well-behaved without a lick of training, and only seriously confused, in-denial people would get a pet together and think it doesn’t mean anything about the state of their relationship. I had a hard time believing any of it.

And their happy ending was silly in a bad way. Hero does a rude thing to provoke the heroine into contacting him again so he can continue their relationship, only she doesn’t do it and he breaks first. And they argue. Again. And it’s all so dumb.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #39)

#115 – Race of Thieves, by S.M. Reine

  • Mount TBR: 95/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 54%. I’m bored, and I’m tired of not knowing enough about the setting to understand the stakes of this high-energy heist plot.

The author’s note at the beginning mentions that there are over 50 books in “the Descentverse” and yeah, this is not a good place to jump in, even if the note claims it is. Barely anything is explained about how shifters work and even less about the world. When I gave up, the lead and his rival/ex-girlfriend have taken a literal, physical elevator down to Hell and are trying to steal something from demons. Also there are angels, also there are more types of shifter than you can shake a stick at, and there’s allusions to some sort of world-altering event, but no details.

I’m lost, and I’m tired of being lost. I can fill in some blanks with the general knowledge I’ve acquired about how paranormal romance and urban fantasy tend to work–but by doing so, I’m making the Descentverse more generic, in my own brain, than I’m sure the author intends. It seems like a vibrant and well-realized world, if you don’t get dropped into it with no grounding.

Also, “Shatter Cage” is a really dumb name, and its dumbness is not redeemed by having another character make fun of it in-universe. And if this is a romance–which I was under the impression it was based on the charity bundle I acquired it from–then it’s not great that the love interest (the ex) doesn’t even show up until more than a quarter of the way through the story. I kept waiting, and waiting…

#116 – Traitor’s Moon, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

When I finished and reviewed the second book in the series, I said that I wondered where this one would go, story-wise, since the main plot of the first book was clearly wrapped up in the second. Now, in hindsight, it seems almost obvious: time to deal with Seregil’s exile. And it does.

It just takes a long time and a lot of political and magical nonsense to get there.

I’ll be honest, I was mostly reading this for Alec. Not that I don’t like Seregil in general, but he’s not at his best under these circumstances, and the complicated (overcomplicated?) plot around negotiations for war aid from his homeland involved so many new characters, so much wrangling, and so much semi-defined magic that I got more than a little lost on occasion. The reveal of the murderer’s identity–because yes, there’s a murder tangled in all this–hinges directly on a single magical charm bracelet, who had it when, and how that can be magically proven. I did not follow all of it, and inconsistency in details is starting to show in this series anyway, because I feel like a few names from previous books were changed (or spelled wrong) when referenced, and I noticed a few other small things I couldn’t be sure if I was remembering wrong, even though I read both previous books in the last few months…

As far as the romance goes, I’m glad there was enough of a time skip between books to see Seregil and Alec jump past their awkwardness–this is a fantasy series with romance in it, not a full-blown romance the point is to jump all the hurdles with them, as readers. I’d rather them be a bit more settled in their relationship if we’re going to wade through this much complicated plot. But I was briefly and repeatedly uncomfortable whenever the text referred to either one of them (from the other’s perspective) as “friend.” Like we’ve done all this work to make a world where same-sex couples are as everyday and unremarkable as opposite-gender couples, even to the point of having the four-lamp-color system of brothels to mark which sex workers are for whom; but then Alec and Seregil are constantly referring to each other as friends. And if that’s supposed to mean their friendship is the solid core of their romantic relationship, I get it–it follows with some things Seregil said in book two, about how they’d be friends even if Alec had other lovers in the future. (Which I believe, though it would have to be far, far in the future for Alec to loosen up enough for that to happen at all. A point of characterization in his favor.) But at the same time, it’s frustrating how little the narrative acknowledges that they’re lovers. Yes, there are a few elliptical, fade-to-black sex scenes, and I’m not arguing that the solution is more sex, or more explicit sex. But the ‘faie term they were using before “tali” or “talimenios” got weakened in this book–I had taken it to mean “lovers” in the pair-bonded sense, but Seregil’s family use it for him, so obviously that’s not its only meaning anymore. And when they’re not “tali,” they’re merely “friends.” And that was jarring whenever I stumbled into it, and disappointing overall.

Anyway. Between a kindly fellow reader pointing out after my last review that they wished they had stopped after the first two books, and me peeking ahead to read the blurb about the fourth book, which seems kind of squicky to me–I’m done. I enjoyed this, but I don’t feel a great need to read the rest.

#117 – Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Finally got around to reading this after letting it sit on my TBR for four years–thank you, Hoopla.

I already know I’m thumbs-up for Sarina Bowen, I don’t love every book of hers to pieces but they’re always worth my time. Elle Kennedy is a total unknown factor to me. But this didn’t really read like two authors (as sometimes books unfortunately will) so I have to assume I like Kennedy as well, because I liked this. Totally willing to check out her other work.

But about this book. I’m here for every kind of queer romance, but I’ve been burned by plenty of M/M specifically in the past that is either “chicks with dicks,” as we say when the characters are designated as male but don’t feel authentic; or when the romance is fetishizing queerness, and the characters don’t have any real personalities or conflicts, because the female author/readers just want to write/read about two guys screwing.

This is neither. I know that’s a low bar to clear, but when you’re jumping in with a new series or author, it does need to be cleared.

So I’m here for confused friends-to-lovers, I’m here for the sort of second-chance-ness of this romance. Even though I’m not particularly a sports fan (of any sport,) somehow I keep reading hockey romances, and it delivers there too–enough hockey to make sure it’s important to plot and characters, not so much I’m groaning at excessive play-by-plays. I actually love that our two budding young hockey stars have vastly different views about the reality of playing in the pros, thanks to their different skill sets and personalities; that’s icing on an already delicious cake.

What kept this from being a five-star read? Honestly, the plot hinged on miscommunication or a lack of willingness to communicate, and by the end it was pretty one-sided (Wes.) Also, Wes’ biphobia.

I see there’s another book and a bonus novella in this series for Wes to possibly grow past the fear that Jamie’s bisexuality means he’s always halfway out the door to bang some chick, but that insecurity of Wes’, while realistic to a point, becomes such a tired pattern. I’m willing to forgive it a little more than usual because from Jamie’s POV, we get a refreshingly uncomplicated journey from “I like women” through “do I only like this one guy, or possibly all guys?” to “yep, I also like dick in general, therefore I am bisexual.” I will forgive a lot to get good bi rep, because it’s so hard to find, and Jamie is excellent. He questions but doesn’t agonize, he takes steps to figure himself out when he realizes he needs to, and there’s no missing b-word.

I’ll keep reading–I want to see where this goes. And I think I’ll dig up some solo Kennedy books to put on my TBR as well.

#118 – Us, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’m happy that there’s more story here–I love series romances following the same couple through multiple books–but unsurprisingly, it mostly had the same strengths and flaws as the first book.

What’s really good is the depiction of personal stress and relationship tension between Wes and Jamie because of the secret of their relationship. But to balance that, I’m never going to be a fan of forced outing as a plot point.

I’m also pleased with the seriousness of how Jaime’s illness was handled, not only when it was happening, but also the aftermath. I have personal experience with struggling to “be myself again” after a long illness, so I got it. (But again, his illness is what leads to the news of their relationship getting out, so there’s a downside to this plot.)

New thing that’s good: Blake. At first I didn’t know what to make of someone so Big and Dumb and Loud, but he turned out to be real charming, in his own way, by the end. (Though I don’t blame anyone who can’t warm up to him, YMMV.)

Old thing that’s bad: Wes is still biphobic. It’s toned down and less important to the story most of the time, but it’s still there, even when he’s trying to talk himself out of it.

Overall, still glad I read it, looking forward to the bonus novella.

#119 – Epic, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s cute, it’s quick, it’s fun. I don’t have a lot of in-depth things to say about it–I couldn’t give it five stars, because I don’t think it’s really better than the two novels, but it’s certainly not worse.

The only issue for me is that since I haven’t been a Bowen/Kennedy reader since the beginning and I wasn’t reading everything as it was released, this jumps past Jamie and Wes getting married, which apparently happens in the first book in the spin-off series, which I know about now and have queued up on Hoopla to read next. Not that it’s a hardship to read Blake’s book, because I love that goofball. But since I was just plowing through this series in order, it did come as a bit of a surprise.

#120 – Good Boy, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Good, but not as great as the series it spun off from. I doubled back for this after reading the bonus novella about Jamie and Wes and finding out they were married, only I hadn’t read the book where it happened.

I can’t point to much, really, to complain about directly. The plot fits together neatly, everybody goes on their journey properly and gets a happy ending. I loved Blake as a side character, and his humor did wear the tiniest bit thin when he became the lead, but he’s still an awesome dude with a serious heart of gold, so it’s not like I don’t like him. But now I know I wouldn’t want to date him myself.

Jess got her personal arc of “I’m the family screw up” to “I know what I want to do with my life and I’m pursuing it” and that’s great! But somehow it also wasn’t all that satisfying.

And while I’m not arguing that relationships like this can’t happen or won’t work out, I’m not a huge fan of “let’s just keep having sex until eventually emotional bonds form” as a plot trajectory. There was only so often I could listen to Jess’ internal monologue about how she really, really meant to keep her clothes on, this time. And then, of course, she didn’t.

Also, given that injury and illness have been plot points in this story world before, I kept waiting for Blake’s mysterious neck pain to pay off, but it didn’t–it was just a sore neck, apparently, with no real plot important and only a tenuous symbolic meaning (since it disappeared as soon as he and Jessie got together for real.)

It’s fine. It’s readable. But it’s also missing something I can’t quite identify, compared to the series that brought me here.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #38)

#111 – Stalking Darkness, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Darker in theme and content than its predecessor, more polished in terms of plot and pacing, more cohesive from start to finish. Still not without its problems, but I liked this substantially more, more even than I expected to.

Still, I’d rather talk about the problems rather than endlessly gush about how much I adore my best boy Alec. Because I could. But I won’t.

So, those problems:

  1. Micum. He was a major side character in the first book, and this plot would have me believe he’s one of the mystical Four that are needed to save the world from the Big Bad. But he’s not present at all in this book until Seregil goes to fetch him from home 2/3 of the way through, and even when he’s around, he’s not really doing much. The page-space I expected him to fill here was entirely taken up by the military subplot featuring his daughter Beka, and given the triumphant-but-not-perfect way the ending falls out, I honestly don’t see why she couldn’t have taken over his role entirely, even in the prophetic sense.
  2. And while I like Beka and I understand the point of her arc, honestly, the military maneuvering was boring compared to the rest of the story, and it was hard to be invested in the various injuries and deaths among her troops, because I didn’t have time to get to know them, and meanwhile in another plot thread my favorite character was being psychically tortured by an evil, vengeful necromancer. What can stand up to that, in terms of engagement?
  3. Certain aspects of the ending were not just foreshadowed, but telegraphed, to the point where I have a hard time believing Seregil didn’t see it coming…
  4. Which is tied to my dissatisfaction with Nysander’s constant insistence that everything related to the prophecy must be kept strictly secret on pain of death, until oops Seregil figures out a bunch of it on his own, so then Nysander is like “lol I guess you can warn the others then.” And that’s before Alec falls into enemy hands. Why the sudden change of heart? Nysander acts like not telling them is mostly to spare them the dread of knowing that “a terrible Something,” as Seregil puts it, might happen–but then after the fact, Alec is pleased that he couldn’t tell the enemy anything important during his torture, because he didn’t know anything important, despite Seregil explaining the prophecy. The prophecy that was the enemy’s plan in the first place, so didn’t they already know? And the actual information that needed to be kept secret wasn’t something Seregil ever knew, exactly, and wasn’t revealed to the enemy by him, but through the murky Ylinestra/Thero subplot at the beginning. I’m genuinely confused by the ways secrets are regarded and handled in this story, because I can’t figure out why they’re vital sometimes and less dangerous other times.
  5. Maybe not so much a problem, exactly, but this ties up all our plot threads pretty damn neatly, so if I had read this at the time of its publishing, I would have dusted my hands together and said, “Cool ending, that’s taken care of.” But there are five more books. I own the next one and glanced at the author’s note at the beginning, which repeatedly and pointedly declares that “This is not a trilogy.” So where do we go from here? I love Alec and Seregil and will be happy to read more about them, but I feel like the Big Bad is vanquished, and the war that got started in this book may not be over but wasn’t particularly interesting without the mystical evil, so…

#112 – In Her Wildest Dreams, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 92/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What I expected based on the blurb: friends-to-lovers romance between two people highly committed to their jobs.

What I actually got: two lengthy, detailed job descriptions with ancillary characters attached, who eventually fall into bed together after arguing a lot.

I’m not convinced they fell in love as the plot moved forward. I’m not convinced they were friends to begin with, since Gavin was a stew of barely restrained lust mixed with anger that Erica wasn’t already his girlfriend, and Erica just seemed to be using Gavin for free chocolate and someone to listen to her whine.

When you get right down to it, I barely believe these characters are readable as real people, because they’re both essentially the same stereotype–“My job is the most important thing to me, to the point where I’m a control freak about it, and I have no other interests, hobbies, or people in my life worth mentioning.” Erica has a mother she supports but doesn’t care much for, a plot thread that seems important at the beginning but is dropped extremely quickly. Gavin has a comically evil ex-fiancee, and a “friend” who only interacts with him about trying to get Gavin to come work for him, so I’m going to count that as job-related and not an actual friend, because he never serves any “friend” purpose in the story.

I’m supposed to believe these two don’t actually loathe each other for being too similar and sharing the same major flaws?

And the dialogue, spare me this dialogue, where they flirt coyly for a minute and make each other uncomfortable, then communicate honestly for about ten seconds before one of them gets instantly offended by something and overreacts and the whole thing becomes an argument. They’ve constantly got their wires crossed to the point where, again, I don’t see how these two consider themselves friends, never mind being able to fall in love.

On top of all of that, the writing style itself is poor, too. I knew I was in for a bad time when the first chapter opens by setting the scene like so:

“The heady aroma of rich, dark chocolate enrobed Erica Cole the second she walked through the doors of Decadente Artisan Chocolates. She inhaled a lungful of the slightly sweet, slightly smoky-scented air, letting the intense fragrance permeate her senses.”

  1. “Enrobed” might be laying it on a bit thick, since that’s a word you see a lot in descriptions of fancy chocolate, but I could probably forgive that, without the rest.
  2. “Slightly” both doesn’t need to be used twice (if at all) and directly contradicts “intense” later in the sentence. The smell can’t be “slightly” anything and “intense” at the same time.
  3. I’ve never smelled smoky chocolate in my life. Smoked things smell smoky, like cheese and sausage and bacon and fish; some alcohols I’ve encountered certainly qualify as smoky. But chocolate? Is Gavin actually smoking his chocolate? Do people do that? (He does lots of things to and with chocolate throughout the story, but I never saw him put it in a smoker.)
  4. Also, “smoky-scented” is awkward. Drop the -scented. Oh, wait, then you’d be implying there was actual smoke in the air. Change it to “sweet, smoky aroma” or something like that. See? You don’t need the “slightly”s.
  5. Cut “a lungful of.” It’s just not necessary.
  6. “Permeate her senses” doesn’t work, because it’s just one sense. Smell. She’s smelling the air. She can’t hear or see the scent, and yes the air is touching her, but she can’t feel the scent on her skin in any significant way (I hope.) If you wanted to make the case that the scent was so strong “you could almost taste it in the air,” I could see that working, but then we loop back to the “slightly/intense” problem I’ve already described.

So I have six editing notes for just the first two sentences of this novella. And the writing does not get better from here.

#113 – Go, by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated by Takami Nieda

  • Mount TBR: 93/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At first I was compelled by the simple, direct language and the protagonist’s tendency to solve everything with violence, but as soon as the romance began, the narrative became a long string of pop culture references that I quickly tired of.

If this is a deliberate choice by the author to show that our confused teen is floundering about to find his identity in an attempt to define himself by what he consumes…then it’s kind of brilliant, if tedious.

If it’s not a deliberate choice, then it’s just lazy writing, because about 90% of the romance arc is the two characters recommending stuff to each other, or exploring new media together. Which is not unrealistic in the slightest, but the realism of it doesn’t make it inherently interesting to read about.

Whether or not the love interest qualifies as a true Manic Pixie Girl would require me to re-examine the text more closely than I care to at this point, but if she’s not strictly the archetype, she’s at least adjacent to it, in that she doesn’t have a lot of personality beyond the cool/quirky vibe that makes her attractive to the protagonist.

As for the story’s exploration of racism and xenophobia in modern Japanese society? I knew about their attitude towards foreigners in general and Koreans in particular, but not just how far it goes, structurally. I wasn’t aware of the citizenship issues, or the oppression in employment, or the separate schools. It’s institutional racism on a level that certainly echoes what we have had (or still have, in far too many cases) in the US toward non-white people. So I did learn something.

But I learned it through a story vehicle that I didn’t end up enjoying all that much due to a lack of character development. If this is both a coming of age story and a romance, shouldn’t I feel more connected to these characters? I can’t be, because it’s leaning so hard into the social commentary aspect of things that it distances everything else.

#114 – Bad King, by M. Malone

  • Mount TBR: 94/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Most of this story’s problems stem from its too-short length. It wants to cover more ground than 149 pages can handle (minus bonus materials at the end, I think the story actually ended at around 81 or 82% of the file, so call it more like 122 pages.)

In that tiny space is crammed:

  1. Olivia trying to convince herself that she should start a relationship with her male best friend despite a complete lack of sexual chemistry, because he’s a good guy;
  2. Olivia having a semi-tragic backstory about a strained relationship with her parents and how her pride cost her “everything,” plus her current money troubles;
  3. Olivia embarking on the sort-of fake dating adventure with King and the entire wild “romance” arc that comes from that;
  4. King’s intended personal arc from “everything in my life is about my career” to “I want to be a good boyfriend, actually;”
  5. King’s sister Georgie trying to liberate herself from the narrow romantic/sexual life she’s been living not entirely by choice, plus some implied tension with/attraction to one of King’s friends who is not her fiance;
  6. King also having a somewhat strained relationship with his father and sort of getting to resolve it, but not really.

Doesn’t that seem like too much plot for 122 pages?

Everything in this would have benefited from slowing down and letting it breathe. Everything happens so fast it gave me tonal whiplash at times. The leads go from strangers to lovers in about 24 hours. Little sis Georgie wants to be instant best friends with Olivia and trusts her with a pretty big secret after very little acquaintance. King’s heel-face turn from cold business man to quality boyfriend material seems to come from basically nowhere, he’s just so into Olivia (based on his fantasies about her plus a single party where they spent most of their time apart) that he wants to make over himself to be a better person.

None of these are bad ideas in general–I think the plot fits together quite neatly, in fact, aside from the failed attempt at romance with the best friend–but none of them are given enough time to develop naturally. It’s just rush, rush, rush ahead through the checklist of plot events until we get to the happy ending, but it doesn’t feel earned.

Give this story another 50-60 pages of room for the characters to have personalities and thoughts and feelings, instead of zooming straight to the next conflict, and this could be great.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #37)

#108 – A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, by Jean Thompson

  • Mount TBR: 89/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Even for a thoughtful and ponderous character study novel, this was slow-paced. My interest was low enough in the beginning that I wondered if I would have the mental fortitude to wade through all of this depression and misery to the finish, but fortunately for my sake, events did pick up in the middle for a while.

But ultimately, this is a fairly unrelenting parade of sadness and grief, lightened only by stupid decisions.

As a family saga, it makes its point effectively that women of one generation often reject the norms and values of the one that came before: Evelyn felt trapped by an unwanted marriage and was an indifferent mother at best; her daughter Laura overcompensated by trying to be the best of all Susie Homemakers; and her daughter Grace basically rejected the notion that she had to have goals in life at all, or to stay connected to her family.

Unfortunately for all three of them, the men in their lives were demanding, whiny assholes of one sort or another.

As interesting and valuable as it might be to reframe the Great American Lit Novel of Total Misery–a staple we simply can’t seem to stop producing–with women front and center, this is still mostly about men; how men rule and shape women’s lives and prevent them from being happy. It’s also still the same brand of generic middle-class Americana, look at all these sad white people. Nothing about it felt original or noteworthy.

Many women in different phases of life, with different life experiences, could certainly see themselves in aspects of these characters, and I don’t want to criticize anyone who found some sort of emotional revelation or catharsis within its pages. But I think this story tries and fails to have a hopeful ending, tacked on to the misery, and that left me disappointed.

#109 – Sheltered, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 90/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked it, even if it’s not exactly good. It’s incredibly basic, actually–the plot couldn’t be thinner, and the bad boy/sheltered religious girl dynamic is doing a lot of heavy lifting to get the reader to assume stuff that’s never actually specified.

The writing is often vague and ominous, and spends a lot of time inside Evie’s head where she’s constantly imagining danger and indulging fears that aren’t real, which has the detrimental effect of making me unsure how seriously to take what’s clearly supposed to be the real fear and danger she’s living under–her father’s authoritarian household regime.

Where this story shines, and why I ultimately do like it despite its many flaws, is that the dialogue between Van and Evie captures perfectly the dynamic of two people with wildly different lived experiences somehow coming to realize they’re a great deal alike. It’s awkward and sweet, with a lot of false starts and even more misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, I do believe that these two weirdos are actually falling in love (which is a low bar that so many other romances still fail to clear.)

#110 – Captivated, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 91/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A collection of polished but eclectic stories about sex. How much you “like” these may vary wildly based on what kinks you enjoy reading about, but even when the story’s Thing was not necessarily my Thing, I appreciated that these were well-constructed and vivid little pieces of fiction–I’m tired of reading short “stories” that are really just overblown scenes that have no point, no direction, no closure.

As a collection, though, I feel that a few of them felt out of place with the others, aberrations of tone or genre–in particular, the tale of a dream “machine” that had a Victorian fantasy vibe that was unique among all the stories. Maybe I’m biased because I didn’t like that one nearly as much as some of the others, but I did question why it was included.

Since I just came to this from one of Stein’s novellas, I’m actually impressed by the difference in the quality of the writing–everything felt smoother and more purposeful. Maybe I just had a slightly lackluster title as my first, or maybe she’s just better at crafting short stories than novels or novellas. I have another novel of hers on my TBR from ages ago, based on a recommendation, so I’m definitely interested in reading more.

NaNoWriMo 2021: The “Not Doing It” Announcement

It’s been a stressful year, following a crazy-stressful year before it.

I’m not doing NaNo this year, breaking my six-year streak. I’m perfectly aware that I don’t have to justify this decision to anyone, but since every year on social media I see writers of all stripes agonizing about whether they can manage it and if they should try, I thought it might be worthwhile to write about why I’m choosing not to do it.

When those writers are unsure and asking for advice, I’m generally of the camp that responds, “Try if you want to, it’s no big deal if you don’t win. Any progress is progress.” And beyond that, if somebody tries and hates the experience, then they’ve still learned something about themselves. Most of the time, for most people, I think attempting NaNo is a positive thing, no matter how many words they do or don’t have by December 1st.

But this is not most times, and this year, I am not most people.

This year, I need to rest.

I don’t think it’s an accident that my creative energies have flowed away from writing and towards hand crafts. I’m knitting and working on an embroidery project consistently every day; I’ve produced more sweaters for myself, and more knit Christmas gifts already this year, than ever before, plus I finished the largest needlepoint project I’ve ever attempted. That isn’t to say I’m not keeping up my daily writing habit–I’ve paid for my 4thewords subscription though mid-2022, so I’m using it–but I’m mostly fulfilling my minimum word count with book reviews and journal writing, rather than fiction. I do sometimes have passing ideas for plot bunnies, which I dutifully note down for the future, and occasionally I’ve been rereading and nibbling at the editing for my mostly-finished NaNo20 novel, which is/was supposed to be my next book release, the sequel to Fifty-Five Days.

And that could still happen. Fifty-Five Days took me just short of two years of work spread over a four-year period. This novel isn’t going in the trash any time soon.

But I gave up hope pretty early on this year that I would get back to my yearly publishing schedule. Too much was going on in my life even then, and more has happened since. Plus, it took me a while to recognize how burned out I was from falling into the “lockdown = productivity” mental trap that pushed me to publish Fifty-Five Days in the first place. I’m proud of it, but did I really need to release it last year? Couldn’t it have waited until I was in a better head space?

I’m not there yet. It’s telling that this is my first non-book-review post in over five months (aside from my book-series update, which is easy to maintain) and that even before that, my posting schedule was full of holes. It’s telling that I haven’t had a single idea for any of my ongoing post series in order to revive this blog. It’s telling that when my writer friends on Tumblr started counting down to NaNo, I felt nothing but dread and a vague sense of guilt. It’s telling that I can pump out thousands of words when I sit down to “talk” to myself in a journal entry, but struggle to write anything creative.

I need to rest. NaNoWriMo is a wonderful event and a valuable experience, and it has a strong and supportive community around it that I’ve been happy to be a part of for many years. But this year? I just can’t do it.

And that’s okay.

No matter how much pressure you feel from seeing your friends and fellow writers participating, it’s okay for you not to.

No matter how many times you’ve done NaNo before, it’s okay to take a year (or more) off and break your streak.

No matter how guilty you may feel for letting yourself down…you’re not. Not really. Taking care of yourself is more important, and if that means you need to Not NaNo, then that’s the right decision.

I said that I felt guilty, and a month or so ago when NaNo fever started percolating through my social media feeds, that was true. As we creep ever closer, that guilt has slipped away under the increasing certainty that I’m simply not up for such a challenge. And if somebody else needs to hear that in order to feel better about their own decision not to participate, I’m here for you. We’ll sit this one out together.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #36)

#105 – Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

  • Mount TBR: 86/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not generally a fan of romance novels where the titles are either a character’s name (doesn’t tell me anything about what to expect) or a candid description of the major trope that might attract me to the story (tells me too much, or at least is too blatant.) This title does both! So you’d think that splits the difference and makes it okay, but really, it doesn’t.

This is another one that came to me in a charity bundle, and thus I did not go out of my way to acquire it. But the author is new to me and I’m reading through my backlog, so here we go:

It’s fine. The author’s note at the beginning explains that this is low-angst fluff, and it mostly is. So in terms of delivering what it promises on, A+, it’s precisely what it says on the tin.

The problem I have with it is that it is so “low-angst” that there’s hardly any plot to speak of, with even less conflict to drive it.

They meet. He gets hired. They admit they’re attracted to each other. They give in to that attraction almost immediately. He’s good with the kids, her friends and family like him. Eventually there’s some drama with her ex, but they handle it. They get their happily ever after.

Okay, I genuinely wish more real-life people communicated as clearly and honestly as these characters do, but they don’t get a chance to grow, really, because what conflict is present in the plot is all external–her ex is 99% of it. Their internal conflicts at the start–which they both get over very, very quickly–are “is dating the person who hired me/the person I hired a good idea?” but it’s never really framed as the boss-employee dynamic you’d find in most workplace romances. They never even talk about power dynamics at all, though the set-up is certainly an inversion of the typical real-world power structure: the black woman is the boss and the white man the employee.

Which I do appreciate. But a near-total lack of internal conflict doesn’t make for a riveting plot, and pinning all the external conflict to a single source leads to a pretty predictable conclusion, and honestly the ex is so over-the-top, Grade A asshole that it’s hard to believe, even with the heroine’s explanations and backstory, that she would have ever married him in the first place, he’s that awful.

As a low-angst fluff read, yeah, it’s fine. But in my view, it’s an interesting premise with reasonably likable characters, which suffer from a lack of development due to an absence of conflict to make them grow.

#106 – Thinner, by Richard Bachman

  • Mount TBR: 87/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 44. Why that page? Because the racism graduated from constant use of the g-slur to an n-word joke told by a minor character. (One whom I suspect we’re not supposed to like, but still.)

I’ve always known that King’s relationship to racist ideas in his novels varies from book to book. Many of his works I would not say are particularly racist, and some use racist language in very specific ways as tools, tools that don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the author as a person.

This one, though, if it had somehow been the first King/Bachman novel I had ever read, would have made me say “this is racist garbage” and I never would have touched a single other work.

Now, I know that the g—- curse is a trope as old and tired as the hills, and in 1984 most non-Roma people were not batting an eyelash at it. I still wasn’t educated enough about the subject to bat my own personal eyelashes when this trope showed up more than a decade later in my beloved (but deeply, deeply flawed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’m educated enough now, dammit. I was really having trouble with the constant use of the slur, anywhere from one to ten times a page, but for the sake of finding out where the story was going, I was trying to isolate that issue in my mind from the rest of the book, to acknowledge that it’s a problem but keep it from ruining anything else good about the story.

By page 44, I hadn’t found anything good about the story for it to ruin, then a character said the n-word and I gave up.

I know it’s easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, so take this with however many grains of salt necessary, but I genuinely cannot believe that anybody read this at the time and didn’t instantly know it was Stephen King. It’s certainly got the classic King repetition problem, where you can’t go more than a few paragraphs without reading the same words over and over, and this was a particularly egregious example, because if I have to read “the old g—- man with the rotting nose” one more time, I will scream, I will scream so loud, I will shatter every window in this building. It’s also got the boring-everyman protagonist with the good-but-not-great family that you just know is going to suffer because he screwed up. It’s got the tonal disdain for the upper-class lifestyle combined with the yearning for it–in 44 pages I was also treated to many repetitions of various phrases about the local country club.

It’s just blatantly King all over, and in the worst way possible.

Whatever merit the plot might have had is completely overshadowed for me by the packaging it’s in. The racist, boring, repetitious package. I’ve already DNF’d two other books this month, and I try not to do it so often, but I just can’t keep going with this, it’s turning my stomach already and we haven’t even really gotten to the body horror yet…

#107 – Brave Hearts, by Phoenix Sullivan

  • Mount TBR: 88/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What a mess.

There’s no consistency to this, no romantic arc to follow. I’m not against our leads starting their relationship as a hookup that becomes more, but it stays in a weird, not-really-romantic place for a long time, where they keep having sex as boss/employee without becoming emotionally attached to each other. And then when they do form emotional attachments, it’s more that they’re both projecting their needs and insecurities onto Jasiri the elephant, whom they’re both so invested in, rather than each other.

I was uncomfortable with their extended banter at the beginning, when both of them were dancing around the idea that sex was part of the hiring package that Nicky was/wasn’t offering Peter. But I’m genuinely squicked out by the idea of them deliberately having sex near the elephant’s enclosure to try to bond with her, or to show that life is still worth living? I think I understand what the point was, even though I’m having a hard time describing it, because by that point in the story all of their emotional development was tied to this elephant. And this happens more than once.

Their inability to bond to each other for most of the book seems to rely heavily on their traumatic backstories, but neither is well-developed. Peter’s is an incredibly standard “I’m ex-military and I’ve seen some shit that damaged me,” but Nicky’s is… I don’t really know? So their eventual happy ending feels forced, because I believe they have had lots of sex with each other, but I never once thought they were falling in love. (Also I’m not in love myself with the idea that they only get together once Jasiri has had her own happy ending, and that they get together because they succeeded with Jasiri. She’s not your third wheel, guys, stop basing your personal life choices on her.)

I think the only good thing I can say about the “romance” here–which is incredibly minor–is that our leads did sometimes have bad sex when they weren’t really in the right mood for it, which is something a lot of romance novels pretend never happens, because it spoils the fantasy. Yeah, not all sex is “starfire.” (Which came up a lot as a descriptor here, and honestly if it had only been once, I think that’s fine, but it showed up too often.)

The b-plot with the unscrupulous animal broker seemed thin overall, and it wandered in and out of the story at seemingly odd times. It felt both like an excuse to make this story novel-length without investing more in the actual romance, and an excuse to have Peter be in danger a lot so that Nicky could be upset about it.

Ultimately the problem with this novel is likely that the animals are more important characters in the story than the people, and that’s not what I want from a romance.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #35)

#101 – A Heart in Sun and Shadow, by Annie Bellet

  • Mount TBR: 83/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 18%, which was the start of the chapter that (finally) introduced us to the female lead.

I got this book as part of a charity bundle, and thus had not chosen it specifically or read the blurb prior to starting. With that in mind, I peaced out because I was bored by the incredibly simplistic narrative style and my lack of interest in the flat characters.

If I had even known there was another major character coming, which I didn’t, my complaint would have been “why are we nearly a fifth of the way through the book before she’s introduced?”

The problem is apparently a structural one, now that I’ve read the blurb and skimmed some reviews. The prologue is wholly about Seren, a setup because she’s needed to cause turmoil in the twin brothers’ plot. Then the next chunk of the book (until 18%) is entirely their story, setting up their curse so they can be ready to be the turmoil in Aine’s story, which is apparently the rest of the book.

And to be clear, I didn’t like the twins’ story at all. It was rushed (though now I understand why) and there really wasn’t much to differentiate the personalities of the two, and I didn’t understand/agree with their father’s reaction to the curse, and the idea of these two young men being trapped in a Fae sex fantasy cottage was not appealing to me in any way and left me with logistical questions, frustrated with what I was supposed to be inferring or not based on the vague descriptions of their goings-on.

I didn’t even get to the end that so many other reviewers object so strongly to, but since I peeked at the spoilers, yeah, if I had read the whole thing, I still would have given it one star for that nonsense, so I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty for giving up early.

#102 – The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

  • Mount TBR: 84/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

If you had handed me this book with a fake cover listing a different author, I would not have been able to point out the lie.

My first Allende work was her memoir/ode to her daughter, Paula, and I was captivated by her vivid language and honest emotion. From there I kept my eye open for more of her work in my secondhand-sale scouring, and turned up Daughter of Fortune, which I found good but not great–but it was only my first fiction read of hers, the others could certainly be better, right?

Not this one. This has none of the vibrancy or honesty of either of those works. It’s a dry, disjointed tale with flat, often nonsensical characters, and a plot that never seemed to be going anywhere. (DNF just shy of halfway through, by the way. I was bored.)

If Daughter of Fortune was a beloved grandmother spinning me a tale of her younger years, and Paula a grieving mother laying out her pain with urgency and clarity, then The Japanese Lover is a bored professor three weeks from retirement phoning in her lectures until the school year is over.

I got nothing from this, and as the story went on it felt like a chore to keep reading. Nearly everyone in it is miserable, but their misery isn’t particularly compelling or interesting; again, because the historical aspects of it amount to dry recitations of the ills of the world (racism, concentration camps, human trafficking, I could keep going but I won’t) without any depth or insight into the characters those ills are attached to.

#103 – Undercover Bromance, by Lyssa Kay Adams

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Just like the first book, this is still fun but also serious, and surprisingly lighthearted considering some of the heavy subject matter involved.

What did it improve upon, for me? The in-universe novel that the book club is reading only has one excerpt included, at the climax where it will do the most good, instead of multiple sections scattered throughout the novel, which I found distracting because I didn’t think the fake romance was as good as the real story! (This excerpt also seemed a little overwrought and heavy-handed, but it’s also supposed to be the Big Moment for a story we haven’t actually read, so it makes sense that I didn’t find it compelling–I couldn’t be invested.)

I also like how this is tackling a different subgenre of romance while aiming for the same tone, to keep it a unified series. The first book was a save-the-marriage/second-chance romance mashup, this is romantic suspense.

What stayed exactly the same and I wish it hadn’t? I still don’t care for The Russian as a stereotype and the associated potty-level humor. It will just never be my thing. He got a twinge more development this time, which I appreciate, but I’m not clamoring for “his” book any time soon.

What’s not so great about this novel? Um, the romantic suspense. The whole justice-warrior, “ra ra let’s take down the predator” plot never quite gelled for me, possibly because the humor and lightheartedness of the book’s tone made it hard to take any actual danger seriously–and there really wasn’t much physical danger at all, it was all about ruining careers, not losing lives. (Which, yeah, is bad, but not really in the cheesy spy-craft way the plot was going for, with the introduction of the mysterious Noah and his high-tech van.)

That being said, I do like some of the side-plot fallout of this being the main plot–I felt that the strain between Liv and her friend Alexis as the story unfolded was brilliantly realized, and understandable from both sides of their divide.

My other major complaint is that while I love the banter and general cattiness between our leads, I don’t really feel like the ultimate source of conflict between them–Braden’s “lie” about his father–actually justifies Liv’s reaction. I see how it’s supposed to work, the setup is all there plain as day, but lying about a deep family secret, a secret he’s kept from literally everyone, isn’t the same as oh, say, lying about your income to look more appealing, or lying about dating other people, or any of the thousand other things people lie about all the time to new-ish romantic partners.

Of course, the ultimate happy-ending point is that her reaction wasn’t justified, and they fix it, but even in the moment I didn’t think it worked as their potential relationship-ending issue. When placed against the backdrop of them working together to bring down a sexual predator, it just seemed flimsy.

#104 – Ten B.S. Medical Tropes that Need to Die TODAY: …and What to Do Instead, by Samantha Keel

  • Mount TBR: 85/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Short, mostly to the point, reasonably informative. As a writer myself, I wondered if I should place any bets before reading about which of the ten I’ve already used incorrectly myself–and the answer ended up being, one, sort of. I did use an mTBI (that’s mild Traumatic Brain Injury) to knock an antagonist unconscious, briefly, once. I don’t feel particularly guilty for doing it, as he was trying to kill my protagonists at the time, and this wasn’t the action-hero, “I don’t kill them I just knock them out” version of the trope. And yeah, my unconscious dude may have suffered some sort of long-lasting repercussions from that injury, only he never shows up in the story again so it doesn’t matter!

I tell this story not to pat myself on the back (much) but to demonstrate that this is a really basic, bare-bones take on the subject, containing lots of information that any given person might already know. I already know amnesia, shock, and comas, for instance, are nothing like how they’re portrayed in media. I already know that knocking people out as an alternative to straight-up killing them is much more dangerous than how it’s usually portrayed (despite resorting to that myself, the once.) I know CPR is far less successful in real life than it is on TV. I know most of the time, it’s a bad idea to try to remove a bullet from someone’s body, you’ll do more harm than good.

And even the stuff I didn’t know, I don’t feel like was covered in great enough depth to be useful to me beyond the basic idea of “avoid this trope.”

Which isn’t to say this isn’t a valuable or useful (free) resource for writers less experienced overall, or in the field of medicine particularly. And I’ve read some novels that definitely would have benefited if the authors had read this, or something very much like it, beforehand.

But it’s a jumping-off point, not a comprehensive guide, because the “…what to do instead” parts of the book are full of suggestions that would all need further research to make viable if someone actually wanted to implement them. And this guide does say “do your research!” at several opportune points.

And since the text both opens and closes with a call to sign up for a free email course with further information, honestly reading this felt a bit like I was being advertised to, in a much more blatant way than most books do. (I mean, they’re all advertisements to read more by that author, right, if you liked them? But the core value should be the entertainment or information they provide.) Whereas this felt like a teaser for the (presumably) more in-depth email course, though as I haven’t taken it, I can’t be sure.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #34)

#98 – The Vampire’s Last Dance, by Deanna Chase

  • Mount TBR: 80/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have three major problems with this novella.

One, the humor does not amuse me. I don’t find sex-based humor at all offensive as a general category, but I do require it to be funny, and not just slapstick, crude, or juvenile. Nothing in this book made me laugh.

Two, our heroine never had any sensible motivations for her actions. The plot is driven by her helping people she barely knows for no real reason; she constantly gets distracted from what she “should” be doing by how hot her would-be vampire boyfriend is, so she’s not even very successful at helping for most of the story; and her own personal obstacle (the curse) is ignored until the very end, when fixing the problems of the people she barely knows also conveniently solves her problem as well.

The hero’s motivation for hanging around is painfully obvious at all times–he wants to get in the heroine’s pants, and never gets more motivation (or personality) than that. But at least his motivation makes sense in context. He even asks her at one point why she’s going out of her way for someone she’s only just met, so it’s not like the author wasn’t aware of how thin this plot was, it just got lampshaded instead of solved.

Problem three could be broken down into two issues, but I feel they’re closely related. The world-building is shoddy, and the overall pace of the story is too fast. These two factors combined to make me feel like this wasn’t a first-in-series book, like I should have already known most of this stuff (like how magic and curses worked, which was never really explained) and at least half the characters, many of whom are introduced as names with no description or relationships attached (I saw “Jonathon” at least twice before the narrative finally told me he was Chad’s boyfriend, only I barely knew who Chad was either, for example.) I never felt grounded. It all felt very soap-opera-ish, with a large cast of thin characters doing silly/stupid/over-the-top things for the drama of it, and for no other reason.

#99 – Listen to Me, by Kristen Proby

  • Mount TBR: 81/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I think this romance is more interested in its faintly ludicrous premise, and setting up the rest of the series, than it is delivering on the actual romantic relationship contained in its pages.

I’m not against the idea of friends going into business together (they do all the time, even if a lot of people would caution that it’s a bad idea) but this restaurant situation is too cute to be true, in the interest of providing a stage for the “rock star slums it as a gig musician” setup. And a stage for constantly having Talking Heads conversations with the four other female friends who obviously will eventually get their own books, and it’s so incredibly transparent who’s next even before I got to the ending, which is a happy ending for our main couple, paired with a blatant fishhook of a cliffhanger for the upcoming couple.

The four friends are given physical descriptions and names, so they’re clearly intended to be different people, but for the most part they’re interchangeable–they’re all sassy, tough-love friends who are uniformly amazing at whatever their role is in the restaurant, workaholics who want the others to have time off but won’t take it themselves, and unquestionably devoted to the heroine in a way that I found both cloying and envy-worthy, as I am currently an adult woman with few close friends, and it’s true, it really does get harder to make them the older you get.

And notice how I haven’t said anything about the hero yet? He’s fine. I like his sense of humor, and the banter could be pretty good sometimes. He’s most of the reason this gets a second star. But he’s just fine, I’m not swooning for him, even though rock stars are definitely a thing with me.

But even though he gets roughly equal screen time with the heroine, I’ve come out the far end of this book with the impression that it’s really about her, and her circle of friends, and their not-believable business venture, and making sure the reader knows they’re all incredibly Tough Independent Successful Women who just happen to also want romance in their lives. Any minor differences in their personalities don’t really come through in her half of the book, because there’s five of them, and half the book simply isn’t enough time to make them all into real characters, apparently. (The hero’s friends fared slightly better, because there were fewer of them, just two primary friends, and their significant others, who were bit players and that’s fine. They didn’t have to try to wrangle equal screen time with each other like the Four Besties did.)

And because I want to add one more minor complaint that doesn’t fit anywhere else: these were some underwhelming sex scenes. They felt really dry and mechanical, even when the lovebirds were ostensibly professing their deep and profound love for each other towards the end. I never got any sense of passion from them, so the scenes were just awkward, until they usually ended abruptly. One in particular also started abruptly, and with a pretty inappropriate lead-in: the hero tells the heroine about his best friends’ tragic backstory, which I won’t spoil but is really seriously tragic and two pages later, minutes of story time and with no scene transition, he’s getting a blow job. Complete tonal whiplash.

Not going on with this series.

#100 – Call Down the Hawk, by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Mount TBR: 82/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

When I heard about this book, I was excited. Adam was my favorite character of the Raven Cycle, with Ronan being a close second, and by the end of the story I was less invested in Blue/Gansey, both as a relationship pairing and as the focus of the main plot line. I didn’t hate them or anything, I just loved Pynch more.

Of course I was thrilled at the idea of a Ronan-based trilogy followup.

But then the preview chapters dropped, and I read them, and I was just…not happy. It wasn’t that they were bad, and it wasn’t even that they messed (much) with my hopeful headcanon of a happy ending for the ship. Sure, I’d allowed myself to read snippets of Tumblr fanfiction here and there, but I wasn’t reeling from disappointment that these boys were not living the life of eternal happiness and sunshine that many fic writers were giving them.

This somewhat inexplicable unhappiness caused me to put off reading the book for quite a while.

Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I don’t have a good explanation for why I didn’t like the beginning then. Now, it seems obvious how the whole thing fits together.

While I could lodge a very personal gripe that I wished Adam got more page time, this story isn’t about their relationship (which I’m sure did disappoint some of those fic writers, somewhere.) It’s about Ronan, and dreaming, and the end of the world.

I think what I love most about this is how dangerous dreaming feels, in a way I don’t remember feeling from TRC. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, maybe I was focused on other characters, or maybe the danger truly wasn’t as evident from the actions of Ronan in that story–and especially in Opal which I just read recently and have much clearer memories of. Dreaming then felt experimental and wild, sure, but not really that dangerous to the “real” world.

CDtH, in true Ronan fashion, gives the finger to the idea that dreaming could ever be safe, and by extension, dreamers aren’t, either.

I started to put together some pieces early on when people with familiar faces started showing up, and I have some unconfirmed theories that will have to wait for the next book (or the one after that, but hopefully not never.) But I like the direction the story is taking, especially in the contrast between Ronan and Declan, who surprised me with how much I ended up liking him by the end.

If I have any true complaints about the quality of this book that can’t be reduced to obviously personal biases and gripes, it’s the ending. I like some aspects of the ending very much, even for being a cliffhanger, but the mystery character of Bryde is not one of them. After all the buildup to who he is and why he won’t reveal himself, I was genuinely expecting some sort of revelation upon his appearance–I won’t bore anybody with the spattering of theories I had about him as the story progressed, as apparently none of them are true. But then he shows up, and he’s just a dude, and there’s no obvious reason for him to have ever been a mystery man in the first place.

Still love it. Still want the next book in the series now-now-now, though since the third one isn’t out yet I may hold off a while just to make the wait before the end of the story shorter.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #33)

#92 – The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

  • Mount TBR: 74/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I’ve read a fair bit of Lovecraft, I don’t believe I’ve read the exact story this is based on/rebuttal to. If I have, it must have been long ago, because I don’t remember it clearly enough that the story synopsis sounded familiar.

With that in mind, I was reading this more as a generalized rebuttal to Lovecraft’s rampant, vitriolic, baked-in racism, and I feel the story is quite successful at using the broader mythos without buying into the deeply problematic meanings behind much of it.

As a complete work on its own…it was choppy, and I never felt like I “got” Malone as a POV character with the same depth as Tom, who I liked as a just-getting-by con man, and loved to be terrified by after he’d made the switch to evil. But Malone’s story perspective felt weaker, even as I realized it was a necessary shift.

The ending felt too fast and neat for me, but I remember that being true at the end of several Lovecraft stories as well, like “there was the cosmic horror but it’s over now, so let’s just dust up real quick like nothing happened.” So this criticism may be more reflective of the author echoing the source material, and not a new flaw.

I’m glad I read it, and I continue to be glad that creators are spinning Lovecraftian nightmares of their own, divorced from the original author’s intent, because I dig the vibe. But I think I might have subconsciously been expecting something a little bit more amazing than what I got.

#93 – The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole

  • Mount TBR: 75/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Barely worth two stars, but there was just enough that I liked to save it from the worst rating.

What works: I loved Twitch, and Clodio’s “intro to wizardry” chapter in the woods. I was both impressed and surprised by the inversion of a classic trope midway through the story, though I wish it was in a better setting with better characters so I actually cared about its results. And even if I didn’t like the plot that got us there, I actually do sort of like the ending–Heloise displays a radical level of acceptance of her new situation that may not have been earned by her development up to that point, but definitely makes her a different brand of “hero” than your more standard teenage-girl fantasy protagonists.

What didn’t work: the writing style is repetitive and so devoid of subtlety I felt like I was being talked down to by the author. “Hey, did you get it? Did you see what I did there? Let me say it again in a slightly different way (or not) three pages later to make sure you didn’t miss my Big Message.” Heloise is a terrible protagonist, because she is the cause of literally every problem in the book that’s smaller than world-building level stuff. She isn’t believable as a sixteen-year-old almost-woman, no matter how many times the narrative claims she’s nearly an adult; she acts like a toddler by never doing as she’s told and constantly running away, literally, from the messes she’s created. Especially in a fairly standard low-tech fantasy village setting, sixteen year old girls really should be “almost adults” with the level of working responsibility that puts them nearly at running their own households–even more so, given that this is also a fairly standard patriarchy, so a woman’s place is in the home.

But Heloise rejects that in an extremely standard “I’m not like other girls” way, she wants to have adventures, or at the very least work outside the home, though I’m not convinced she really wants that because she doesn’t actually seem to help out at all with her father’s trade, as we see her friend Basina doing.

Moving on to other less than ideal stuff: I see many reviewers lauding the queer rep here, but I’m not one of them. There are two canonically queer characters and one Confused Love Interest; only one of these three characters survives, so Bury Your Gays is rearing its head here, even if this is supposed to be good, allowable rep that doesn’t have to skirt outdated content standards.

And back to the writing style, the action scenes are just awful. Which is especially bad because the entire climax is one long, improbable, unearned gauntlet of supposedly heroic action. I simply do not believe that Heloise, our whiny baby of a heroine, is going to endure the apparently agonizing pain of her injuries and manage to actually fight a demon under any circumstances. Her injuries as described are so severe that I genuinely think most people would just pass out, at least once any initial surge of adrenaline wore off. But the fight sequence takes ages and constantly repeats how much pain she’s in, which parts of her body are no longer remotely functional, and how she’s digging for determination to manage it. What determination? What reserves of mental and emotional strength have we ever seen this overgrown three-year-old display prior to this? And now you suddenly want me to believe she’s an action hero?

Whatever promise this story idea holds as a fantasy world, it suffers for lack of good execution, because basically every moving part of this machine has been mishandled.

#94 – Opal, by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Mount TBR: 76/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

As it’s been several years since I read The Raven King, I’ve forgotten at least some of the details that would have made this make more sense to me than it did. But since this is just a brief interlude between the end of that series and the beginning of the new one, and it’s told from Opal’s perspective, it’s also okay that it didn’t entirely make sense, because she’s a goat-dream-girl-thing and she pointedly doesn’t understand a lot of things about the “real” world.

I found that alien perspective, combined with the ethereal nature of Stiefvater’s prose, enchanting. It also helps that Adam is my favorite character in the series, with Ronan being a close second–as the books moved farther along, my interest in Gansey and Blue waned as the Pynch ship picked up speed.

For what it is, a little teaser, it’s good. I maybe wish it was a little less deliberately obscure about a few things, but I understand (or at least assume I understand) the reasoning behind leaving some of the important stuff vague.

I can’t decide, though, if visiting this tiny addition to the Raven Cycle world makes me want to jump right along to Call Down the Hawk, or revisit the original series, because it has been a while since I read them, and I haven’t read any of them more than once. Which is a shame, really.

#95 – Prince in Leather, by Holley Trent

  • Mount TBR: 77/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is one of those reads that was so disjointed, I hardly know where to start unpicking the tangle of my thoughts about it. So let me try a point-by-point list format.

World-building: Sucks. Even if we set aside the weird grafting of pseudo-Irish fae onto a biker gang (hey, genre-mixing is fun sometimes, I applaud the creativity if not the end result) there’s a slapdash quality to everything, curses and goddesses and fairy mythos piled together without anything resembling a plan. I admit my paranormal fantasy reading is limited to one big-name author and several lesser-known indies, so pardon my comparison to the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews: but this story is like the first KD book, only with even less explanation for anything. (I loved the whole series ultimately but I did feel the world-building in the first two novels could have been clearer.)

Characters: Too many and too shallow. And I mean waaaaay too many. There’s the main couple, fine, but they’ve also got a third wheel grafted onto them, sort of. And that third wheel has two fated mates, apparently, and part of the story involves them, and also like six other characters surrounding them. And there’s twelve members of the gang total, which isn’t unreasonable in theory, but taking a whole chapter to randomly assign two more of them their mates from among the heroine’s incredibly tiny circle of friends felt excessive and clunky. And there’s a subplot about figuring out the heroine’s fae lineage, which introduces several of her family members, and the first one we meet (her grandpa) is kind of entertaining and probably justified his place in the story, but everyone else shows up for ten seconds and acts like they own the place (story.) But I know nothing about these people! Why are they important?

Plot: what plot? No, seriously, what happens? There is no overarching story line beyond the romance, it’s just a bunch of hooligans freeing the heroine from her curse (sort of) before the end of the first act, when I was under the impression that was a serious obstacle in her life, and then they just spend the rest of the book gallivanting around picking off minor bad guys and getting a tiny bit roughed up by Queen Bitch’s guards. Which I guess was supposed to be the main plot, that the romance is putting the heroine in danger from her lover’s mom? Only it never felt imminent enough to make it an actual threat, and so much else was going on that had nothing to do with it. Or nothing to do with anything, as far as I can tell.

Romance: blarg. Fated mates is not my favorite trope, but this wasn’t even trying to pretend the protagonists had any chemistry, or reason to be together beyond “he says so,” or even the slightest bit of sexual tension. The hero is just a gross man-child who steamrolls the heroine in nearly every way possible, including making his second-in-command a part of their sexual proceedings, not explicitly against her will, but definitely with a lot of coaxing to get her comfortable with the idea. I’m not at all against kink in general or threesomes in particular, but all of this felt like it was entirely out of left field, and not justified in any way by their personalities (what little they have) or any sort of thematic necessity.

When I got to the end matter and found out this book is the first in its duology, but not the first in the story universe, the shoddy world-building and vague feeling that I’d somehow been dropped in the middle of something unfamiliar became more understandable. But either it should be able to stand on its own anyway, or there should be some sort of indication in the front matter that this isn’t the beginning of the story, and I should not start here.

#96 – A Thief in the Nude, by Olivia Waite

  • Mount TBR: 78/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Wow. I just love finding nuggets of gold unexpectedly from old freebie bundles, I had no idea I was sitting on a novella this charming!

I love so much about this–the artsy-craftsy vibes of both leads, the descriptive language, the palpable chemistry, the subversion of so many tropes I couldn’t begin to list them all, the unconventional happy ending. Just about the only thing I would have liked more if done differently was the pacing–this is a novella, it was a whirlwind sort of romance that jumped to “I love you” after very few days of story time–but even that has its charm, because it comes naturally from the intensity of this secret fling and the extra layer of muse/painter to their relationship.

This author was actually on my TBR already for a much more recent novel, but I’m glad to see an older work so good, it gives me hope that they’re all going to be worth reading–the bundle included the other book in this series, I’m going to read that next.

#97 – At His Countess’ Pleasure, by Olivia Waite

  • Mount TBR: 79/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Not as good as its predecessor, mostly because it felt unbalanced as a story. The beginning started off with a not-love-match marriage gradually turning passionate, which was great, I was hooked. But then partway through the subject matter turned extraordinarily heavy as the heroine dealt with infertility issues. (Which, to be fair, their was a content warning about for those who wish to avoid it.) I have no problems reading about it, but I was disappointed by how that’s the only thing the story became about, and everything else bent to make infertility the main plot line–which sacrificed the more dynamic and lighthearted “married first, falling in love second” story that it seemed we were promised in the beginning.

I think there would have been room for both of these plot if this had been a full novella rather than a novella, and if the second half of the story had given the hero more to do than show up for a sex scene but be almost entirely absent otherwise.

And the epilogue…honestly, it felt trite, because this is by no means the first story where the infertile heroine contrives some way to fill her life with “replacement” children, and this result for this story felt like it hadn’t been foreshadowed properly–again, a lack of space in such a short narrative, I’m assuming.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #32)

#90 – If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio

  • Mount TBR: 73/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

It was great, until it wasn’t, which unfortunately seemed to be the end of Act II (of five.)

Everything that charmed me in the beginning–and this did suck me in immediately–wore painfully thin by the end. Part of its ultimate lack of charm can be attributed to me not being the correct audience for this book–I did some musical theater once upon a time, but I’m not a theater nerd by any stretch of the imagination; I’ve read Shakespeare, but only a few things beyond what was required of me by school; I did go to a liberal arts college, but not one so dark, dramatic, or elitist as the fictional setting here. Also, I’m possibly just too old for this nonsense anymore, I’m finding that every time I try dark academia since I fell in love with The Secret History, it’s generally disappointing, even the other Donna Tartt novel I read, so keep in mind the personal bias of this unfavorable review.

I got tired of the endless Shakespeare monologues fairly quickly, even when it was clear that they were relevant to the narrative. I got tired of the over-the-top personalities of the main cast, though I will say I was impressed by how efficiently the seven of them were introduced and differentiated–wrangling that many characters is difficult and not often done well. But as the story wore on, I waited for them to get deeper than their stereotypes, and for the most part, they didn’t.

By the end, I was skimming past the Shakespeare and a good chunk of any given paragraph of normal text, just searching for keywords to tell me the plot was unfolding as I expected. This didn’t provide any surprises for me but one–I had figured out who committed the murder easily, but not who had assisted them in covering it up initially–and I saw the ending coming a mile away. But it felt predictable in a boring, “is it over yet” kind of way, not in the satisfying, “aha! I was right” kind of way.

Though most of the problems I found could have multiple solutions in theory, I think they stem from the same source–I think the story simply takes too long to get where its going. The murder happens too early, cutting off the high levels of tension too soon, as I never felt the post-murder story reached that same level of suspense. The melodramatic characters wear thin because they’re onstage too long without further development. The Shakespearean passages become a crutch to pad out the narrative with flavor but no extra meaning that hasn’t been conveyed by the plot.

There’s an argument to be made, certainly, for many genres of fiction being indulgent and melodramatic, and I’m not going to say dark academia shouldn’t be one of them. But I found this story to be too weak to support the level of indulgence and melodrama it was draped in, like heavy velvet curtains attached to a rod too delicate to carry their weight. The cracks in the wall where the supports are coming loose show clearly.

#91 – Puck Me Baby, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This series continues to be good, but to not quite live up to the OMG reaction I had to reading the first entry.

I think this could have actually been a little longer, as neither lead felt as developed as they could be. Amanda didn’t have much of a personality beyond the flaw she was labeled with–“too nice”–and the whining she did on the phone/in texts with Diana. Which is at least consistent, because when she was the other half of Diana’s conversations in the previous book, she was also pretty bland and whiny then.

Alexi fares a bit better, since he at least has the baby trauma that becomes his dark secret he “lies” about to Amanda, and he’s got the career/personal life dichotomy of being the Big Scary Guy on the ice but not at home. Only the story didn’t do much to deal with whether or not Amanda should be worried about what kind of guy Alexi really is, and we as readers know he’s pretty much a giant teddy bear who desperately wants to be a dad.

The pregnancy itself takes up so much space that it’s a third main character long before the actual child is born, and to an extent I get that, because it’s the reason they’re having a relationship at all, whether it’s the friend/co-parent one they strive for at the beginning, or the sexy/romantic one they end up with. But because the baby takes up all that room, and because the timeline jumps forward noticeably every so often so we can end the story with the HEA + birth, the actual development of the romance is short-changed, almost to the point of nonexistence. I believe these two are in lust with each other, but not really in love. I had hoped more would be done with that in the late game, like if Alexi had said something to the effect of “I want to stay with you even if we lose this baby”–which would have also done more to address his past trauma. (Which I did notice Amanda never invited him to talk about after their fight, a glaring omission.)

I feel like this story is almost there. It’s pretty close to achieving what it set out to do, it just falls short in a few places.

(And I think Hoopla has at least one more of the series available on audio, so I’ll keep going until I run out, but probably won’t buy any further entries. I’m no longer hoping they’ll be as good as Hot as Puck, but they are at least solidly entertaining.)