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.)

This Week, I Read… (2021 #31)

#87 – Pretty Face, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’m not sure where the magic, likability, or personality of the first book in the series went, because it certainly isn’t here anymore.

I’ll admit my personal biases up front–despite the fact that I’ve read quite a few of them, age-difference romance is not a trope I favor. Nor are coworker romances (though they can be tolerable sometimes, I often find the power dynamics gross) or a-hole heroes.

So I’m striking out on all the tropes this particular installment relies on–I didn’t know the a-hole hero in the first book was setting a pattern for the whole series (and it obviously was, looking at the blurbs for the future books.)

But a lot of my problems with this book don’t even stem from the tropes I don’t care for. This one felt far more “British” than the last one, by which I mean, I’m an American reader and even if I loosely understand how the peer system is set up, I’ll simply never understand fully its political and social implications, so having everyone in this book be related to someone hoity-toity and constantly referencing a family feud generations old that turns out to just be a shady business deal…I’m over it. I never cared. On top of that, I felt like the references to famous places were much more heavy-handed here, and while I have been to England, I haven’t been to London, so they didn’t mean much to me.

I buy the central conflict of “we can’t be in a relationship for these rock-solid social, personal, and professional reasons.” Because both our leads do have excellent reasons not to bang. But they throw all of those out a window really quickly when a Depressing Plot Twist leaves the hero vulnerable, and the nonsexual part of her supporting him through it was actually really sweet, but then of course they go home and bang. I’ve run into this behavior pattern before in romances, and I’m not even saying it’s not realistic, people seek comfort. But I generally don’t think it’s healthy, and these two have way more obstacles than most standing between them. And I definitely think these two got in the sack sooner than their previous dynamics warranted.

All of that felt rushed, like we have to have them together quickly, because the meat of the story is apparently how they a) fail to keep it secret and b) fail to manage any of the other consequences of their impulsive decision. Most of the middle of the book is a train wreck with a Snidely Whiplash-esque villain metaphorically tying our leads to the tracks via social media pressure, since he’s runs a sleazy tabloid.

The thing that’s ultimately saving this from being a one-star disappointment of a sequel is the final personal conflict between the leads, which involves a different Depressing Plot Twist, but does display how far the hero has come from being the a-hole he started as. (Unlike in the first novel, where I felt that Richard displayed no real change in self from getting together with Lainie, Luc definitely gets a full personal arc here as a result of his relationship.) I think it all played out in both a realistic and satisfying manner–even if I don’t think their romance was handled well in the beginning, as rushed and shaky as it was, it definitely gets a solid ending.

Going to give this series one chance to bounce back–let’s see if I can learn to like the next grumpy hero.

#88 – Making Up, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Better for me than the second book, barely, but definitely not as good as the first–more like a 2.5, but I’ll round up for the sake of Goodreads’ lack of half-stars.

Plot gripes: thin and rushed. When I went to record the page count (I keep track of my monthly totals) I was shocked, yet not really surprised in retrospect, that this book is over a hundred pages shorter than its predecessor. The chemistry between the leads is hand-waved with a “they used to be frenemies in school” backstory that’s eluded too frequently but not filled in until their climactic get-together moment. (I think ultimately that’s a good choice, but it does make the beginning feel a bit empty.) Their relationship jumps right to “we’re having sex but we don’t know about the rest of it” and stays there until the final conflict, both of them refusing to address their status in any meaningful way. And then when things look dire, hero makes a quick decision and they eventually get their HEA. That epilogue was terrible, though.

Character gripes: Trix is fairly solid and gets the most development. Leo’s is much shallower, and his final decision not to take the big opportunity he’s been granted in favor of fighting for their relationship feels a bit hackneyed, since we never really learn why he’s so passionate about his art/makeup artistry in the first place (in contrast to getting at least a cursory explanation of Trix’s childhood fascination with circus arts.) The subplot with Leo’s jealousy about the fake, reality-show narrative of Trix’s romance with Jono was fine with me–he acknowledged that it was his feelings and not reality that was the problem. The subplot with Jono’s actual romance with Cat was awful, and Cat was awful, and I get that she’s supposed to be a bona fide Mean Girl, but I don’t think she added anything to the story overall. I could see so clearly how she was only there to throw wrenches in the plot, and if she was supposed to be a foil for Trix (ie, “look at how badly Cat is coping with her trauma vs. Trix”) then it would have worked better if she weren’t an entirely unsympathetic shrew of a person who does nothing but be mean to everyone and make constant trouble.

Even though there were parts of this I did genuinely like, there were plenty I didn’t, and after three books by this author I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t vibe with her style. Shelving her under “glad she works for other readers but not so much for me.”

#89 – The Heart Principle, by Helen Hoang

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I was looking forward to this a great deal, having loved the first two books. And this book isn’t terrible, but it’s not what I expected based on its predecessors.

A lot of the same elements are there–a main character with autism and a narrative dealing with how it affects their life. A romantic partner who accepts them. Other people who don’t, necessarily. Communication issues. So the core structure is there.

But the problem with this story is that it’s actually two stories, and I don’t feel like those two stories mesh together well.

The first half of the book is solidly a romance and I was definitely on board to give this book the third five-star rating of the series. Then it shifts drastically away from the romance for the next 40-ish percent of the book–in fact, the hero barely appears at all. Quan’s POV chapters become shorter and fewer while the narrative focuses on Anna, and she barely mentions him, because her life becomes a hell of constant caregiving, family drama, emotional blackmail, gaslighting…I mean, I’m not against romances dealing with heavy, serious topics, but this is a plunge into such a severe emotional misery that Anna’s narrator really did sound like she was crying many times. (Listening to the audiobook may have exacerbated how miserable it felt, actually, because her performance was so good, by which I mean, dramatically heart-breaking. I might have been able to keep a little more distance between myself and the text if I’d been reading words on a page instead.)

The last ten percent is by far the worst part of the story, because while the main characters are back together in what appears to be a romance, it didn’t strike me as particularly romantic, because it’s a quick-and-dirty summary of Anna’s continued mental illness (autistic burnout) and slow recovery, again with very little actual presence of Quan, who is quietly being her caretaker in the background with absolutely no fanfare (story-wise) like she got when she was taking care of her dad. That, even more than Quan’s relative lack of screen time in Part II, really felt off and even angered me, because while he’s clearly more emotional capable of being a caretaker–he basically said so early on, though not in direction comparison to Anna–the breezy, “let’s wrap up literal months of story time in a few quick chapters” pace really does him a disservice by minimizing his role in Anna’s progress.

After building him up through the first half as a hero with some baggage to carry, but basically a really stand-up dude, the rest of the book gives the impression that Quan’s journey is secondary to Anna’s, that he’s not as worthy of development, not as important. And I think that’s crap. He deserved better.

Though the audiobook did not include the author’s note that people reviewing the print edition have been mentioning gave context to the story, I did skim an interview with the author that said much the same thing (apparently,) that this book is “half a memoir.” And while I recognize that writing about such personal topics may be liberating and cathartic, and I mean no disrespect or insult to her or anything she’s gone through…I expected a romance, and I only got that for half the book. This is being marketed as a romance following on the heels of two other wildly successful romances previous, and I don’t feel ultimately that this story is enough of a romance to meet my expectations. The first half of the book is what I wanted, most of the second half is still a good story but not a romance at all, and the final part is simply bad.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #30)

#85 – Luck in the Shadows, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Mount TBR: 71/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Let’s be honest: 5 stars for characters I fell in love with, 3 stars for plot and narrative style.

It’s been a long time since I read Flewelling’s The Tamir Triad and liked it just fine, but that was before I got into book reviewing, so I’m actually curious to see how “good” I think they are when I reread. Which, now, I’m probably going to do. I hadn’t realized that this series was set in the same universe, mostly because I picked this up on the strength of recommendations like “it’s fantasy that’s queer without the queerness being the main focus”–which is true–and “if you like lovable rogues, do I have a new main character for you to swoon over.” Which is also true, and a completely fair assessment of Seregil.

Maybe I wasn’t swooning, exactly, but I am in a sort of love with him, and Alec, and Nysander, and more of the minor characters than not.

The structure? While this never descends to the level of true head-hopping, the omniscient narrator and choppy scene breaks do make for a disjointed style that more recent fantasy mostly seems to eschew. (Not that I’m a great fan of alternating/multiple first-person narrators either, because authors so rarely manage to differentiate their voices properly, but that’s a separate complaint.) Sometimes I would find myself taken out of my reading by a scene break I felt came at a poorly chosen time, or the author’s tendency to try to end chapters on a quip that didn’t always land. And the ending is a giant, obvious, ominous, and possibly unearned cliffhanger.

But that’s getting into plot territory, so I’ll make my case for my complaints there as well–the first half (or maybe 60%) is clearly a sort of coming-of-age story for Alec, and also building the groundwork for the future romance. If I had been reading this when it was new, I would have classified that romance as “possible but I’m not sure it’s actually going to happen” and that’s definitely what the text supports. With the benefit of reading this more than twenty years after publication, even though I’ve been exposed to minimal spoilers, I do know that the romance does happen. And that part of the novel is slow-paced and filled with excellent character work.

But the back half is a complicated intrigue plot that introduces new characters to be villains, then discards them as their relevance declines, with surprising frequency. I don’t think the conspiracy itself is the problem, only that it seems mostly disconnected from the earlier parts of the book, not properly foreshadowed. And most of what I did feel was foreshadowed well was the stuff that didn’t get fully resolved–the “evil” nobleman and his necromancer accomplice, the magic object that made Seregil deathly ill, and Nysander’s role in/knowledge of those goings-on. I get that we have to leave something for future books, but since this was clearly The Important Thing, the conspiracy against the throne seemed almost like an afterthought, like it was just an elaborate exercise to show Alec had learned to handle himself. While that’s a valid resolution to his coming-of-age story, I think it needed to be more evident in the early plot, even when the other characters were hiding their purpose from Alec for his own protection. Did I need to be kept in the dark the same way he was, as a reader?

All that being said, I still love these characters and very much want to know what happens next. I was just lamenting with Shadowmarch not that long ago that I shouldn’t have collected the whole series before I started reading, on the strength of usually loving its author–I plan to donate the lot of them, without reading the other three. But here, I don’t own the next book already, and now I regret that, because I’d like to keep going immediately.

#86 – A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

  • Mount TBR: 72/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 23%. I really thought I was going to keep going on this one, because it did have a promising opening, but since I ended up reading this on my phone on-the-go while I read another physical book concurrently, that turned out to be a much better fantasy work, I don’t really want to go back to/on with this one.

Honestly, I’m just having terrible luck with the freebies I’ve gotten from Tor’s newsletter. I haven’t been picking them up lately, because I keep reading novellas I don’t end up liking, or first-in-series novels like this one that I either don’t finish, or if I do, that don’t make me want to pick up the next book. Which is, of course, the point of the publisher offering these freebies.

Anyway.

When the book started, I was like, “Yes! We’re doing monks with an alien philosophy for me to learn about! Cool!” So I put up with the lack of definition to several new fantasy words the text threw at me, thinking I’d figure them out when I had more context. And I grit my teeth through the declamatory silliness of every character having to strike an unexplained “pose” as a part of their speech. (Do I think the idea of explicitly codified body language as a required supplement to verbal communication is interesting? Absolutely. Do I think it’s executed well here? Absolutely not.) I actually thought that perhaps that was endemic to the monks, but then we veer sharply away from them in Chapter 2, when the story becomes about trading intrigue, but yeah, everybody still spends half their conversation taking poses to convey extra meaning that the author is just clearly dying to make sure we understand.

But the intrigue never actually intrigued me. Oh, sure, Seedless is vaguely interesting as a character, once I started to grok the concept of what “andat” were–one of those undefined terms from the opening that I was hoping to learn. And I think I did. But the rest of it was just tedious posturing (literally, as I’ve covered, but also figuratively in the sense of people jockeying for power over each other) over semi-mysterious happenings that I never felt invested in.

As this author is one half of the team that writes The Expanse, I genuinely thought it would be better than I found it to be, but a) no one hits a home run every time, and b) I shouldn’t expect it to be similar since it’s only one of them, and also c) as much as I love The Expanse, it’s also flawed, and this is flawed without the benefit of me already liking its characters from a television show. So I possibly went into this with unfair expectations. Even if I didn’t, however, I still wouldn’t think it’s very good.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #29)

#82 – Puck Aholic, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

“And they were roommates” isn’t my favorite trope, but I don’t hate it, either. I think this isn’t the best example, because they were already attracted to each other before they moved in together and they start sleeping together really quickly, so there’s no time to savor any unresolved sexual tension.

Diana is annoying, but in a way that feels too real and hits a little too close to home. Her pessimism regarding men in general and her love life in specific isn’t something I relate to, but her feelings of being a crazy messy burden on anyone who might care for her, I get. Deeply. So I do understand her resolve to swear off men and dating, though I think “until I feel better about myself” would be a more interesting conflict for the story than her deadline of “forever.”

Tanner is… well, as a boyfriend, he’s pretty much perfect, and that’s a bit of the problem. Sure, he and Diana fight like wildcats in the very beginning, but my brain read all those altercations as Diana deliberately provoking him until she got him to take the bait, so I’m not going to hold that against him. The rest of the problem is that his personal conflict arc–ADHD and his career–has very little to do with Diana at any point. Occasionally the narrative takes a stab at linking them, like “oh, I can’t handle a girlfriend on top of this, she’ll be a distraction,” but that’s undermined by two things: Diana’s clearly a distraction just as a roommate, even if she never did become Tanner’s girlfriend, and also once they do get together, Tanner starts skating better, to the point where his teammates notice and approve.

While I’m not disappointed with Tanner as book boyfriend material, I am unhappy with the way his neurodivergence is treated, because his ADHD gets ignored for large parts of the book. In the beginning, he sort of hedges around it in his POV chapters, sure, fine, we’re building up to the reveal. But once it’s revealed, he only displays any of his supposedly regular coping behaviors when the plot needs him to, not the rest of the time, and certainly none of them were foreshadowed with any significance. If he lives by the to-do list he keeps on his phone, why don’t we know about it until at least halfway through the book? Why does his summer hiatus seem completely unscheduled? Because whenever Diana pisses him off he just goes back to the gym at the drop of a hat. Were all those gym sessions on the list, or did he really not have anything else planned for that day? Why is he never obviously nervous about being late to something or deviating from his routine? Why is there not even much evidence that he even has a routine?

Don’t get me wrong, I want more romance heroes to be dealing with mental illness or neurodivergence as characters, because men’s mental health in the real world is something society tries really hard to sweep under the rug. But this just feels shallow. (Except for the scene where Diana helps Tanner with his phobia, because that is well established from the team’s prank wars, and also echoes a scene with Wanda the pig earlier in the book. So that was actually really good. But the ADHD rep, not so much. Also, Wanda was pretty cute, and I’ll grant that having the pet be a pig instead of something more ordinary has a certain charm to it, as does Chloe’s hedgehog at the end of the book. Hedgehogs are lovely.)

Okay, I’ve aired my grievances, but this was still funny to me, as the earlier novels were, I’m still going on with the series, though I’m hoping I get plots that are better-realized again soon, like the first book.

#83 – Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams

  • Mount TBR: 69/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Cover features your favorite color prominently
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that was a slog.

So I have a history with this piece of intellectual property. I was introduced to Williams as an author in college (1998) because several of the friends I made my first year were big fantasy nerds–no surprise there–and I was perfectly ready to move on from my high-school-era love of less sophisticated fantasy authors. I borrowed The Dragonbone Chair from one of those friends and off I went.

So in 2001 when news about Williams writing an online serial went around, and I saw the $15 price tag…well, I was a perpetually almost-broke college student still, and sure I spent money on books, but that was a high gateway, because a) I didn’t own my own computer yet, I was borrowing friends’ or using the computer lab to write papers and such; and b) sure, a chunky fantasy novel might be $7 or $8 in paperback, but it was portable, easy to reread whenever, and nobody had tablets or smartphones or e-readers yet, so an online serial publication was definitely not portable. Even fifteen dollars seemed like too much for the inconvenience of a book I could only read sitting at a computer, and couldn’t read all of at once.

I was genuinely angry about this shift away from the paradigm, and much like Williams vowing this serial was online only and would never be published traditionally (which I distinctly remember but don’t actually have a source for) I too vowed that I would never read it.

I held out much longer than he did, if my memory of that claim is even true. But I’m wishing now that I hadn’t bothered.

This is bad. Not even close to the level of quality I expect from Williams, based on the earlier Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, as well as War of the Flowers–which was weird but I enjoyed it–and the Otherland series, which was even weirder and not always good, but yeah, I still enjoyed that too, for the most part.

Who am I supposed to care about in this book? I’m no stranger to multiple protagonists, but there are simply too many here, meaning none of them get the development time they would need to be interesting. I’m trying to wean myself from the complaint that protagonists need to be “likable,” because a character can be a jerk and still be interesting, but few of these protagonists are particularly likable either!

1. Barrick is a whiny jerk who folds under pressure and abdicates responsibility to his sister, and then makes a spectacularly bad decision for no reason other than to set up some tension at the end, and his future arc. If it’s because he’s “mad,” bad plot reason, and if it’s because he’s affected by the more general shadow-madness, well, I guess he could be vulnerable to it like anyone else, but that’s pretty flimsy too.
2. Briony is a fairly standard “if only I weren’t a woman, people would take me seriously” princess who doesn’t fold as much under pressure but is dealt a really raw deal. I’ll give her credit, she does legitimately try her best to rule her lands, but she’s also kind of a whiny jerk like her brother, too.
3. Quinnitan is…pointless. Sure, I see how the end of her arc in this book echoes those of the Eddon twins, but there is no direct connection between her plot and anyone else’s. And I mean that literally, if there’s anything that ties her story to any other single part of the book, I simply do not see it, it’s buried in lore or foreshadowing that was lost on me amid the sheer weight of nearly 800 pages of plodding narrative. I read all of her scenes constantly wondering why I should care, and the fact that her arc is a very basic harem plot, “I don’t want to be a token wife but really what choice do I have?” sort of thing, doesn’t help, because on its own it’s incredibly unoriginal.
4. Chert is marginally likable, because he’s arguably got the most defined personality and most personal growth in the book, as a person of a “little” race who is distinctly not human–I get a mix of gnome and dwarf, with a faint whiff of Podling from The Dark Crystal–and who deals with an unexpected foundling by taking him into his family and trying to make it work, even when that foundling is really a big blank space in the story who still manages to get into trouble.
5. Captain Vansen gets points from me for being the guardsman deep in unrequited love, which is a trope I would absolutely eat up with a spoon. The problem is, the object of that love is a protagonist I don’t care for (Briony,) leading me to question what the eff he’s thinking that he can even admire her from a distance, let alone be in infatuation/love. And his plot arc is mostly “something goes wrong that’s not really has fault but everyone blames him anyway.” Which got dull.

Chert and Vansen are most of the reason this book gets a second star*, honestly. Chert’s scenes with the Rooftoppers are generally pretty excellent, even if they’re mostly tied to a plot arc that I don’t care for.

The other thing that’s getting me about this is that it feels like a deliberately grim-dark retread of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. You’ve got a castle that’s the seat of current government but used to belong to the enemy–the enemy that no one is sure even exists anymore, that lives in a land far enough away to feel distant but also somehow close enough to be threatening, once people believe in them again. That castle is perched upon magically important ruins/caverns, and that enemy has forms of magic/communication that affect humans and can cause or appear symptomatic of madness. There’s a race of small likable people who aren’t quite dwarves or any other “standard” fantasy race, but are still somehow cute/appealing. There’s a crippled prince who’s not really well-liked. One of the primary female protagonists is a young woman who laments the limitations of her womanhood under the patriarchal feudal system of the world.

And to someone who’s never read either of these series, that list of similarities could mostly read like fairly common fantasy tropes, and I forgive anyone who reads this review and thinks that. But I’ve read MSaT probably ten times all the way through in the twenty-plus years since I was introduced to it, and I feel like I’ve just been handed the same story again, with a thick coat of gray paint slathered on it and a few details changed–and those changes are basically always for the worse. No one in this story can be said to be a direct equivalent to Simon, who gets a very clear hero’s journey, but if I’m supposed to slot Barrick in as a Simon/Josua mashup (that crippled prince problem) then it takes the entire book to get Barrick out of his comfort zone and on his journey, where Simon got booted from the castle at the end of the first act of the first book.

And that gets at the underlying problem that is at least partially fueling all other problems–this book is clearly just the first act of the larger story, and yes i know! that is what first books do! but this also doesn’t have a lot of forward motion on its own, and it doesn’t resolve anything aside from the mystery of a single murder at that happens near the beginning. Seriously, all other plot threads get kicked down the road with the “and now they’re exiles” theme that the ending has assigned to most of the protagonists. Chert doesn’t suffer that fate, but the ending of his story line–also the end of the book itself–is the foundling reasserting that he doesn’t know who he is, which is not new information. We’ve literally not known who he is the whole time, except that we do find out who his mother is, but don’t find out how he was taken or why he apparently hasn’t aged as much as he should have or what the Qar intended by sending him back “home.” The identity of his mother is basically the least important question surrounding him.

I truly feel like I just read a 750-page prologue, and that is not a good feeling.

*Yeah, I told myself this was a two-star book, but by the time I wrote the whole review, it’s not and I can’t pretend I still believe that. This is a one-star book. This is so bad I don’t want to go on with the series, even though it almost has to get better, now that most of our protagonists are out on their journeys. And because it could hardly get worse, right? But this already took up so much of my time (I had to take a week-long break in the middle to binge some romances, as a relief from all this grimdark toil) and even though I’ve managed to collect secondhand copies of the rest of the series, and they’ve been sitting on my shelves for a few years waiting for me to invest my energy into them…I’m giving up. Not worth it.

#84 – The Glittering Court, by Richelle Mead

  • Mount TBR: 70/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What did I like about this? It was digestible. Having just come off a heavy, plodding, disappointing fantasy read, the easy YA tell-don’t-show narrative style went down smooth like a slushie on a hot day.

And that’s the best thing I can say about the whole book–it read fast and easy.

What didn’t I like?

1. The fact that this touts itself as fantasy when it’s not in the least bit fantastical. I don’t require my fantasy to have magic or creatures or zombies or anything, but if you’re going to call something “fantasy” it should at least be about fictional cultures that the author has invented. This is just England colonizing the Americas with the names changed. The only thing that could be said to be “fantasy” is that the population they’re displacing in the process isn’t an indigenous one, it was established by previous outcasts from their own country–though that wasn’t clear to me until the first time we met them and they were white, blond, and used woad as decoration. So they’re not supposed to be Native American analogues, they’re supposed to be displaced Picts?

2. Either way, it’s still racist and pro-colonization, because even if the Icori aren’t meant to represent an indigenous people, they’re still clearly Other, and constantly labeled as “savages” in order to justify taking their land, which all of our protagonists are participating in, in some form. Does it matter what color this fictional group of people is, if the narrative is parroting real history and real racism?

3. The second half of the plot feels, at best, tenuously related to the first half. The change in fortune for our protagonists that happens at the midpoint struck me as so flimsy and unbelievable that it was hard to take the rest of the book seriously, and that made it more obvious to me who the real villain was, despite whatever weak red herrings were planted along the way. Seriously–the first half of the story is The Bridgertons but the second turns into Little House on the Prairie. It’s too big a genre shift to make the transition seem natural.

4. There were times when I was approaching a reasonable level of sympathy for our heroine, despite her many flaws, but every time the story had a chance to explore those flaws and perhaps let the character do some work on them…well, she just kept being headstrong and selfish and whiny, right up until the LHotP section where after a single pep talk from the hero, she’s completely changed, resolved to her new station in life with a determination that seemed half-delusional and certainly out of character. She didn’t work for it, so it didn’t seem real.

5. I did not know, having picked up this book in isolation, that the rest of the “series” is actually the same time period from the perspective of one of the other girls, specifically the two best friends of the heroine. Now that I do know that, the giant blank spaces in this story where Mira and Tamsin constantly fall out of it without explanation–or with the pointedly obvious lampshade “it’s not my business so I’m not going to ask”–make sense structurally. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw, because these holes are constant and irritating. For a while in the middle of the book, it felt like every time I turned two pages, the heroine was asking out loud, “Where’s Mira?” And pretty quickly I knew that question wouldn’t be answered in this book, so why keep asking?

6. I never found Cedric compelling enough a hero to justify the constant sacrifices that Adelaide made for him. I don’t think he’s a terrible character, and I enjoyed some of their banter and their occasional fights, but I’m also not about to add him to my book-boyfriend list, so it was hard to imagine myself, or anyone for that matter, doing as much for him as Adelaide did.

7. Religion. Woooo boy. I guess this part is the “fantasy” I was lamenting the lack of earlier, because if the accepted and heretic forms of this fictional religion are supposed to correspond to real-world counterparts, I didn’t pick up on it with enough certainty to tell. But my problem is that it’s suddenly a Very Big Deal that one character is a heretic, when religion had played such a small part in the story leading up to that revelation that I was mostly operating on the assumption that the main religion was socially performative, and that no one in the story was especially devout. Adelaide certainly doesn’t seem to be. But since this heresy becomes central to the conflict later on, I wish it had been better established in the beginning, because (again) the second half of the book seems wildly different than the first, and this was another aspect that made it hard to take seriously.

8. Heteronormative AF. There’s one token queer person who has a minor role, showing up just long enough for Adelaide to realize other women/cultures don’t abide by her society’s rigid norms and to feel briefly uncomfortable about it. But there’s no follow-up, no depth, no opportunity for Adelaide to grow beyond what she’s been taught. To some extent, I’m okay with that–not every story has room for fighting LGBT+ battles, and even more simply put, stories are allowed to be about other things. But parading just that one wlw character out for a moment, and making her a foreigner to reinforce her otherness, strikes me as a really poor choice if the story didn’t actually want to fight that battle. Why bring it up at all? Especially as this is supposed to be fantasy, why couldn’t the Glittering Court be an institution that provides marriage candidates to both men and women? If the candidate pool was both male and female, and so was the clientele, then many forms of queerness would be covered by it without having to dig into specifics about each character. (It doesn’t directly address ace/aro people, but presumably they’d be less interested in a marriage mart anyway, on either side, and self-select out of it.) I mean, I know why, because that would mean that in the New World there would have to be women in positions of power who needed husbands (or wives, yes, but this wrinkle is about men.) And there’s no shortage of men in the colonies, so that doesn’t track logically the same way the actual setup does. But again, if this is supposed to be fantasy….

This Week, I Read… (2021 #28)

#78 – Keepsake, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is more like it! After being stunned by how much I enjoyed the first novel and slightly underwhelmed by the second, this feels like it’s got my attention again. Zach is a sweetheart, Lark has issues but she also has reasons, and I found the entire journey from attraction to “we’re both hurting but you make it better” to realizing they could actually make their relationship work, if they’re smart about it–well, I was hooked. I read this in a single day and really didn’t want to put it down the one time I did have to, because my phone was running low on battery and needed charging.

I’m such a sucker for the hurt/comfort dynamic, and that’s the main component of the romance, but it’s not without any further depth. When they do get frisky, Lark is lovely about Zach’s virginity (a trope I’m not always fond of, even when it’s the hero and not the heroine.) Zach is also still dealing with his unconventional upbringing–lots of the time it doesn’t bother him much, usually about small details, but whenever he tries to think too far ahead into his future, he feels hampered by what he doesn’t have–a high school education, a real mechanic’s license, and so on. Like with another recent Bowen read of mine (Goodbye Paradise) I feel like this is a much more realistic and balanced take on the “escaped from a cult” trope that I used to encounter a lot in my romance reading, and generally thought wasn’t executed well. I trust it in this author’s hands, though.

If there’s any flaw, it’s that condensing Lark’s time in mental-health recovery to a chapter of letters doesn’t do as much as it could to really convey time passing, but then, it wouldn’t be great to linger in her POV there, and it’s not like we could spend multiple chapters spinning our wheels with Zach while he’s waiting for her. So this is a case of finding something (slightly) lacking but not really knowing how it could be done better…which means I’m just nitpicking, essentially. I love Zach, Lark’s pretty great too, I’m genuinely glad to see the Shipleys as necessary but not so much Jude or Sophie, because I thought their book was weaker. So this works out to be everything I had hoped for in a continuation of the series.

#79 – Bountiful, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Maybe True North is like the original Star Trek movies–great and bad stories alternating. Except this (and the second novel) weren’t nearly as terrible as the worst Trek movies, that’s just the first analogy I thought of.

I love Zara. I adore Zara. I would move mountains for Zara (and also baby Nicole.)

But I never warmed up to Dave. Not that he isn’t a good guy–once he gets over the shock of finding out he has a child he didn’t know about, anyway–but maybe I just didn’t fully buy into his parenthood arc, where he starts out stubbornly determined to do the right thing even if it was never his game plan, and eventually wants the impromptu family that dropped in his lap. I’m not even saying it’s unrealistic, I just didn’t really get into it. Especially because I could never quite tell how much was “I genuinely have grown to love my daughter” versus “I really really want Zara so I’ll learn to be a dad, oops, I guess I’m not actually that bad at it.”

I guess also the thing about buying the houses so quickly didn’t sit right with me? I feel like Zara probably would have pushed back on that more. Or at least wanted to talk about it at all before they went ahead with it.

Not liking Dave also might be a case of not knowing him the way we get to know most of the previous leads. Griffin and Audrey have to start fresh for us in the first book, but we knew Jude before he starred in book two and Zach before he starred in book three–and hey, look, a pattern emerges: I liked the “new” character in both of those books less than the one we’d already met. (In Sophie’s case I actively disliked her, but in Lark’s it was just a matter of liking her but loving Zach.) Here, I like Dave less than I like Zara.

I also really like her brothers (if not her whole family, because Uncle Otto is a love-to-hate-him character already) so I’m looking forward to jumping right into the next book, which features Alec and May, both of whom we already know! Wonder if #5 will bounce back from a slightly lackluster lead-in, as #3 did from #2, continuing my Original Trek Movie analogy.

#80 – Speakeasy, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Let’s call this 3.5 stars–it’s got problems, but I do like it better than the books earlier in the series that I gave flat threes.

Pros: satisfying bi rep, easygoing/fun hero, serious issues but low angst/drama most of the time. I’m not against angst-fests, but it’s also nice to see people not wallow, you know? Also, as a lifelong knitter, I greatly appreciate the inclusion of the Boyfriend Sweater Curse and the demonstration that the author knows what she’s talking about re: fiber types, yarn pricing, and the amount of time it actually takes someone to knit a whole adult-sized sweater.

Cons: (sigh) This is going to take a minute.

May doesn’t entirely feel like the same character she was in the previous books. I got the impression that she was one of the “anything for my family” type people, like most of the Shipleys are, but in this book she doesn’t seem to even like them most of the time. And I get that she’s going through a lot, but she whines often that she feels like a teenager since she’s living at home again and everyone is so worried about her, but I wanted to shake her and say, “well, hon, you’re sneaking around like a teenager and moaning and groaning about everything like a teenager, so if the shoe fits…”

Alec, in contrast, doesn’t actually have a lot of depth. Sure, I like that he’s hilarious and doesn’t have much in the way of hangups about being a party boy who likes sex; but since that’s 90% of what he is on the page, and only maybe 10% the business owner he claims he wants to be, the big turn-around at the end when he sorts his life and business out in one fell swoop doesn’t really seem earned.

So I think it’s an interesting choice to hit “opposites attract” really hard with the addiction-plot stick, because yeah, from the outside it does seem really irresponsible for alcoholic May to get involved with beer-slinging bar owner Alec. Even if their chemistry and banter are solid–and I think they are–it does smack of May making yet another poor decision. And Alec doesn’t make poor decisions so much as breezily neglect certain aspects of his life–I wasn’t surprised at all by what became of one of his employees, nor did I think it was great of him to dodge his frequent hookup in favor of May, without coming clean to her first (the hookup, I mean, not May.) I guess what it comes down to is that I like these two for their personalities (mostly) without really liking a good chunk of the plot, because it was watching the two of them continue to make bad decisions for the first 2/3 of the book, only they were doing it together instead of separately.

[This is definitely not continuing my observed pattern of loving the odd-numbered ones while the evens stumble. This is a little bit of a stumble, too. Still going on with the series, though.]

#81 – Hello Forever, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Disappointing compared to the first book, though it was nice to see Josh is still a warm, generous, stand-up sort of guy in his supporting role.

Personal peeve that doesn’t really matter to my rating: I disliked both of the main characters’ names. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the book, but every time Axel called Cax (which I already didn’t care for) “Caxy,” there was a hard eye roll going on. I can’t decide if I think Cax/Caxy is silly, stupid, or just plain awkward to say, but it’s something, and the line about them bonding as kids because they both have X names was too cutesy.

But even if they had had names I found more palatable, this would still be a less than stellar novel. Moving on to the real meat of my complaints, everything falls apart somewhere around 60% of the way through. The beginning is okay, setting up the characters and the conflict and doing a lot to establish our lovebirds as deeply lonely people, even if the paths to their loneliness were different. Then we dive through our main conflict (Cax’s inability to come out of the closet/have a meaningful relationship because of his family situation) by blindsiding Axel with a serious assault and hospitalization, which as a plot point, sure, fine. But it wraps up way too quickly and the rest of the results/consequences of that episode spiral forward at dizzying speed, to the point where the plot ignores other potential conflicts that I’ve seen sink romances. So Cax suddenly has custody of his younger brothers? Sure, let’s move Axel right into their lives, with no concerns about whether that’s best for the kids, whose health and safety are the entire reason that Cax never stood up to his father in the first place. This novel, for the very end, becomes a sort of single-parent romance, but we’re racing forward towards the inevitable happy ending so fast that nothing a single-parent romance should (probably) cover is covered. Sunshine and roses for everyone, Axel is a great cook and Cax is not, so it’s totally cool to push him into a parenthood role that he may not want over boys he’s only barely met (it’s not really addressed) and it’s definitely okay not to consult the boys about this beforehand and just hope they are fine with it, or get used to it in time.

As a sub-complaint corollary to that, if Cax is so concerned about his younger brothers, why is so little done to develop either their individual personalities, or Cax’s relationship to them?

It just seems like there was a lot of thought put into the premise and not a lot given to how it would play out, beyond a very narrow railroad track toward that rushed happy ending. I’m tempted to dismiss some of its flaws with the “this was published quite a while ago and the author’s more recent books are better” reasoning, and to a certain extent that’s probably true, except that the previous book in the series is notably better!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #27)

#73 – The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

  • Mount TBR: 68/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Based on non-Greek/Roman mythology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In many ways, mostly good ones, this reminded me strongly of Juliet Marillier’s work–basically, what if Marillier wrote about Russian mythology instead of Irish? Both authors are working in the same space, where the old clashes with the new, expressed through fantasy and fairy tale.

But however much I liked the setting and the little fae creatures and even Morozko himself, I disliked the extremely slow pacing, unnecessary history-tangents about characters who stop being important less than a third of the way through the book, and the lack of character development for anyone in the story besides Vasya.

There’s also this pervasive aura of dread throughout the entire story–though it’s for different reasons at different times–that I don’t feel like the ending fully paid off. I’m not all that satisfied by the climax of the story, the “battle” against the Bear–I think partially because he never felt like the primary antagonist, even though he was clearly supposed to be. He had to share the spotlight, though, with the priest, and also Morozko. The priest is the center of a lot of that dread, because he was just enough crazy to be slightly unpredictable and I was never sure when/if he was going to go mad, and what would happen if he did. And Morozko was sitting directly on top of the “is he a villain or is he a romantic hero” fence. He does a lot to aid Vasya, and the wispy bits of maybe-romance aren’t strong, and aren’t resolved, but the whole time he remains a dangerous, menacing figure as well. So the Bear almost struck me as incidental to the plot, which isn’t great when he’s half of the title.

The other half was one of the underdeveloped characters as well–Solovey is cool for what he is, a horse who is also somehow a nightingale, and I dig that! But he’s just there, and since I have no idea what his deal is because I don’t already know the story this is based on, I was waiting for an explanation I never got, or something more to him than “I am a really cool bird-horse who you just met but I will be instantly loyal and awesome for no obvious reason.” Which is a very, very fairy-tale trope to have, the amazing mythical beast companion, and I’m not knocking those in general. I just wish Solovey had any depth (or really that anyone other than Vasya had any depth, she’s surrounded by stereotypes.)

While in theory I’m all for the message of the very end of the book–screw the patriarchy, let’s have adventures–I’m finding myself not all that interested in finding out what those adventures actually are. Since I’m not on fire to read the next book after finishing this one, I probably won’t ever bother.

#74 – Act Like It, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’d had this book on my TBR for quite a while, but then recently a friend recommended the author to me, and I said, wait, that name sounds familiar. Since the audiobook turned up on Hoopla, and I’ve been knitting a lot lately and audiobooks are ideal for that, I took a break from my regularly scheduled reading and listened to all of this in a single day.

It’s not perfect–I have some plot issues–but it’s very, very good, and the narrator is lovely.

At first I wasn’t sure our dour, grumpy hero could be redeemed from his absolutely dickish behavior, and surprisingly by the end, he really hadn’t been–he was notably less of a jerk to the heroine, for obvious reasons, though they still bickered very charmingly. But he was still at least mostly a dour grumpy person to everyone else. I’m kind of mixed on this–it would be fake to have him do a 180 and be sunshine and roses all the time, and it’s good that being in love changed him, but not too much. On the other hand, he is still kind of an arrogant ass, and that’s not my favorite hero type. It’s a delicate balance, and it won’t necessarily be for everyone.

Our heroine is witty and not at all spineless, which I love about her. On one hand, I almost hate that my bar for good heroines is so low that I’m impressed when one isn’t a total pushover, but here we are, modern romance heroines are so often wishy-washy pushovers that it’s notable when one isn’t.

My sticking points are in the plot escalation. I have no problems with the early romance obstacles, or even the pace at which the two lovebirds realize that they don’t actually hate each other, that’s all fine. Even the “must protect girlfriend from lecherous but powerful old man” scene was foreshadowed properly. You know what wasn’t? An actually life-threatening situation which provides the final cathartic reunion between our two leads after their fight. I don’t think it was set up properly, and sure I was happy that everyone lived, but I don’t feel like the danger was earned because it felt so random. A seemingly throwaway line near the beginning about how their theater was old, and the presence of some construction crew immediately before the disaster, wasn’t really enough for me to believe this turn of events. And since the hero putting himself in danger deliberately was in service to the misunderstanding he had about how much “ex” the heroine’s ex was, it got tied into the jealousy subplot which was probably my least favorite aspect of the book.

All that being said, I still enjoyed it immensely, listened to it all in a single day, and look forward to going on with the series.

#75 – Sexy Motherpucker, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a letdown compared to my experience with the first book in the series. Call it 3.5 stars.

The humor is still there–I clearly jive with the style. And I’m totally down for a good single-parent romance, especially when the kid isn’t a perfect, unrealistic angel child that never causes a single plot disruption. Chloe sounds like a wonderful kid in most respects, but clearly isn’t perfect, and her presence does cause friction in some places.

Our hero, however, is not the greatest. He’s not a complete trash fire like I sometimes run into, when I seriously question how anyone could possibly find the sort of on-page behavior those heroes engage in acceptable, let alone attractive–but let’s face it, Brendan is a user. A user who is partially aware of it, and does have deep-down good intentions because it’s for his kid, but a user nonetheless. And he’s pretty terrible at respecting boundaries, which is certainly a flaw carried all the way through the story–the flashpoint at the climax is a natural extension of that.

He may be handsome, he may be the sexiest thing between two hotel sheets, he may even be sweet in some ways. But he’s a user, and it makes him harder to like than I prefer my romantic heroes to be. When he screws up and inevitably apologizes, those apologies are sincere, but only bring him back to square one in terms of reasonable behavior.

It doesn’t help that Laura, who seemed like such a firebrand as a supporting character in the first book, has devolved into an “I’m so in love with this apparently unattainable man that I’ll completely enable his user behavior while calling it friendship” pushover. As paired flawed characters, these two line up perfectly, and I see why the plot happened exactly the way it did–I’m not slamming the structure, just questioning what happened to turn Laura from wise and self-possessed older sister to simpering fool.

Okay, this is starting to sound like a less-than-three-star review. Yes, I’m less than happy about some aspects of the characters and that made some of the plot conflicts seem both predictable and frustrating. But I did still like the book overall! I was laughing my ass off at several scenes, because the banter is either adorable or hilarious or cheesy as the mood calls for. I was even laughing at the “naked mole rats” scene that I see other reviewers generally cringing over, because I, too, have said incredibly random/stupid things when under the influence of mind-altering substances, so I get that it’s weird and kind of gross, but that’s why it was so funny to me! (As always, humor is deeply personal and I’m not criticizing anyone who didn’t enjoy that bit–I see you, I get it. But I was cackling, myself.) And Chloe was cute, Diana was an excellent new supporting character, as were Brendan’s in-laws from his first marriage. Libby and Justin were great in their limited roles as former leads who are still friends/siblings with our current main characters. The sex scenes were still graphic, and the whole story was still full of swearing, and I am still totally okay with both of those things.

I’m willing to forgive a lot in a rom-com that I actually find funny, so while this didn’t live up to the five-star ticker tape parade of a review I gave the first book, it’s a stumble, not an unforgivable drop off a cliff into the pits of despair. Still moving forward with the series.

#76 – The Billionaire’s Wake-Up-Call Girl, by Annika Martin

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 76%. This book fell off such an amazingly steep cliff that I actually went back and read my review of the first book in the series to make sure I was remembering the right story, that yes, I did actually enjoy it and didn’t mistakenly continue a series I meant to abandon. But no, I gave the first book 4 stars then couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

First up, I didn’t care for the female narrator, who had this weird tendency to end the last sentence of a scene or chapter on a rising tone, which meant it always felt like there was more she was going to say, but then there wasn’t, just a pause and then “Chapter [whatever].” I noticed no such problems with the male narrator. Also, I didn’t care for her accent (which I peg as SoCal but could be wrong, it’s those hard, elongated R’s that stick out like speed bumps) and definitely did not care for her exaggerated “girly” delivery of the conversations held via text.

But whatever issues I have with the audio presentation, it’s only icing on the cake, after all. The underlying cake of the story is terrible.

I did have a problem with the premise of the first book, for the very beginning. I had a problem with the premise of this book the whole time, it never went away. I never felt the hero’s behavior was appropriate to the situation–the jump from “I’m angry at this wake-up-call operator” to “I’m actively going to seduce her until this is just phone sex” came very early and with very little buildup…and she just goes with it! I sat through that scene chanting in my head “she’s being harassed, when is she going to notice she’s being harassed, a real employee of this type of business would have hung up and terminated this client’s contract, she’s being harassed.” But no, she masturbates. And yes, she’s not really doing this for a job, but I would think that engaging in phone sex in this situation would be a dead giveaway that she’s a fake.

The premise continued to be unrealistic well beyond my ability/willingness to suspend my disbelief.

But the sham doesn’t last forever, and the parts where the hero was trying to figure out how to contact her weren’t terrible, in terms of solving a mystery. They were, however, terrible in that it’s awful creepy stalker behavior to want to track down a woman you only know over the phone, who is paid to provide a completely nonsexual service to you. Am I supposed to like Theo? Because I hate him. There’s no good side shown to his controlling personality, he’s just an a-hole the entire time.

I gave up because the story actually gets worse after they meet up in person. The tension is completely gone, the sex scenes are laughably cringe-worthy, and the new conflict is apparently supposed to be “hero must convince heroine not to move out of the city,” and I’m actually offended on her behalf, because given the financial trouble she’s in because of her backstory, her plan for getting back on her feet seems incredibly sensible to me. Like, let her concentrate on her business? Which she clearly cares about? But since the hero is Super Rich, I’m willing to bet he’s going to continue to solve her problems with his money, and that’s way less interesting. I’m not going to say the heroine has it easy–the whole book is about how she doesn’t–but the whole book is also about her hard work in solving her own problems, so him throwing money at her isn’t a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m inferring the wrong thing, well, then I’m wrong, but at the point I gave up he’s already paid off her immediate loan shark debt, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t keep paying (somehow) to keep her around, which does make the whole thing very Wake-Up Call Girl.

Yuck.

#77 – Sophie, by Abigail Barnette

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A happy and mostly triumphant ending to a series that I (and many others) feel has stumbled a bit along the way. We can’t seem to agree on what those stumbles are, specifically, because so much has happened over the course of several in-universe years and seven other books. And the major problem that causes is that this sometimes didn’t feel like a story, it felt like a to-do list of getting closure for the many, many plot threads.

Which, yes, is what endings are for. But in covering everything that’s ever happened in the story, that drags up a lot of the things that feel like dead weight. I wasn’t a fan of the idea to give Sophie a baby she didn’t birth by killing off its parents in a car accident; I felt it undermined Sophie’s determination not to be a mother. So now, in every book since, she’s had to do a mental dance of “I’m a caregiver, not a mother” even when she’s clearly performing parental duties and experiencing something at least adjacent to a maternal sort of love. And this book addresses that, actually in more depth (or at least more consistently) than I recall other books doing, by exploring her dynamic with El-Mudad’s children, who were long out of babyhood when they came into Sophie’s life. So I won’t say that cognitive dissonance isn’t recognized and discussed, only that I wish it had never had to happen in the first place.

But the list goes on. Some readers apparently dislike El-Mudad (not me, I adore him.) So they’re going to be unhappy he’s even around, let alone getting a happy ending with Neil and Sophie. Holli and Deja and Penny all have to show up–and man, even though I’d read the first two of Penny’s spin-off novels back when they came out, I’d managed to forget she was a character at all, it’s been so long. It’s been long enough that I’d also forgotten, when Sophie runs into Ian at a party, that she slept with him and his ex-wife back in their collective swinging days. As for me, I didn’t really like The Sister that much (relatively speaking to the other novels) so I was forced to sit through Molly half-heartedly being important to the plot again, and the only-sort-of-resolved issue of Sophie in denial about her diabetes. I don’t particularly feel like either plot thread enriches the story, and even the tiny subplot with Molly and Amal, cute in isolation, felt like a complication that we didn’t really need on top of everything else we already have to speed-run through.

If there can be said to be a “main” plot of this novel on its own, it’s certainly the Laurence/Valerie/Olivia family tangle, and that, I do feel was handled well. The issues were foreshadowed, the complications laid out and entangled with subplots in great detail, and the resolution satisfying. Given that Valerie has been a thorn in our main characters’ collective side for the entire run of the series, I would have been disappointed if she didn’t still have a major role to play at the end, and as far as that goes, I got what I wanted.

I just also had to wade through a lot of flotsam that I wish could have been left behind.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #26)

#71 – All Lined Up, by Cora Carmack

  • Mount TBR: 66/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This was another “it looked halfway decent at a bag sale so I bought it for almost nothing” romance, and when I grabbed it off my shelf quite literally to have something safe to read in the bath–I don’t bring my electronics in there!–I was like, “wait, I hate football, why did I get this?”

But it’s not about football, really. Sure, one lead is on the team and the other lead’s dad is the coach and late in the story there’s an actual game as part of the narrative (which was thankfully short on strategy and eminently skimmable) but it’s about sports and sports culture far more than it’s actually about football. So the sports parts of it felt a lot like I was watching a halfway-decent movie about team-building and personal achievement, and the rest of the book felt like a slightly cheesy romance.

About that romance. It’s rushed, pretty much everything about it is rushed except them banging in the most traditional sense, but they’re definitely performing other sexual acts for each other in short order. And this is set in college, so fine, I get it. But they drop the “L” word pretty fast too.

All that being said, I did actually like their chemistry together. On her own, Dallas is a bit of a whiny brat who has obvious anger issues, and in other stories I might not like her as much, but a) she’s clearly aware of at least some of her emotional shortcomings, and b) she grew up abandoned by her mom and raised by a goal-driven, emotionally distant dad, so you know, fair enough if she doesn’t have herself totally figured out as a college freshman. It does make her skew young, but since part of her arc is about her striving for self-determination, I’ll give her a pass on that. For Carson’s part, on his own he’s a bit of a boring workhorse, who has his nose to the grindstone as much as possible for both schoolwork and the football team (seriously, Dallas was right that if he kept working out so much he was going to injure himself!) and doesn’t have much going on otherwise. But when the two of them are in a room together, sparks really do fly, and suddenly they’re both fun people having fun.

The “forbidden” aspect of the romance plot felt a little weak. Bringing up Romeo and Juliet, even to reject its premise, is so obvious that I wish stories would stop doing it. The coach as an obstacle is somewhat believable, but making a big deal about Dallas’ ex being the star quarterback at the beginning, only to have him suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the story partway through, through no action of the main characters, strikes me as a minor deus ex machina. I mean, if nothing the hero or heroine did had anything to do with those events, why include him? And it has the double whammy of opening the QB spot for Carson, who certainly has been putting in the work, but also didn’t really “earn” the spot, it got emptied for other reasons and he was there. (Yes, there were presumably other people on their huge, 100+ team who could have been chosen, so in one sense he did earn that spot. But since we never met the others and Carson was only ever painted in competition with the ex, Carson’s elevation didn’t mean much to me.)

So overall, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would when I realized/remembered it was about football, but there were definite weaknesses in the story that kept it from being great. Not planning at the moment to go on with the series.

#72 – Nightmares & Dreamscapes, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 67/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 249, which is partway through “Dedication.”

I always try to resist DNFing short story or novella collections, because sure, maybe the ones at the beginning aren’t to my taste, but aren’t there more that might be better? Of course there are! (In this case, almost 600 pages’ worth of stories I might like.)

But because this was such a behemoth, and because I was planning to read it leisurely–a story or two a day, depending on their length, while I also read other things–I was taking notes about each story and giving it a star rating, to help me decide at the end what I thought of the collection as a whole. I finished seven stories and part of an eighth. One of those stories earned a 2, and all of the others either 1 or 0. Yes, I hated some of these stories and they got 0-star ratings.

So why on earth would I keep going, hoping other stories would be better? It wasn’t long before I dreaded picking this back up.

My overall complaints that apply, to some degree, to all of the stories I read: too long/wordy for the plot it covered, gross/gory/silly instead of scary, vaguely racist overtones to some, lack of satisfying endings to most. And in one case, putting “Popsy” right after “Night Flier” made it really freaking obvious that the second one was also about vampires, to the story’s detriment.

I’m beginning to wonder if I should just be done with Stephen King. I’m tired of playing “will I dearly love or absolutely despise this” every time I pick up a new title. Because he has, without a doubt, written some of my favorite books I’ve ever read, but it’s equally true that he’s written some of the worst books I’ve read, so I can’t help thinking it might be time to move on. (I say this with three unread King novels still sitting on my shelves, so I’m not entirely sure yet, because I could give those a try and then give up…?)