This Week, I Read… (2017 #3)

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#5 – The Darkest Road, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Maybe I’m not being critical enough because the raw emotional power of this trilogy swept me away. Maybe when I eventually go back and reread them, I’ll notice the flaws I couldn’t see the first time.

Maybe.

It’s been quite a while since I read anything this beautifully tragic. Personal loss and sacrifice continue to be the themes. Pairing these events with the path to heroism is absolutely nothing new, but here, contrasting the grand scale of the conflict with the incredibly tight focus on the individual brings both compelling drama and satisfying endings, whether they are happy/hopeful or sad/mournful. Because there’s some of each.

I cried several times throughout, and I was at serious risk of hitting a book hangover from reading this trilogy, so to solve that problem–

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#6 – Beyond Innocence, by Kit Rocha

–I dove straight back into the familiar, comforting waters of the Beyond series.

This, the sixth full-length novel, revisits the innocent girl/experienced guy scenario we started the series with in Beyond Shame. But there’s always another way to spin a trope, and here, we have a pampered-but-caged runaway wife matched against a world-weary professional escort. Jared is tired of acting as every woman’s ultimate fantasy without any emotional connection, and Lili has been so crushed by the narrowness of her life in Eden that she doesn’t even know how to make that connection at first.

But she charms him (unintentionally) with her artless ways, as she’d never dare treat him the way nearly every other woman in his life has: as a whore. And while the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold story has been done so many times, this manages to feel fresh to my eyes, primarily by making him male instead of female (no Pretty Woman knockoffs here) and by never shaming him for his profession. Lili doesn’t “rescue” him with her love–she allows him to finally leave his past behind and start a new phase of his life, something he’d been struggling to do already. She is the catalyst for this change, but not the sole reason for it, and that’s refreshing.

As I’ve read all these romances in the past few years, the personal growth of the female half of the relationship (in M/F romances, obviously) is generally the focus, and part of the yardstick I use to rate them is how well the male half is developed. Is he a mostly-static character who comes into the heroine’s life to upend it, or save it, or finally provide a Mr. Right to her searching soul–without doing much of anything himself? Or is his arc the more well-developed, where the focus of the story is all about how a mostly-static heroine comes into his life and makes him a better man somehow through the power of romance?

When taken to extremes, both of those situations leave a bad taste in my mouth, because ideally, both characters need to display growth throughout the romance. And here, Innocence does that beautifully.

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# 7 – Beyond Happily Ever After: Closed Doors and Beyond Happily Ever After: Blank Canvas, by Kit Rocha

Two vignettes that revisit lovers from previous books in the series, they’re short enough that I bundled them together for the purposes of counting reads for Mount TBR, and they’re easy to talk about together because they’re similarly structured.

Closed Doors focuses on Jasper/Nicole (from book 1) and Dallas/Lex (from book 2) who have regularly been getting together to play in scenes sprinkled throughout the series, and this is a private version of one of those, exploring the power dynamic (both sexual and worldly power) between these two couples. It’s a hot read, certainly, but I’ve always felt that stoic second-in-command Jasper is a bit of an emotional blank slate compared to most of the other top-tier characters in the series. It’s not that he has no personality, it’s just that it’s a pretty bland one–he’s either silent and dependable (outside the bedroom) or mostly-silent but commanding (inside.) He just doesn’t get much development beyond that, and it drags down the rest of the scene.

Whereas Blank Canvas is brilliant. Yes, it features my favorite book’s threesome (Beyond Jealousy‘s Ace, Cruz, and Rachel) so I knew I would like it, but I didn’t expect to love it the way I do, especially given my mixed reactions to the other short works in the series.

But BC not only moves forward the story of the threesome as a healthy, functioning relationship–which it does handily with a plot development I don’t want to spoil–it also takes a successful turn at further deepening the relationship between the two men, an aspect of MMF relationships that has been sorely neglected in the (few) other menage novels I’ve read. It’s sweet and loving and thoughtful, all high points in what I’m looking for in relationships, whether real or fictional. Honestly, this might be the high point in the whole series for me, so far!

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#8 – Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson, by Mitch Albom

An overly-sweet marvel of false profundity. Instead of delivering what was certainly a poignant, moving experience for the author with graceful prose and careful consideration, this is a ham-handed, simplistic and repetitive series of “epiphanies” where Albom realizes, listening to Morrie’s nuggets of wisdom, how horribly shallow his life has been.

It’s the same obvious tripe that I’ve heard a dozen times before from all sorts of gurus–don’t overwork yourself, enjoy your family time, stop and smell the roses–and while I don’t want to dismiss that as a life philosophy (self-care is important to me in all forms), Albom treats his revelations in the narrative as if he’s the first to have ever been given this advice. And the way he shames himself in order to make Morrie seem that much more beatific made me incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, life is a journey of discovery and all, but do you really have to spend so much time in self-flagellation about what you’ve done wrong so far?

The only reason I didn’t DNF this one is that it was so damn short already–192 pages, and the book itself is tiny, and half the page seems to be margin, anyway. I’m honestly curious about the total word count is on this, because it can’t be much.

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