This Week, I Read… (2019 #26)

81 - The Secret Keeper

#81 – The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

  • Read: 6/19 – 6/21/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (25/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Too long for the story it told, which I found needlessly complicated. Even the inciting incident, the memory of an unknown man’s murder by the main character’s mother, was so drenched in nostalgic, atmospheric prose that it didn’t have any urgency.

I’ve been giving up on a lot of books lately, though, and enough of me did want to find out the “why” of it that I kept reading. At times, I questioned my decision, because with every new reveal, the story changed, and my theory about who the man was (before that was discovered) and/or why he was killed was supposed to change with it, I guess, and keep me hooked.

Problem was, the information we start with is so vague, and the first section of the book includes so many characters being deliberately vague, even to themselves in internal monologue, that I had no real idea what was going on, and the later theories I developed, I wasn’t particularly attached to. “It couldn’t be that easy,” I told myself. And ultimately, it wasn’t.

Granted, I was skimming by the end, because I just could not deal with entire chapters of journal entries and letters that conveniently contained precisely what the character reading them, years later, need to know. But if I’d been paying closer attention, would I have figured out the final plot twist that sets everything on its head at the bitter, bitter end? Honestly, probably not. It recontextualized everything, yet I don’t remember clues leading up to it, and I can see a different ending to the book where it didn’t happen quite easily. It’s just out of left field.

I’m not impressed.

82 - After We Fall

#82 – After We Fall, by Melanie Harlow

  • Read: 6/21/19 – 6/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (54/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: Two books that share the same title (2)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A solid opposites-attract romance in terms of the leads’ personalities, but where I felt like this fell flat was in the narrative style. The book is written in dual-POV structure, common to romances, but in first person perspective, and I thought Margot and Jack simply sounded too much the same.

Especially when they both express their anger the same way! With lots of short sentences! Punctuated by many exclamation points! And they get pissed at each other often! So I had to read these passages quite frequently!

That sort of deliberate stylistic quirk feels to me like the sort of thing one character should do while the other doesn’t, rather than just the way the author writes.

Overall, I was entertained, but I’m not itching to read it again or particularly inclined to check out the author’s other work.

83 - The Sister

#83 – The Sister, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 6/22/19 – 6/23/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (55/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

After a hiatus of more than three years, I’ve returned to The Boss series. I bought this (and #7, The Boyfriend) when they were released, but somehow didn’t get to them. Early on, it was because I was still reeling from the events of The Baby and wasn’t ready for more potential heart-rending. Later, buried other under books. But because I’m making it a priority to wrap up partial series in my queue, here I am.

And I’m vaguely disappointed by my mixed reaction.

If I were judging this on the can-we-make-a-thruple-work storyline with El-Mudad, I loved it, but that came out of left field for me. One of my major issues with The Baby was that by the end of the book, after all El-Mudad had done for Sophie in her times of trouble, he felt forgotten about–he had declared his intention to be exclusive with them, if they were on board, but then other things happened (the entire plot!) and he got put on hold. I was thrown when there was no sort of closure for him.

Jump to this book, where they’re talking about how the last year has brought them all closer together, and I just don’t see it, he was barely a presence in the last book and now he’s a central figure in their lives. Which I’d like, polyamory isn’t something you see explored seriously in romance or erotica, it’s often a setup for sexy hijinks but the emotions involved are relegated to the background or ignored entirely. And this book is full of emotion on that score.

The other major plot thread, the titular sister(s) that come into Sophie’s life, I liked less. It felt rushed and kind of shallow, how awkward and antagonistic everyone but Molly was, while Molly was the super adorable teenage charmer for Sophie to instantly fall in love with. That isn’t to say Sophie didn’t experience character growth from it–she realized she didn’t have to justify her anger about her father’s abandonment, that she didn’t need anyone’s permission to feel how she felt, and that’s definitely something I can empathize with (as I’m sure many other women can.) But getting there felt trite.

On the other hand, in Sophie’s professional life, Deja’s blow-up at her was long overdue, with the story well-paved with hints that it was coming. Sophie’s sudden decision to give up her position felt both like something she would absolutely do (she’s been known to make impulsive decisions, even if she was deliberately taking her time pondering the kidney donation elsewhere in this book) and the culmination of her internal struggle with finding herself filthy rich, an issue threaded throughout this series.

So I liked it, except when I didn’t. Because I’m such a sucker for El-Mudad, he’s the biggest softie and I love him, I’m excited to finally get to The Boyfriend next, but also wary of how messy Sophie’s life has become and what that means for the plot moving forward. Because I don’t think this book was as good as previous entries in the series, and I’m hoping that downward trend won’t continue.

84 - Making Handmade Books

#84 – Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures, & Forms, by Alisa Golden

If you missed it on Wednesday, this review got its own post, check it out here.

85 - White Oleander

#85 – White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

  • Read: 6/23/19 – 6/26/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (57/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Strongly mixed feelings that are going to take a lot of unpacking, so bear with me, this is going to be long.

Pro: a “literary” novel by a woman, concerned solely and entirely about women’s lives, especially re: mother-daughter relationships. Even twenty years later, we still need more of these and less of Old White Men writing Old White Men stories.

Con: filled with ambiguous stances on problematic issues. The presence or absence of racism in the book is so complex I can’t parse it, as a white person–some characters are unabashedly racist, and Astrid doesn’t think she’s one by comparison. Yet one of her mother figures is black, and also a prostitute…but her white mother figures aren’t depicted as morally superior because of that, they’re all flawed in their own ways, so maybe it’s a wash? And then the dual symbolism imposed on the color white, on whiteness itself–beauty and death–carries its own racist underpinnings. I’m aware that I’m no scholar of racism in literature, so I’m not best qualified to really unravel this, but I couldn’t help but be both aware of it and made uncomfortable by it.

Then, there’s the sex. On the one hand, this novel acknowledges the desires of teenage girls to explore their sexuality, to even have sexuality in the first place and not be pure precious snowflakes, which I’d argue is good; but it’s debatable whether or not Fitch does enough to really portray pedophilia as immoral. Astrid’s relationship with Ray is one of her best memories for a time, something she longs for, even though they both knew it it was wrong; Ray is depicted in an incredibly sad, sympathetic light as a kindly man who knows his attraction isn’t healthy but is so unappreciated by his actual, adult girlfriend that it’s okay he’s screwing a fourteen-year-old girl. And then a slightly older Astrid goes down the same path with Sergei, though it’s not an innocent or idolized fairy tale of love this time, sleeping with a) an adult man who is also b) her foster mother’s boyfriend. I can’t make the argument here which causes me to abandon so many other works (usually by male authors, often “classics,”) that the pedophilia is normalized or even glorified. It’s not. But I don’t know that it’s condemned, either, as it should be. I don’t think Fitch is wrong to write Astrid as a troubled girl with a complex relationship with sex, but I do think it could have been clearer than Ray and Sergei were in the wrong and taking advantage of her.

Pro: Ingrid is unabashedly evil, and that’s just fun. How often do female characters get to be this narcissistic, this arrogant, this villainous, without restraint? And while I haven’t seen the movie, I enjoyed picturing Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid, hearing her voice delivering those acid-etched words.

Con: By contrast, Astrid spends most of the book coming off as insipid or downright bland. I understand this, to an extent–this is her journey, and she needs to find herself, so she can’t be fully formed to begin with. If her mother weren’t such a blazing light, I don’t think Astrid would be in as much shadow, but I do think it’s an issue when the protagonist isn’t nearly as captivating as the villain.

Pro: Some of the language was beautiful and memorable.

Con: Some of the language was overdone and ridiculous. (I know the appreciation of linguistic style is a matter of personal taste, but I experienced both the good and bad extremes over the course of this novel. I cringed at a line nearly as often as I stopped to be transported by one.)

Final pro: I always enjoy books that display appreciation for art. Ingrid is a poet, and while her style isn’t precisely to my taste, I didn’t hate her poetry, either. A major thread in Astrid’s journey is finding herself through her art, and while the ending fell a little flat for me in most respects, I was enthralled by the depiction of her salvaged-goods, mixed media pieces. That’s my jam, I cut things up and slap them back together differently, I made things out of other things, I get that. I knew Astrid better then, than I did for the entire rest of the book.

86 - The Boyfriend

86 – The Boyfriend, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 6/26/19 – 6/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (58/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

What a way to bounce back!

This time around, the story focused almost entirely on the difficulties of maintaining a stable polyamorous relationship while also hiding it from a society, and especially the family members, who won’t necessarily understand or approve of it.

I felt this book. Seriously. These emotions are strong and believable.

And I want to say this is realistic, too, though I’ve got to stick the caveat on there that Sophie is in love with two billionaires and money solves a few of the problems they might have otherwise. Not all of them, and not the big ones, but it’s a little easier to vacation as a thruple when you own your own yacht.

If the story started here, rather than having six books behind it to show how Sophie got to this relatively charmed place in life, I wouldn’t say it’s believable at all, but that’s the strength of following one character through so much of her life.

More minor bits of plot involve Sophie struggling to find direction in life (again) while adjusting her attitude towards the wealth she now has at her fingertips. I like where this is headed, but it’s not explored in depth yet–I imagine it’s going to be part of the next book.

And El-Mudad continues to be way more to my personal taste than Neil ever was, so yay for more of him.

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