This Week, I Read… (2019 #28)

89 - The Songbird's Refrain

#89 –  The Songbird’s Refrain, by Jillian Maria

  • Read: 7/5/19 – 7/7/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was provided a free copy of the book by the author for review purposes. This consideration does not affect my review in any way.

A debut novel that showcases a lot of potential but is hampered by a few amateurish flaws.

At first, I liked the story. A wee baby lesbian with an interesting way of talking herself out of self-centeredness (or even, occasionally, paranoia) doesn’t run away to join the circus, but is instead kidnapped by one. (Not exactly a circus, but it’s the best shorthand to use without spoiling all sorts of things.) There were some pacing problems in the first half, it dragged some, mostly because of vague “you’re you but also someone else” dreams.

Right around the halfway point, when I figured out what the dreams meant just before that information was revealed, I got hooked hard. I finished the rest of the book in basically one long sitting. By the end, I loved the story, bumping my “probably will be three stars” rating to a definite four.

Why not five? This really, really needed one more editing pass for word repetition. There are some darlings that still need killing–how many times does Elizabeth rub at the scar on her shoulder? Some chapters it doesn’t feel like she does anything else. Certain descriptive phrases–“peachy skin,” “black-draped,” “lumpy [and/or] misshapen”–come up so. many. times. Even a lot of the description that isn’t repetitive doesn’t quite land with me, I felt like I could see what the author intended, but not without thinking to myself, that’s not really a great way to put it.

Still, despite a slightly rocky start, I was on board with this story once it got going, and I cried a little at the end. It was satisfying in a way I can’t describe without inflicting dire spoilers, but given that so much of the plot is tragic (in the true sense, not the melodramatic one) I was happy that the ending managed to provide a sense of catharsis to some of the horror the characters experienced along the way.

90 - Saga Volume 3

#90 – Saga, Vol. 3, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 7/7/19 – 7/8/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (27/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I have this feeling, now that I’m three volumes in, that the entire run of the series is going to be five stars for me.

I’ve talked before about how much I love the story, and that hasn’t changed here. But as I’m getting more accustomed to the art style, and as I’m also reminding myself to read these volumes a little slower, I’m noticing so much more detail. Visual and environmental storytelling is a subject I’m familiar with in video game design (because I’m a geek who loves to watch YouTube videos about it with my equally geeky husband, we’re totally fascinated) but how have I not been applying those lessons to the graphic novels I read?

I blame the fact that I never read comic books growing up. I didn’t learn to read visually as a child in the same way a comic reader would, and I’ve been reading adult-level novels, absolute bricks of novels, since I was ten. My skill set never needed visual reading skills the same way.

Some of my favorite details from this volume: Marko’s new beard as a sign of both time passing, and of grief. Heist’s piss-stained underwear, because of course the drunken-author figure can’t be bothered to put clothes on and not be a total slob. All the changes in Isabel’s face to make her more frightening when she’s threatening Honest Cat. And, honestly, the level of detail in the single-panel “vision” of Prince Robot’s hallucinatory orgy, there’s just a lot going on there and if your brain just glances at it and says “yeah, people having sex, whatever” then you miss so much, because he’s apparently a pretty kinky dude inside that television skull of his.

And there’s more, of course, but those are the highlights. I’m wondering, now, just how much information of this sort I missed in the first two volumes, which I already loved, so how much better will they be when I reread them?

91 - Butterfly Swords

#91 – Butterfly Swords, by Jeannie Lin

  • Read: 7/8/19 – 7/9/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (60/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: A book with an animal in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I was primarily interested in this because it was a historical romance set outside of England/Europe, and it was, yet I was disappointed by its setting. Sometimes when I read more typical historical romance (especially Regency stuff) I’m inundated with detail about what life was like then, the styles of dress, the manners, the routines of daily life.

I got none of that here. I think the story is assuming I’ve ever seen a martials arts film set in the past (doesn’t really matter when, peasants are peasants) and asking me to fill in everything I know about Tang Dynasty China from that.

So that covers my first disappointment. The second is the romance itself. I see how Ryam and Ai Li are in lust with each other quite convincingly. (Side note: I don’t understand why her name is spelled as “Ailey” the way Ryam pronounces it, even when in the sections the narrative is clearly from her viewpoint. Bothered me through the whole book, it should have been reserved for his dialogue.) What I don’t see is them ever making any sort of emotional connection. Ryam saves and then follows her out of a sense of duty to her for her brief kindness, fantastic opening. But then he obsesses about how sexy she is while reminding himself how inappropriate making a move on her would be, and I never get the sense he moves on from that attitude. Ai Li’s thought process is basically “big barbarian = actually handsome, I can take care of myself, oh no wait I can’t, let’s keep him around.”

And the sex scenes were only okay. I’m glad there weren’t more of them, actually. So yeah, all the reasons I read this romance weren’t delivered on.

92 - Maybe in Another Life.jpg

#92 – Maybe in Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Read: 7/9/19 – 7/10/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (28/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I came to this after discovering Reid with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and wanting to dive into her back catalog. Sadly, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by this, even allowing for how she’s obviously grown as a writer.

It’s not all bad, fortunately. No matter how often the characters talk about soul mates or fate, it’s clear that this story is about refuting the idea of soul mates, because both of the parallel story tracks have happy endings that match Hannah with a different person. Which I think is lovely, because in other Sliding Doors-style books I’ve read, it’s clear there’s a right romantic choice, and even though the paths are different in the two story tracks, they both wind up in the same place in the end, or at least with the potential to get there. I really like that this doesn’t. This book says, no, there’s more than one “right” person out there for you, if you’re open to the possibilities. And I think that’s a good message.

The weaknesses lie in the details.

Hannah reads as incredibly immature for her age, though to some extent I know she’s supposed to, since she starts the story not having her life in order and needs to get it that way; but I honestly question why these two dudes are falling for her, because she’s a mess, and at least in Ethan’s case, he knows she’s a mess and we’re just supposed to accept on faith that he’s been pining for her this whole time. In Henry’s story, on the other hand, Hannah’s a mess because she was the victim of a car accident and he’s got a great reason to be seeing her at her worst.

But that leads me to another weakness. I don’t feel like Ethan and Henry are fundamentally any different. The surface differences are there: Ethan’s a second-chance romance while Henry’s a new man in Hannah’s life. Henry’s a nurse and I honestly don’t even remember what Ethan does for a living because it’s not at all important to the story, especially because he takes a bunch of vacation time to hang out (and repeatedly bang) Hannah when they reunite. But in all the ways that they interact with Hannah, they’re basically the same guy. They’re both sweet and caring. They’re both super-indulgent of Hannah’s cinnamon roll fetish. They both act consistently more mature than Hannah does. When you strip them down to personality, there’s not that much to mark them as different.

Which leads to the root weakness, a weakness that pretty much all stories with this fundamental split tend to suffer–lack of development space for any character that’s only present in one of the timelines. I can’t know more about Ethan or Henry because there isn’t time, from having to deal with both of them.

That’s a lot of negativity, but there were some good things. To contrast Hannah’s dual stories, her best friend Gabby gets them, too, only hers end up with the same happy ending via drastically different paths. That’s a solid subplot that was handled with a great deal of grace and care. (It did result in the worst case of repetition in the entire story, at the end, when her new flame makes the same half-page long speech in both story lines and it’s honestly excessive. I get that he’s the same dude in both stories because nothing about Hannah’s choices ever affected him, but that was just SPEECH –> a few pages –> EXACT SAME SPEECH.)

Despite all of this, I did enjoy it. It wasn’t amazing, it didn’t blow me away like Evelyn did, but it also hasn’t turned me off reading Reid’s other pre-Evelyn work. I still want to explore it, I’ve just tempered my expectations a little.

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