This Week, I Read… (2020 #5)

17 - The Secret

#17 – The Secret, by Elizabeth Hunter

  • Read: 1/29/20 – 1/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 17/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Your favorite prompt from a past PSRC (the next book in a series you’re already reading)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’d give this an actual rating of 3.5 stars, because I do feel it’s better than The Singer, which I gave three, but overall I don’t feel like it’s a four-star read.

It’s complicated.

I love that Ava and Malachi are back together and working on sorting themselves out–they’re a power couple again, in some senses literally, and their banter and occasional arguments and making up are fun, sweet, and occasionally epic.

But the politicking is just as present and just as complicated, and really I don’t feel like the first book (much as I adore it) did enough groundwork to set up and support this intricate a tale of political maneuvering. The second book felt like a complete stylistic departure in its subject matter–the main reason that I didn’t like it nearly as much–and this book is a synthesis of the romance of the first and the sociopolitical mess of the second. So it’s better because we get the romance back, and I like that, but it’s still a whole lot of people yelling at each other a lot about change and enemies and how their society should work in the future. Which isn’t bad, but kind of isn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I started the trilogy.

I’ll be honest–I wanted more of what we got in the first book and less of the epic angel battles and politics. That being said, of course the epilogue is centered on Ava telling Malachi she’s pregnant. Surprise! It might be to him but I saw it coming a mile away. And while it does make sense in this context, it’s a style of happily-ever-after ending that I’m honestly tired of seeing, because the taint it carries from all the times I’ve read it before on stupid books has poisoned me somewhat against it. Not the book’s fault, my personal bias and I’ll own that, but it was a letdown.

So I don’t think this book is bad, I think it’s just not really enough of what I actually wanted from it.

18 - Breakaway

#18 – Breakaway, by Catherine Gayle

  • Read: 1/30/20 – 1/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 18/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a main character in their 20s
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There are a lot of things I truly enjoyed about this book, and a lot of things I think were weak and deserved better treatment. They’re all tangled together, though, so this is going to be a bumpy ride review.

First, the premise. A hockey-playing girl is gang-raped after one of her games, and years later, after nearly every kind of therapy she can reasonably try, she’s recommended by her doctors to try a sex therapist who will both counsel her and also sleep with her, in the name of helping her past her trauma.

So…are those really a thing? I’m almost afraid to research and find out. The idea is very, very squicky to me, and I’m on board with the idea that Dana should not see one of these “therapists.” Instead, she goes to Eric, one of her childhood friends. Her brother’s best friend. (Hey, free trope squeezed in!) And she asks him to fill that role for her.

Eric turns out to be a great guy, one of the best things about this book. After initial, understandable reluctance, and real concern that this isn’t the best thing for her even if it’s with someone she already knows and can trust (him,) he agrees to her plan. And as far as I can stretch my disbelief to accept the premise at all, I’m okay with that. It seems at the beginning that he doesn’t really think she’ll be able to “go all the way” with him, so it’s clear he’s not using her for potential sex down the road and that he honestly cares about her. As things progress between them, he has to push her away sometimes because he’s terrified he won’t be able to keep himself in check and he’ll end up hurting her–which he accidentally does at a few points, though the severity of her reaction varies, and he feels incredibly torn up about it when it does happen.

So I like that. I’m all about thoughtful, caring, respectful heroes.

What I don’t like? I have really mixed feelings about the anxiety representation, and they’re difficult to unpack properly. Dana experiences trauma-triggered panic attacks, and a lot of her attack symptoms line up with my own experience–which is good and feels authentic. But on the flip side, the incredible severity of her attacks, and how often she has them, is almost unbelievable. If they’re that prevalent in her life, or if she’s deliberately exposing herself to her triggers and constantly getting that reaction…well, then, her meds aren’t working for her and need to be adjusted, or yeah, hero, you’re right and she’s really not ready for this yet. I mean, her attacks are constant and debilitating, and yes, that does happen to people even if that’s not my experience, but I don’t think it’s at all realistic to show someone suffering this level of mental illness “curing” herself though exposure to her triggers. And that’s the heart of the story, Dana retraining her body to accept that touch can be good.

Which is so freaking sweet and sad and heartwarming and I love it, even though I don’t think it’s done well. But if her anxiety weren’t so debilitating, so that her journey out of it is more believable, then would it be serious enough that she needs this “therapy” at all? It’s a conundrum.

But here’s the other problem I have with this book: it’s a hockey romance and it absolutely does not need to be. There’s too much hockey. Hockey, in fact, actually interferes with the pacing of the story, because Dana, a hockey player herself, should have known that dropping this in Eric’s lap during the run-up to the playoffs was the worst possible timing. (Even I know that, and I’m not a sports person AT ALL.) So there are long chapters of nothing but Eric on the ice during a game with the narrative doing a play-by-play, and that has nothing at all to do with the romance. If the reader is a hockey fan, great, maybe they’re getting something out of it, but if they’re not (like me) they’re skimming past that because it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. Also, even though I know almost nothing about how to run a sports team of any kind, I found it way past my suspension of disbelief that a) Dana would be okay with literally everyone on the team and staff knowing about her sex life (in that she’s attempting to be able to have one someday) in order to travel with the team so that she wouldn’t be separated from Eric; and b) I can’t believe the team management would go along with that, because it screams UNPROFESSIONAL on every possible level.

Dana’s fear turning to growing confidence is beautiful. Eric’s concern and tenderness are amazing. Of course the two of them are going to fall in love as they go through this strange and intimate experience together, especially since they were halfway there already because of leftover childhood feelings they never got to act on. For that part of the story, I’m 100% on board.

But everything external that should have been a conflict to their relationship, every real-world concern, had to get minimized or dismissed so that the entire focus could be on the huge, whopping, internal conflict of Dana’s own trauma. Even her brother showing up and disapproving of the situation (as brother’s best friend romances usually have to have them do at some point) doesn’t really make a dent in the story, because he can’t object too much or it might be a threat to Dana’s recovery. And it’s just silly how much a struggling NHL hockey team bends over backwards to make this plot line work.

19 - Barefoot with a Bodyguard

#19 – Barefoot with a Bodyguard, by Roxanne St. Claire

  • Read: 1/21/20 – 2/1/20
  • Mount TBR: 19/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a 4-star rating on Goodreads
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Oh, I am such a sucker for a good bodyguard dynamic. And this one doubled down by having him posing as a bodyguard for his own cover story! The tension! The drama!

But in all seriousness, romantic suspense is not my genre, I’ve tried it before and generally been unimpressed, so I didn’t have high expectations when I dug this old (acquired for free) romance up on my Kindle.

Here I am to say how pleasantly surprised I was. Both leads have semi-tragic backstories, both have issues, and both grow with each other through those issues in ways that made me not want to put the book down. The situations they get into posing as newlyweds for their cover identities were awesome, squirm-inducing, and occasionally hysterically funny. I was delighted.

A heroine who needs to learn trust, and a hero who needs to learn tenderness. I AM SO HERE FOR THIS.

Though, again, romantic suspense not being my genre, I was annoyed every time the POV switched to one of the supporting characters in order to advance the suspense plot. On top of that, a very large portion of Gabe’s POV seemed devoted to setting up an unrelated plot for the next book, which seems to be about his sister. DON’T CARE GIVE ME MORE OF KATE AND ALEC. Which is why this doesn’t get a fifth star despite me being about half in love with Alec myself.

20 - Picking Up the Pieces

#20 – Picking Up the Pieces, by Jessica Prince

  • Read: 2/1/20 – 2/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 20/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, this is the worst romance I’ve read this year.

The “hero” is a man who ghosted the girl he loved for eight years, so that she couldn’t reach him to tell him she was pregnant with his kid after he took her virginity then left town two days later. When, at 70%, he finds out that she was pregnant after he left town, his first question is “Who got you pregnant?” presumably so he could go find the guy and tear him limb from limb for touching “his” girl–you know, the one he deliberately cut off contact with for eight years. When she tells him he was the father, he immediately yells, “Where’s my kid?” and threatens to take her to court if she gave up “his” baby for adoption. Yeah, the baby he didn’t know about because he left town and cut off contact with the mother for eight years.

Well, the baby died, and the hero’s a piece of absolute and utter trash. He is irredeemable in my eyes, if not for life, then at least for this heroine, who should shove him out the door like the toxic garbage fire that he is.

But with 30% to go until that magical happy ending that seemed increasingly less possible with every page, I kept reading.

She basically forgives him for no reason! He whines about how he deliberately hurt her then so he wouldn’t end up hurting her worse in the future, because he’s got daddy issues, and that’s supposed to negate all the suffering he caused her by leaving her, not being there for the pregnancy he helped to cause, not being there for their child’s failed birth, not being there for her grieving process, and then waltzing back into town and immediately trying to pick up where he left off like nothing had happened, all the while ignoring her boundaries at every turn: kissing her without consent, pressuring her into sex, trying to go bareback until she makes him stop because she’s not on the pill (but oh wait he does that exact same thing in the epilogue because “I want a family with you” and she lets him because she always tries to stand up for herself then ends up being a doormat) and actually handcuffs them together during the ending so that she can’t get away from him until he’s mansplained his pain to her and she forgives him.

Consent? What’s that? Boundaries? What are those for? Respect? Never heard of it.

And if the plot weren’t bad enough on its own, I could also write a treatise on how terrible the writing style is. Everyone speaks in the same false, over-the-top, drama-laden voice. Everyone has serious anger issues and will cause a scene over anything, anywhere, anytime–even the heroine in the place of business she owns will start a screaming match in front of her customers, and once she just leaves her staff (it’s not clear how many people are there working with her, so who knows if she’s just left her business in trouble or not) to drive the hero to the hospital to deal with his issues, instead of being a responsible adult and BUSINESS OWNER and staying on site to do her freaking job. I mean, emergencies are emergencies, but him finding out his mother is in the hospital but okay is not really the “drop everything and drive him there” type of emergency. He could have calmed down for a few minutes and taken himself, but then the heroine wouldn’t have gotten the scene with his mom, that apparently needed to happen. It’s all so stupid and immature and real life simply doesn’t work that way.

Also, new “friends” are introduced by name several chapters in with no description of who they are or what they look like or in some cases, even how the hero/heroine know them, they just are names that get dropped and I’m supposed to assume they’re friends instead of faceless dream people who speak in the same juvenile, profanity-heavy, melodramatic voice as literally everyone else.

Me: Who is Lizzy? Was there a “Lizzy” before?

Me, three sentences later: Oh, Stacia is Gavin’s girlfriend. But who’s Gavin? I don’t remember a Gavin.

Me, on the next page: Well, I guess they all know each other because they’re all hanging out.

Also there’s fat-shaming and slut-shaming, and all the guys insult each other with female terms like bitch and chick and “growing a vagina,” so let’s add misogyny to the pile, also guess what, the women are misogynists too. There’s so much girl-on-girl cattiness and spite and downright hate, it’s gross and harmful. Yeah, the hero is a bona fide garbage fire, but in a lot of ways the heroine isn’t that great either. I mean, she got all the suffering of the narrative loaded on to her by the plot, but she’s a pretty terrible person too, at the end of the day.

This book was just so, so very bad.

21 - From a Buick 8

#21 – From a Buick 8, by Stephen King

  • Read: 2/2/20 – 2/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 21/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a mode of transportation on the cover
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by an author who has written more than twenty books
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Thank goodness this wasn’t any longer.

I will always rank King among my favorite authors because his best books are some of my favorites, but across a career as long and as varied as his, there are always going to be some clunkers. This, for me, is one of them.

I can appreciate what it’s trying to do from a literary standpoint, proclaiming that not all stories are neat and have tidy endings, that not everything can be or will be answered. I don’t think writing a horror-lite novel with that as the premise is necessarily setting up a successful work, but I can stand by the idea of it.

But King doesn’t commit to it. After rambling for 300 pages across many POV characters with an incredibly basic, dull, “and then this happened” story structure, the big moment comes when the narrative makes its declaration of the novel’s thesis statement. After that? We get a real ending.

What? I thought we weren’t supposed to know what the Buick was. I thought the book wasn’t going to explain, and then it did, and I was disappointed–not just in the explanation, which is little more than confirmation of everything that was laid out and easily guessable before, but also the fact that we actually got an explanation.

You can’t write a story about how stories don’t always have neat endings, and then spoil your own story with a neat ending. It weakens the entire novel.

22 - Make Him Wild

#22 – Make Him Wild, by Christie Ridgway

  • Read: 2/4/20 – 2/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 22/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in the month of your birthday
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I knew this book wasn’t really working for me when I was more invested in the romantic subplot than the main romance.

Alessandra should be a young woman emerging from the shell of her grief to open herself to love again, and instead she’s a caricature, a horny little Italian beauty (and yes, the narrative calls her “exotic” at one point,) who jumps the first out-of-towner she meets who doesn’t know her tragic past and doesn’t think of her as the Nun of Napa Valley.

Penn is a problem because the story can’t decide if he’s a good guy or not. Alessandra figuring out he’s “nice” midway through is supposed to be some revelation, but they’re both so fake, so concerned with appearances (hers as the PR face of the family winery, his as a home-remodeling-show celebrity) that they’re constantly at odds, misjudging each other, misreading true intentions, and Penn usually comes out of that looking poorly.

Sure, they might have physical attraction and chemistry, because the story goes to great lengths to make them both horny on main, but as often happens, the “love” is rushed and unfulfilling and not entirely believable.

It might not have seemed so bad if the secondary love story, Clare and Gil, hadn’t been so delightful and compelling. At first I was like, why is Alessandra’s friend getting her own love plot? Shouldn’t that be a different book? But then I realized that it’s her wedding that’s being thrown at the winery and we have to watch in slow motion while her relationship with her fiance Jordan disintegrates, all the while seeing how in love with her Gil, her best friend, has always been. Now, they don’t have the full setup they deserve–it is a subplot, after all–but even in the smaller space they get, their romance is much more fully fleshed out than the main one.

So I can’t give this book just a single star, since I loved Clare and Gil so much, but it’s a pretty serious problem for the book than the supporting players completely upstaged the main attraction.

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