This Week, I Read… (2020 #6)

23 - A Secret Affair

#23 – A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh

  • Read: 2/5/20 – 2/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 23/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a three-word title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a romance
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What started off with an interesting and original-to-me premise became bogged down in stilted repetition and the stifling confines of Regency propriety, the endless litany of who is where and who is riding in whose carriage and who is attending what ball and who is related to whom.

This is my third Balogh novel and definitely my last. They’ve all gotten two stars from me, and despite how much this author has been recommended to me in the past, clearly we’re not gelling.

I did have higher hopes for this one, based on concept. I’ve never really seen the “it’s just a fling” trope in a Regency setting before. But once the lovers hop into bed together, it all goes downhill, and I’m not saying that as a sex-starved reader who just wants smut and should probably be reading NA romances instead of Regency.

I’m saying it because all the sex scenes after that were either short and summarized, or glossed over with a fade-out from the scene, or in one case, interrupted. If the primary vehicle that these two lovers have to get to know each other is lust, because they’re lovers but not in love, why isn’t there much lust?

So of course, with this trope, the point is that eventually they realize they’ve caught feelings. That definitely happens here. But the banter it should be happening through also gets less present and less interesting as the novel slowly wends its way along. It takes both characters multiple chapters and repeated internal monologue to convince themselves/admit to themselves that they’re falling in love. Both characters use precisely the same language in the process, both suffer the same doubts, and both have the same qualms about admitting their growing feelings to each other.

Essentially, for all their seeming differences of gender, power, social standing, and personality, the narrative treats them for a good chunk of the book like they’re the exact same person.

That isn’t the only place where the story suffers from excessive repetition, either. During the climax, when the fate of the romance hinges (seemingly) on the outcome of a judge’s ruling on the sentence for a mentally handicapped thief, the story of what the thief did is told by one character to another several times in a chain of “I know this but now I’m telling it to you,” and the story is almost word-for-word each time. They should be similar, yes, but not exact, not when one factors in things like character voice, and the Telephone effect of words or small details changing. The author is clearly aware of how a tale can grow and change in the telling–it’s referenced in gossip among the ton but not in this little tale, which everyone has memorized word-perfect, and I have to read about six times over ten pages.

I KNOW! I KNOW WHAT HE DID! STOP TELLING ME BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO INFORM OTHER CHARACTERS! SUMMARIZE IT OR GLOSS OVER IT OR SOMETHING!

Thanks to used book sales and the number of times Balogh was recommended to me, I do actually own one more book of hers, but I’ll be donating it back to my library’s book sale room unread, because after three bland and mediocre reads, I think it’s safe to say I’m unimpressed with this author.

Pantomime

#24 – Pantomime, by Laura Lam

  • Read: 2/7/20 – 2/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 24/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book I mean to read in 2019
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In looking to other reviews to help me gather my thoughts, I completely missed the boat on the “twist” that, when the book was newer, thought was either brilliant or the worst thing to happen in the LGBTQIA+ sphere ever. (Though my copy is secondhand and from the original printing, so I have the nonsense misleading blurb on the back, and boy howdy, it’s bad.)

I can’t know for sure what my experience would have been if I had started the book not already knowing that Micah and Gene were the same person. I’ve always known this book was about an intersex protagonist, because once the hype started for it, that’s usually the leading reason for recommendation–the representation. We just don’t get a lot of books about intersex people.

But I hope I would have figured it out long before the narrative states it plainly. The mere fact that Gene’s chapters are all clearly marked “Spring” in the header, while Micah’s are “Summer,” should be a huge clue that Gene’s chapters happen first and aren’t necessarily going to intersect with Micah’s as if they were two separate people. And about a dozen smaller things, but that was the super-obvious one for me.

All that aside, what did I think of the book knowing the big secret ahead of time? It’s a really mixed bag. I appreciate all the care and delicacy that went into crafting Micah/Gene and his experience living as both genders. It was a quick read that didn’t ever get snagged on anything confusing or befuddling. But the setting was bland “generically magical circus vs. fantasy aristocracy with obviously Victorian social values.” Hey, guess what, I’ve seen that before, quite a bit actually, and the incredibly small hints of magic and mythology that should have made this world more interesting were few and far between.

Worse, I have issues with the weak love triangle. Using love interests of different genders is a great way to have Micah explore what living as male means to him and if/how that affects his attraction to others, when as Gene (s)he was only supposed to be attracted to and eventually marry a boy. So I can appreciate that. But at the same time, setting up a love triangle as a choice between genders does play into some negative stereotypes about bisexuality, and Micah is clearly attracted to both Aenea and Drystan; while that’s understandable for Micah, it’s also part of a pattern I’ve seen in YA where bisexual leads face that same love triangle because it’s an easy way to show they’re bi, even while it also reinforces the ideas that bisexual people are indecisive and might drop their love interest to be with someone of the other binary gender simply because. I can see that’s not the case here, but as part of that larger pattern I can’t exactly be happy about it.

Also I generally don’t like love triangles, and this one ending with the death of one of the love interests means Micah didn’t have to choose, the choice was made for him, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The cliffhanger ending raised the stakes a huge amount in very short space, a leap in pacing and tension that I don’t feel the rest of the book prepared us for. Micah is in very little danger for a very long time, and then having the biggest threat to both his chosen way of life and his actual life come from inside the circus basically without warning, rather than the outside threat we’ve been expecting, doesn’t really feel right to me. The foreshadowing for Bil and Frit is pretty weak, so the climax was less of an inevitable surprise as it was being sucker-punched with a plot twist out of almost nowhere.

I’m giving this its third star completely out of respect for its sensitivity in portraying an intersex YA protagonist, but the rest of the book is two stars at best.

25 - Beauty is a Wound

#25 – Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan

  • Read: 2/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 25/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in the southern hemisphere
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a great first line
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with four words in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 90.

I picked this up because, hey, Indonesia! I’ve never read anything about Indonesia or by an Indonesian author! Won’t this be fun! And I definitely want to be a better world reader. But this is not the book for me.

I wasn’t put off at first by the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” quoted on the book flap because I dig absurdist humor and allegory, so the idea of grotesqueness was okay…until I actually started to read it. In those first 90 pages, there’s more rapes than I can list, more bestiality than I wanted or expected, and some light incest thrown in for extra flavor.

Even if this is all integral to the plot, deeply important to the symbolism, I simply don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read about a man sexually abusing sheep and chickens. I don’t want to have basically every female character I’ve met raped, even if the scenes aren’t graphic. In some ways, having them raped in a single declarative sentence is worse, because it’s so mundane, so every-day, that it doesn’t even need to be described. And every woman (so far) is mostly characterized by how available for sex she is, and nothing much else. Every male character is mostly characterized by who or what he has sex with…so I guess that’s equally awful?

In the end, even though I find all of that distasteful to read, the real failure of this work for me is the absolute lack of character development. By telling this in a magical-realism style with a fairy-tale-thin characters, I can’t connect with anyone enough to care, certainly not enough to sit through the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” that saturates every page.

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