This Week, I Read… (2020 #23)

#87 – Along Came Love, by Tracey Livesay

  • Read: 6/11/20 – 6/12/20
  • Mount TBR: 80/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I was hoping this would be better than the first book, but it was worse. Even setting aside my own dislike of surprise pregnancy stories, this was worse.

Early in the story, maybe one or two chapters apart, our hero Mike offers two different versions of his reaction to waking up and discovering Indi left at the end of their weekend together without saying goodbye. First, he’s grateful and relieved that he didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of shooing his brief fling out of bed. (My reaction to this: kind of a dick move, but he’s got the whole book to grow into a better person, right?) But the second time he tells the reader how he felt, it was RAGE. RAGE that his little boho sexy beauty was gone, RAGE so bad that it took him a few days to feel able to interact with the rest of the world. (My two reactions to that: 1) how on earth can you feel both grateful and enraged that she left before you woke up, I don’t believe those feelings can coexist as you’ve presented them, and 2) am I really supposed to believe you formed such a connection with her in two days of marathon sex that you’re enraged that she left? Or is this rage because you no longer have access to her body?)

Because Mike has serious control issues about access to Indi’s body. Thankfully the narrative takes abortion off the table right away, Indi always intended to continue with the pregnancy, so at no point does Mike have to “convince” her not to abort. But he spends most of the book using emotional manipulation tactics to persuade her to allow him to raise the child rather than giving him up for adoption (I’m going with “him” because eventually they assigned “him” to the baby, whose gender was actually undeterminable at this point of her pregnancy.) Later in the story when she’s pretty okay with that idea, he ups the pressure and starts working on the idea of them sticking together as a family even though she’s made it clear she doesn’t want to be a mother.

But my problems don’t end there, because Mike also has a girlfriend, Skylar. He had his fling with Indi after Skylar left him, no issues with that, he was single. But they later got back together, and he’s about to propose. Literally, he intends to propose the evening of the day Indi re-enters his life. But Skylar is quite conveniently about to leave town on business, so instead of having to actually deal with the mess Indi’s making of his life plan and how it impacts his current relationship, the narrative shoves Skylar into a box for a while so Mike and Indi can have their screen time together. It takes until 70% for Mike to finally talk to Skylar about what’s happened and for them to break up with very little fanfare or negativity–but then, they were never a love match, they both say so, they were a high-powered business partnership willing to be married to each other for mutual social benefit and (presumably) sex. (I actually can’t recall if the book ever explicitly states that Mike and Skylar had a sexual relationship. Everything we do see of them together is incredibly dry and society-minded, so if you told me they weren’t sleeping together, I’d believe you.)

So, Mike is prone to controlling and manipulative behavior (remember, he’s the one in the first book who hired Chelsea in secret to deceive Adam in prepping for the company’s big presentation–that, at least, is consistent with his character) and also HE’S A CHEATER because he finger-bangs Indi but stops himself before they have penis-in-vagina sex, because apparently that’s the line where he thinks he’d be cheating. I guess it’s not “sex” to him if he doesn’t orgasm? Because Indi definitely does, and yeah, sorry, you’re a cheater, Mike, that was sex. You were having sex with Indi before you broke up with Skylar, and Indi even calls you on it, saying what you did “wasn’t fair to me or Skylar.” So, Indi, I guess you’re okay being with a cheater?

And man, I haven’t even gotten to how the entire book is the spawn of a single giant plot hole. Indi re-enters Mike’s life in the first place because she needs him to post bail for “breaking in” to Chelsea’s apartment because she’s not on the approved list of guests. It could all be cleared up with a single phone call before police ever get involved, but Chelsea’s on her honeymoon at a “no contact” resort, completely cut off from the outside world. Like, call the resort even if you can’t call Chelsea directly? They’ve got to have a policy in place for reaching guests in times of emergency. What if a guest’s family member died or something else life-altering like that? There’s absolutely no way they wouldn’t reach out to a guest in a crisis, and I think “loved one about to be arrested for a crime you could exonerate her from” would count. (But if we write that scenario logically there’s no plot, because she doesn’t need Mike for bail and then he doesn’t feel responsible for keeping her close by the rest of the book.)

I’m done, I’m out, I will not be continuing on with this series.

#88 – The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

  • Read: 6/12/20 – 6/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 81/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A solid follow-up to the amazing first novel of the series, but it didn’t quite live up to its predecessor for me.

The most impressive and emotional aspects, I found, were also some of the smallest. Most of the book is still “Isabella goes to do research, accidentally ends up involved in local politics, has a harrowing adventure,” and that’s all fine, I have no objections to the formula or most of how it was executed. But what I will take away from this, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the impending war between pseudo-African nations, is how the story handles women who don’t want to accept the narrow life society demands they live. It’s already obvious that Isabella herself will continue to reject that life, and she does, but the story also allows her to air her views on motherhood (which are shocking in the context of her society and unhappily, would still be the subject of criticism and censure by many today) and acknowledge the gender roles that limit women to being mothers in a way that never limits the fathers equally. On top of that, a secondary character, Natalie, gets to have her own (scanty but definitive) arc exploring her sexual identity, in the end, deliberately not choosing to marry and disavowing completely any interest in sex, no matter the gender of her partner. (Ace representation!)

Though it’s more minor, I also appreciate the growing relationship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker for being exactly what it is–awkwardly professional at first but eventually friendly, though dealing with the elephant in the room that others might expect them to engage in a romantic relationship. I found the entire dynamic charming.

What I didn’t like, strangely enough, was the end, and how flat and anti-climactic it felt. After all the adventure, Isabella goes through the end of the book entirely alone, we don’t find out what happens to the others for several chapters and even then they don’t reappear in the story until everyone’s safe at home in Scirland, a footnote. Isabella does her dramatic walk out of the jungle and saves the day–sort of–but then the book has to spend several chapters winding down through multiple layers of political maneuvering. It’s reasonably interesting, I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, but it’s such a letdown that the stage of the story I wanted to be her warm reunion with her colleagues/friends is actually forty pages of angry men bickering (or Isabella reporting that bickering in short, after the fact.) Sure, it concluded the plot adequately, but it didn’t feel like the proper end of the story.

#89 – A Princess in Theory, by Alyssa Cole

  • Read: 6/14/20 – 6/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 82/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a diverse book
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is an odd duck to review, because I liked a lot of it and disliked a fair bit too, and it took me quite a bit of thinking in the hour since I finished (thank you, the mindless task of hand-washing dishes) to figure out what the root of the problem is: a problem I’m not sure I’ve ever had with a book before, which is why it was so hard to identify.

I just met two well-realized, vibrant characters who are stuck in a plot that doesn’t deserve them.

Ledi is a fantastic deconstruction of both the generic Strong Female Character and the Strong Black Woman. She’s smart and determined, certainly, but she’s also decided the wisest course toward life success is to bend under the weight of her problems, not break herself against them; the “pushover” flaw I see other reviewers criticizing her for is a carefully chosen survival strategy, that is both easy to empathize with and heartbreaking to watch in action.

Thabiso manages to betray his privileged upbringing in so many small ways without being a complete jerk all the time, which is a feat, but also without coming across as stupid rather than simply out-of-touch. It’s a hard tightrope to walk and one I rarely see authors do well (or at least to my satisfaction; I’m looking at you, dime-a-dozen billionaire or CEO romances.) Going into his deception of Ledi on a whim, without a game plan for getting out of it safely, was a dumb move that can be attributed to his arrogance; by the time he actually needs to extract himself from his false identity, his feelings have gotten involved and you just know it’s going to be a spectacular mess, but by then I also liked him enough to be sympathetic even though it’s his own damn fault.

Once the jig is up, in most books I would expect a quick turn around, an underdeveloped ending where after a chapter or two of wallowing, all is forgiven and we get our HEA. But no, the reveal of Thabiso’s identity happens far closer to the halfway point, maybe around 60% (? I didn’t make a specific note of exactly when, but it’s earlier than I expected.) In theory, I like that it takes time to rebuild their relationship, it takes time for Ledi to learn to trust Thabiso again. That’s fantastic–in isolation.

The problem is that in the second “half” of the book, when this necessary time to rebuild is going on, we’ve got an entirely new country/culture, many minor characters, and two faintly ridiculous subplots shoehorned into a little more than a hundred pages. You mean to tell me the medical establishment of this fictional nation can’t tell the difference between poisonings and a disease? That a mere handful of cases with no clear pattern of infection is treated as an “epidemic?” That literally no one has ever detailed the effects of over-ingestion of a common plant to the region that is so ubiquitous to the culture that its scent is one of Ledi’s memory markers? We know the harmful effects of basically every single plant ever cultivated in any garden in the world, why on earth is this a knowledge gap the plot leaves for Ledi to intuitively fill? And how freaking obvious is it from the very moment Alehk conspicuously hands her a mug of tea that he’s behind it all? I didn’t even know before then that the mysterious disease was actually a series of poisonings, but as soon as a suspicious man bearing tea shows up, it blows the entire subplot open. And I don’t really understand his motives, because the whole traitors-in-her-history family dynamic around Ledi is rushed and underdeveloped, with the revelations coming fast and furious and not clearly stacking neatly with each other.

So, basically, the first part of the book (just over half) is slow and thoughtful and goes into great detail setting up the characters and the romance, and the second part (just under half) would really benefit from being expanded into an entire second book, given the rushed pace and half-assed-ness of the plots, so that it didn’t feel like nonsense that was killing time while Ledi and Thabiso reconciled. If it hadn’t been so rushed, there could have been other potentially nefarious characters present to disguise the identity of the true villain. There could have been more time spent developing Thesolo as a nation and people, more time devoted to expanding Thabiso’s parents past their Sternly Disapproving trope (which the Queen stumbles past, briefly, when she softens slightly towards Ledi by the end, but that didn’t feel earned to me.)

There could have been an ending that felt truly triumphant instead of banged-together out of necessity from plot-scraps from other, better stories. The first part was an updated Coming to America, but the second part was, at best, a confused mashup of any half a dozen bad medical thrillers.

#90 – No Ordinary Star, by M.C. Frank

  • Read: 6/15/20 – 6/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 83/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book under 150 pages
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit fairy tale, a lot dystopian, and I’m getting just a hint of budding romance. It’s a strange mix that makes a strange little book with some surprising strengths and some obvious flaws.

First, it’s pretty clear that this is just the first act of the story packaged as a single volume, because this is all set-up with very little internal forward motion. The book ends just after we get to the first goal post–we know Felix has to get the clock running, and he finally finds the clock. It’s an abrupt cut-off point, though it might be logical in the larger context of the story. But that’s a problem, isn’t it? I feel like I can’t evaluate this honestly because I’m aware that I’m trying to review just the first act of something larger, so of course it’s not going to feel complete and I’m going to have problems with it.

Second, doing my best to set that aside; I think there’s a lot of potential in the world-building, but it’s thrown at us willy-nilly. I find the concepts themselves interesting–how different would society look if no one needs to sleep or eat? What would happen if a dictatorship forcibly separated men from women to different parts of the planet and criminalized interaction between them? How effectively can a leader strip the world of its history and culture to recreate society in their image, and what technology would that take? But the flow of information is clunky, handed to us flatly instead of being discovered through narrative, and nothing is explored in any real depth. (I’m not a fan, specifically, of how casually rape is mentioned for shock value; it’s not treated seriously at all. I would rather lean in on the psychological horror of a prison where you’re never allowed to sleep while you remain standing immobile, packed in a room with the other prisoners you’re not allowed to speak to. That’s novel, that’s interesting, that’s a whole wealth of trauma to explore, so why even add off-hand “and if you do fall asleep the guards will take you away and rape you to death” and that’s that.)

So much of Felix and Astra’s conversation is a tense push-pull of unthinking assumptions and missing information, so why can’t more of the state of the world be revealed through them talking to each other? Astra knows more about how Felix lived than he knows about her, so why doesn’t he learn more from her than he does? (Stubbornness, I suppose, but I’m getting to that.)

The greatest strength of this work, though, are the characters. I don’t fully understand the world they’re living in yet (I’ve got the second and third books, or maybe I should call them Acts II and III, to help me with that) but I do understand, at least a little bit, the characters and their motivations. Even if I don’t get why Ulysses wants Felix to finish the clock (if these two kids are going to be rebels, why would they be supporting the status quo?) I do understand why Felix would feel compelled to follow the orders he’s been given, he was raised a soldier. Even if weaning him of the drugs that kept him in line is making him question his place in the world, his underlying drive would still be to do as he’s told, he’s just changed commanders. And Astra? She’s a born rebel whose family and whose own actions have placed her outside of the protection of the law. Of course she wants to discover the treasure of old, forbidden books that would tell her about how things used to be, how things could be again someday.

I’ll keep reading. I have hope for this story. But it’s kind of a rough ride getting there.

#91 – Desperation, by Stephen King

  • Read: 6/16/20 – 6/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 84/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book over 450 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Reading this in just over a day as part of a readathon was a trip and a half, but honestly, even if I hadn’t been devoting as much free time as possible to reading, I would have had trouble putting this down. The tension starts right away, the action not long after, and then it’s insanity for half the book and good vs. evil for rest. It’s been a long time since I read a King novel that was as much a page-turner as this one, and the two of my favorites that stand out best to me–The Stand and Under the Dome–share a lot of common traits with this. Strong ensemble casts with interesting dynamics. An otherworldly pressure exerting influence on human behavior, bending it towards destruction and chaos. Equal shares of obvious death and creeping terror.

I often refer to King as one of my favorite authors, with the caveat that when he’s good, he’s great; but when he’s bad, he’s awful. I’ve read so many of his clunkers in a row, apparently, that I’d forgotten how persuasive a slap on the face his best works are.

I will say that this leans into Christianity far harder than either of the other works I’ve mentioned, even The Stand, and that’s saying something. As someone long divorced from her Christian upbringing, it was a strange experience to find myself so gripped by a narrative drenched in God and miracles, because usually I’m pretty jaded to it. But this wasn’t preachy (aside from clearly coming from someone who, at the time of writing, believed in God and miracles enough to use them positively in his fiction.) It was more that Christianity deeply informed the traits and behaviors of one character, and his actions gradually led others to believe. (Okay, yeah, David was a Jesus figure, I get it, he even did the loaves and fishes trick, it’s not subtle. I bring all this up because, somehow, I still loved the book anyway. That’s how compelling it was.)

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