This Week, I Read… (2021 #5)

#14 – The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 13/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Historical with a twist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A+ to all the banter, but I was mildly disappointed by pretty much everything else, in comparison with the earlier books in the series. The unexpected f/f romantic subplot was nice to see from a representation standpoint, but I never actually clicked with either character involved. The villain of this book was comical and I’m not sure he was supposed to be? And while the plot was definitely “rahhh girl power” with the newspaper and the protests and all, it’s emphasized several times how often Edward saves Free from one disaster or another. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have helped her press not burn down–of course he should–but it felt a little undermining to the tone of the piece that the man had to keep saving the woman.

I get that it’s building up to his big personal sacrifice at the end, but that was also kind of a let down, because it muddles the Happily Ever After. I think it’s interesting in its own right to set up the gaining of rank and privilege as a hurdle to be overcome rather than the goal–Cinderella this certainly isn’t–but everything that came with it, the lies and the timing and the rushed marriage, it all sat wrong with me. I didn’t care for it.

That being said, there’s enough good about this book that I still liked it overall, but when I come back to this series as comfort reading later, I bet I won’t bother with this one over the earlier works. As much as I like Free the indomitable firecracker for women’s rights, the rest of the story around her is not my favorite.

#15 – Talk Sweetly to Me, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 14/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A novella
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Giving Stephen his own novella, the Actual Man himself from The Suffragette Scandal, was a cute idea in theory and lackluster in execution. For one, we spend much more time with Rose–now that I’m thinking back on it, did Stephen actually have POV scenes or was everything from Rose’s perspective? If he did have any, it was only when Rose was present, because I can’t remember a single thing he did otherwise, whereas she had to deal with her pregnant sister and the racist doctor and all that.

I often don’t like novellas as much as novels because they tend to be rushed in pace or lacking character development, but Milan usually bucks that trend for me. I *adored* The Governess Affair, for example. But this did feel rushed, with no real buildup from interest to like to love, with no time to spare between the first kiss and the first orgasm, and definitely with no chance for Stephen to grapple with the racial issues he’d face marrying a black woman in that time period.

It’s just too short to do what it sets out to do. I think I would very much like a full novel that explored this same relationship, but that’s not what we got, and I think the novella size is a poor fit for the story.

#16 – Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova

  • Mount TBR: 15/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book you’re giving a second chance [I read the first 50 pages or so last year and set it aside]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Frustrating and disappointing compared to the hype.

First of all, and I’m much more used to leveling this criticism at indie novels, it was full of typos and grammatical mistakes. Way, way more than I’m used to seeing in a traditionally published work, and frequent enough to annoy me. Given the way publishing works, at this point it’s the editor’s fault much more than the author’s, but presentation matters, and the state of this work makes me feel like it was rushed to print (though I have no idea if that’s true or not.)

However, better presentation would not have saved this lackluster story. This sounded so cool and flopped so hard.

I found so many consistency issues and total WTF moments as the plot progressed that I started a note file to save for this review, but honestly there’s so much, and it’s picking nits when I should be summarizing. Does it matter that I was irritated that Alex was changing into her gym uniform on page 22, but then on her way to gym class on page 24 she meets up with Rishi and is wearing jeans, but then on page 26 when they’re actually in gym class Alex wipes her sweaty palms on her gym shorts, which she was supposed to have been wearing the whole time? (This obviously feeds into what I suggest is poor editing, because somebody should have caught that before it went to print, so that I didn’t catch that as a reader.)

But in summary, there’s a total lack of flow in this story. The action is choppy, hard to visualize, and often introduces elements in the same sentence that Alex vanquishes them. (I didn’t know there were evil bats in one of the final magical fight scenes until she blasts them away with her awesome power. So…was I supposed to be scared of these bats, if I didn’t know about them in the first place, and they were so easily destroyed? Why were they there at all?) Scenes jump willy-nilly between “real” events and stuff that’s only happening in Alex’s head, sometimes with little indication that she’s dreaming/having visions/whatever, which makes the already-choppy scenes even more confusing. I rarely felt like the characters had physical presence in the setting, because I could be told they were standing some distance apart (for example) and then suddenly they’d be pushing at each other with no obvious stage direction to set it up. Too much stage direction is obviously a problem, but too little is also bad!

Part of why this was so disappointing was that I wanted to like this story for its setting/worldbuilding, and I feel nothing else about the book lives up to that potential. The concepts are still interesting to me, but the characters are shallow and difficult to invest in, the “love” triangle is laughable because the choice is between a too-pure-cinnamon-roll girl whose dialogue was often so cheesy I cringed, and a semi-mysterious bad boy who couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted Alex or just wanted to royally piss her off at every opportunity. (The eventual reveal of Nova’s motivations and tragic past explain his dynamic with Alex to some degree, but I didn’t find myself sympathizing with him once I knew.) Yes, having love interests of different genders makes Alex bisexual (I use that term rather than pansexual or any other multi-gender-attraction label because the author has stated it herself outside of the novel.) And I’ll forgive the missing b-word because part of this story is Alex struggling to figure out her own attractions, it’s right there in the text, so fine, she doesn’t identify that way (yet) but she’s committed to exploring what it means. But whether it’s bi or not, as a love triangle it’s even worse that usual for me, because I didn’t even like the obvious “right” choice. Rishi is a paper-thin quirky stock character, only slightly different from every other quirky teenage girl love interest in that she’s not white, and the half of her dialogue that’s not the cheesy cringe is her reminding the reader with a total lack of subtlety that she’s brown, she’s Guyanese, she’s Hindu. I don’t have a problem with any of those things, but I feel like they’re substituting for a personality instead of informing it. What does she like to do for fun? Do I know anything about her aside from that she’s quirky (look at all those weird clothes she wears!) and non-white and unreasonably devoted to Alex for no known reason?

Just give me something more to grab onto. For the characters, for the plot–I haven’t even mentioned how once Alex accepts her magic, she magically conquers every problem in sight with minimal trouble, meaning the fantastical journey has almost no stakes in the moment, only the looming “must save family” goal at the end.

I wanted substance, and all I got was a thin veneer of a story laid over the promise of a really cool concept that never quite materialized.

#17 – You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson

  • Mount TBR: 16/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A purple cover
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In many ways, this is exactly the cute, fluffy, nerdy-girl prom-makeover story I expected it to be, except that it’s not old and tired like that trope is, because this time it’s not happening to some mousy straight white girl, it’s happening to a queer black girl.

Representation matters, and LGBT+ youth, especially those of color, need these happy stories and have every right to get them. I love this book for that.

What keeps this from being outstanding for me as a reader is basically that I’m too old. I graduated from high school more than twenty years ago, before social media was a thing. I got my first email address (Hotmail! Remember Hotmail?) when I was a senior. The Internet was only just becoming a thing that touched my life.

I literally cannot imagine a high school having their own social media platform. It boggles me. I know firsthand how obsessive a high school can be, collectively, about their “thing”–at my high school it was girls’ volleyball, we were state champions forever and the players dominated social standing in the way most media depicts the cheerleaders and/or football team usually doing. But an expensive scholarship for prom? A highly involved, rigorous, time-consuming point-based system to run for court? My prom didn’t even have kings and queens, let alone a court. It was just a big party. (Heck, we didn’t even have Homecoming royalty, because we didn’t have a formal Homecoming dance, which I know is weird because every other school in the area did. I went one year in jeans and flannel, because the dance started immediately after the game, and it was unseasonably cold that year, and I didn’t want to go home to change. Very unglamorous.) So even though I understand this is “realistic” in the sense that nothing that happens in it is physically impossible, it’s so far removed from my experience, even for fiction, that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief, and prom is the entire premise and major conflict.

I fully recognize that’s a “me” problem. Other people, especially those in high school now or more recently attended, probably won’t have that disbelief gap. And I like the rest of the elements of the story fine–Liz is cute, Amanda is pretty funny, the music aspect of the book kind of didn’t go anywhere for a while but it made for a great promposal near the end–but I was fighting my own brain the whole time trying to reconcile this high school with anything familiar to me, and only making it about halfway.

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