#21 – By Your Side, by Kasie West
- Mount TBR: 20/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: WTF plot twist
- Rating: 2/5 stars
Bland and easily digestible, but lacking substance. I read it in a single morning and the pages flew by, but by the end, I was definitely left wondering where the meat of the story was.
I was sold on the book originally by the premise–romance that starts from being locked in a library over the weekend–but once the lock-in actually happened, I was really left wondering how plausible it was. Public buildings have emergency exits that always open from the inside, yes? Am I just imagining that? Because most of the obstacles Autumn encountered trying to get out are at least somewhat reasonable–the library phones are in locked offices, the computers need an employee log-in to access them and Autumn’s no hacker–but public buildings have emergency exits, otherwise they wouldn’t pass fire safety inspections. So they would have been able to get out. Spending so much time making sure we believed they couldn’t rings hollow and was honestly kind of frustrating when I knew what an omission the book was making in order to let the story function as the author desired.
And that “library” hook doesn’t even pay off in a pandering way, because neither main character is a bookworm and books or book appreciation does not in any way play a part in the story. A copy of Hamlet is a prop for a while, but that’s about it.
Once I accepted that I just had to accept this premise as-is, I was disappointed that no one had much of a personality. Autumn was anxious and that solely defined her character. Dax was the loner she had to bring around. Jeff was the prankster. Autumn’s and Jeff’s friend group was populated by boring, forgettable people, with the exception of Dallin, who I think was supposed to be Jeff’s protective best friend (which would put his actions in a good light) but really just came off like a total jerk and by far the worst person in the entire story. Not everyone is a good person in high school, certainly, but I don’t think a side character should be the best-developed of everyone simply by virtue of constantly acting in the way that would most piss Autumn off. I don’t think this story is meant to have a true villain, but if it can be said there is one, it’s Dallin, and I hate him.
Not even the library itself has any personality, because despite the author’s note at the end saying it was inspired by a real place, I never got much of a sense of what it looked like, because every environment in the book was as painfully generic as the characters. Autumn lives in a house, and goes to a school, and sometimes runs away and hides from her friends in a greenhouse. The library is big and has a bell tower, but that’s all I can tell you about those places, because they have no memorable features and never created an impression on me.
While I give points to the story for Autumn having an incredibly supportive family, especially her mother who encourages her to take time off school for her mental health, I did not jive with the anxiety representation in this at all. Autumn’s panic attacks seem to end almost instantly, no matter how often she said to herself or others that “her brain and her body don’t listen to each other.” She longed to be able to control herself better, but from where I’m standing, she couldn’t prevent her flare-ups but she definitely could send them packing with frankly amazing speed, and the fact that she had them never seemed to alter her behavior in any way. Once it was over, she was fine, there were no lingering effects, which is not my experience at all, and comes off as “I have anxiety and it’s my entire personality but it doesn’t actually disrupt my life very much.” (The exception being “the big one” at the library, but that was in response to a shock, and clearly necessary for the plot to happen correctly. The rest of the time her panic attacks were nearly a non-issue.)
Everyone’s experience with mental health disorders is different in some ways and I’m never going to find a character in a book that perfectly matches mine. I know that. But this representation felt minimizing and shallow.
#22 – The Leopard King, by Ann Aguirre
- Mount TBR: 21/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: Black and white
- Rating: 2/5 stars
I liked some things, but not everything, about the romance plot, and was basically bewildered about everything else.
There’s a great deal of effort here in the world-building to get us to believe there’s a whole series of factions, of types of shifters, of inter-species conflicts. But there’s very little to ground them in reality, to give them a setting that feels approachable and believable. I wanted to know less about the politics and more about the people, because there were minor characters that were pointless to include, except to try to convince me the pride had enough members to truly exist. What was the point of the reclusive artist guy whose existence added nothing to the story? Why did Pru have such a large family if half of them were only names on a page? I’m not sure why I should care about this pride and its war, if the only members who seem to actually exist are the three involved in the romance’s weird love triangle?
Which was the weakest aspect of the romance, because there’s no doubt in my mind that Dom is a better man/lover/mate/husband/whatever than Slay (also, dumb name, btw,) and I was annoyed with Pru for being hung up on him. More compelling is the other shadowy “love” triangle of Pru competing with Dom’s deceased wife for his affection–which is properly angsty and not gross because it’s really only happening in her mind, not his. Dom is never a jerk about it. In fact, I like Dom best out of everything in this book, because I’m a total goner for heroes who are allowed to be in touch with their emotions, who show vulnerability, who admit their mistakes. It shouldn’t be such a low bar to clear in the genre, but Dom hurdles over it with plenty of air space, and compared with the lack of depth to nearly everything else about this story, he’s easily the best character present.
But whatever squishy feelings he and the romance might inspire in me, I developed no investment in this world and don’t really care which side characters get their own books later in the series. I have no intention of reading more.
#23 – Be My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai
- Mount TBR: 22/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: Free space
- Rating: 4/5 stars
How on earth did so much backstory and character development fit into a 105-page novella? I’ve read several of Rai’s full-length novels and this seems just as strong as any of those (maybe stronger than a few) in that department.
The smut is properly smutty, but the sex scenes pull double duty as chances to peek into the character’s heads and get to know them better (as I firmly believe all romance works should do, because sex without characterization is just wasted page space, from a story perspective.)
Because I’m reading this long after its publication, I didn’t have to wait at the cliffhanger to go on with the story, but if I had been stuck there waiting for the second novella, I would have been making grabby hands for it the second it dropped. Luca is a charmer, and Elizabeth is wonderfully complex, given how little time we have to get to know her.
#24 – Stay My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai
- Mount TBR: 23/100
- Beat the Backlist Bingo: Good book, bad cover [there is a matching cover to the first novella on my Kindle edition, but Goodreads doesn’t list it, and that’s where I source my cover images for my digital reads; but neither cover is great, honestly.]
- Rating: 4/5 stars
A satisfying payoff to the first novella, though I was surprised how much longer and meatier this one was. If you view the two of them together as a single work, it’s about 300 pages, of which the first hundred is the first novella and the rest the second. So Be My Fantasy was effectively Act I of the story, giving us a good point to stick the “will they or won’t they work out” cliffhanger.
One aspect I think was stronger here was the fact that this is a second-chance romance, which I feel was skated over in the first novella. It’s maybe not as strong a use of the trope as I’ve seen elsewhere–these aren’t childhood or high-school sweethearts reuniting, merely two people who dated briefly (and chastely) as adults trying again under different circumstances. But that’s addressed as a corollary to the conflict of Luca and Elizabeth dating the first time as, essentially, a business merger, and how she is no longer willing to settle for that. Luca’s aim now has to be to convince her he no longer wants that, and I think that’s a powerful and appropriate motivation for his actions.
He continues to be a charmer, and I may have fallen a little in love with him myself. The dinner scene with his parents blindsided me with their charm as well, so I see why it was an effective tactic on Elizabeth.
I think I still prefer Rai’s more recent works, as Girl Gone Viral was one of my best books of 2020, but her back catalog is proving to be worth the time to investigate, and there’s still more I have to get to while I’m waiting for the next Modern Love book.