This Week, I Read… (2021 #23)

#63 – Lord of the Changing Winds, by Rachel Neumeier

  • Mount TBR: 60/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at the end of the first chapter, around 10%. Which, you know, is a loooong first chapter, and that’s part of the problem. (I counted pages for the next one, which turns out is half as long. I’m not a stickler for consistent chapter length, but that’s pretty variable already.)

Anyway.

I understand that not all stories start with a bang. Some of them barely even start with a simmer. This wasn’t even on the heat, it was so slow. A larger-than-I-wanted portion of that first long chapter was awkward exposition-dump tangents about the history of the town and how it was So Important because of where it was on the river, yet it was also a bit of a backwater, and oh this is the family that runs the inn, except the mother doesn’t really run the inn she makes pottery and arranges the flowers for the inn and isn’t that special, that the tables at the tavern at the inn always have this specially made pottery with fresh cut flowers that don’t wilt as fast as they should because everybody is just a little bit magic and that’s her thing, flowers and pottery?

In case you think I’m exaggerating…well, I’m not, that bit about the town and the inn takes two pages and I was bored the whole time. Whenever I thought the story was going somewhere, that the main character might actually do something, there was a tangent about somebody or something else to stop her. At least until she FINALLY abruptly nonsensically goes to the griffins. But I’ll get to that issue later.

The other thing I found distracting (and detracting) from what little plot there was, was a chain of editing mistakes, inconsistencies, and word repetition that added up to a feeling of amateurish writing. And I’ve got receipts: the first one concerns how old our protagonist Kes is. One of their farmhands both “hired on six years ago” and “has been on the farm half [Kes’] life.” So, taken literally, she’s twelve. Less literally–if we assume the farmhand has been around for half of the life she remembers (because she wouldn’t remember being a baby) she’s fourteen or fifteen handily, sixteen would be stretching it. But she also has a sister who’s starting to go gray (one of the inane character details in the exposition dump about her) and has been “quickly married and quickly widowed” twice. Well, how quickly? Did those unnamed unfortunate husbands die after a month of marriage or a year? How long between the marriages? Why were the siblings born so far apart as to make this possible? Or, alternately, just how young did the sister marry the first time around? And why is this aspect of her life brought up at all if it’s a one-sentence history that isn’t explored in any depth, despite it raising all these questions for me in order to have it make any sense? (I’m assuming, of course, that these past marriages aren’t important, but I don’t know. I do know that the book is about griffins and magic and the younger sister, not the older one.)

All of that, because the author wouldn’t just say how old the protagonist is, so I have to nitpick these not-necessarily consistent details to figure it out. And I’m still not sure. Her precise age isn’t important if we’re talking about a month on either side of sixteen, but the difference between twelve or fifteen or twenty sure is significant to how the character thinks and talks and acts, right?

Kes acts like…I don’t know, a spacey and exceptionally shy four-year-old? She can’t talk, even to people she knows, and especially not strangers. She has her head in the clouds about griffins and nature and not doing anything at all that her sister or society want her to do, but not in an actively rebellious way that implies she has a spine, just that she’s terrified of basically everything that might resemble normal life. And the “can’t talk” part of her personality gets really grating when she’s interacting with the mage and the griffins at the end of the chapter, because every time she’s upset or confused, she thinks something and “looks helplessly” at the mage, and he answers her just like he’s read her mind. Which apparently is a thing that griffins can do, but wow, does it not justify the protagonist not having the will to actually say what she thinks out loud, and wow, does it make for really awkward “dialogue” in the narrative. No, thank you, I know it’s only been one chapter, but if you can’t sell me on your protagonist in the first chapter, what are you even doing?

As for the other issue I mentioned under this umbrella, the worst offender for word repetition was “white” showing up five times across two consecutive sentences–four in the first, once again in the second. The passage was describing a griffin, and okay, I get it, the creature is the whitest white ever seen, but for pity’s sake, don’t say it so often!

The whole tone of this is inconsistent, hand-wavey nonsense that’s scattered in ten different directions by all the things it’s trying to accomplish at once. It’s got no focus, so I don’t have patience for it.

#64 – Skin Hunger, by Eli Lang

  • Mount TBR: 61/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A slow-paced, somewhat meandering piece of introspective fiction that isn’t really what it was marketed as–I was introduced to this title via a f/f romance rec list, and the blurb screams “romance” at the top of its lungs. But the romance is a subplot, and the main plot is…well, I’m not exactly sure, because there’s not a lot of structure, and there’s not a lot of closure. Things just happen, in an order that mostly makes sense chronologically and in real life, but don’t really fit neatly into a plot.

Is there a genre for “coming of age but they’re a confused adult rather than a confused teenager”?

I think this plot was trying to do too much, and thus accomplishing little of it well. Ava as a narrator was reasonably fleshed out as a successful musician who still somehow hasn’t got herself figured out, but also she has, because she’s bi and lives for her drum kit, but she doesn’t think anyone outside of her band (and not even all of them) “get” her, and she’s still chasing the approval of her parents, who don’t seem likely for most of the story to give it to her. If the story is about acceptance, well, the ending is pretty weak, because her parents end up saying they’re proud of her but I didn’t really believe them, Ava just blows up at them a few times and they fold over. It came off as them (her mother especially) trying to make her happy by saying the right thing, because they usually manage to justify the way they raised her, and the way they didn’t want her to be a musician because it was too hard a life, by saying “we just want you to be happy” while totally ignoring that being a musician makes her happy. It didn’t feel cathartic when they gave in, only placating.

And the reason that I could write that mini book report about the parents’ plot line is because that’s most of the story. This isn’t a romance. It has a romance in it. I’m trying hard to judge the book on its own merits and not the skewed expectations I went into it with–but I did want a romance, and I got a lackluster moody personal essay about how hard it is when people don’t understand you. Which, you know, valid, even if that’s a vibe we mostly attribute to teenagers–it’s not like being a misunderstood adult would be any easier. But on the other hand, Ava comes off for most of the book as a whining disaster who has no idea what she wants or how to go about getting it (despite her obvious success in her career) and blunders from mistake to mistake without a lot of intention, but with a lot of regret. And it’s just hard to feel a lot of sympathy for someone who’s still acting like a wishy-washy teenager when they’re, as Ava so often says about herself, “pushing thirty.”

I don’t think story knows what it wants to be, because Ava is trying to deal with a budding romance, an unrequited love for her best friend/bandmate, the lack of approval for her life from her parents, her grandmother’s impending move to assisted living and a revelation about a long-held secret, and also her cousin is always around for some reason, but he’s just a bland substitute for her actual best friend because her actual best friend is still across the country.

This story is so unfocused that I’m having a hard time wrangling my review of it into focus. There were parts of it I liked–the author did have a way of slowing down the pace and putting a lot of deep thoughts on the page, and sometimes those did resonate with me. But that just made it all the more jarring that in the rest of the book, all this craziness was going on in such a small space, and without a lot of direction.

#65 – Take a Hint, Dani Brown, by Talia Hibbert

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Recommended by a friend/trusted reviewer
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

If I were to host a personal awards show for the books I read, this novel would be nominated for:

Best use of the fake dating trope
Best anxiety representation
Best bisexual representation
Sweetest “grumpy” male lead
Most authentic academic/nerd female lead

And honestly, it might not win all of them if I really dig back into my romance history and say, “Well, is Dani better nerd rep than X or Y or Z from these other books?” for example. But I’m pretty confident it would still make a respectable showing and take home several trophies at least.

These two lovebirds were so convincingly perfect for each other (despite both having deep personal flaws on display basically at all times) that when things were still going swimmingly at 75%, I actually wondered, “Is whatever conflict we’re barrelling towards, that breaks them up before the ending where they get back together, actually going to seem natural and not horribly forced?” Because yes, they were that perfect together, with their banter and their nicknames and the small ways they showed each other they cared even when they really weren’t supposed to, per their fake dating/friends with benefits agreement.

Then it happened, and I wanted to smack myself on the forehead because OF COURSE it happened that way, I honestly can’t believe I didn’t predict exactly what went wrong. But they got their happy ending, and it was lovely, and though my taste doesn’t run to giant muscled ex-rugby players, Zafir is now just as much a treasured book boyfriend as his predecessor in the series was when I read the first book. (Bonus: though Chloe and Red only made brief appearances, they were still cute as buttons.) (Double bonus: as I’m bi, and so is Dani, I’m not at all opposed to the idea of starting a collection of book girlfriends, and she seems like an excellent first entry.)

What really hit me right in the feels, though, even more than the obvious-but-impossible romance between them, was how Zafir’s anxiety disorder was handled. Bad anxiety rep is one of the first things that will turn me off a book, because (with the caveat that no two people experience it exactly the same and no one story can cover the whole of it) it’s so often disastrously wrong to me that I can’t stomach it. Some characters have panic attacks at the drop of a hat and claim that it interferes with their life, but somehow recover instantly and never have any consequences. Others say they’re crippled by anxiety, except it only happens when the plot needs it to happen and the rest of the time they seem joyously neurotypical. But Zaf…well, in some ways, he seemed much more like me. And honestly it was so nice to see a character who had been living with their issues for years and was mostly handling it, but slipped up sometimes, because that’s where I am.

As far as that aspect of the book goes, the biggest compliment I can give it was that when I was done reading (and sniffling, I didn’t quite full-cry but I definitely sniffled) I sat with my knitting for a while to collect myself, then started looking up anxiety help apps and installed one on my phone. Because seeing Zaf slipping and recovering made me face the fact that I haven’t been caring for myself lately the way I should, and no matter what the reasons are or how valid they are, I need to change it, and this was a baby step I could do right away.

It is a romance and not a self-help book, but since romance-as-self-help is kind of a thing in the story anyway, I feel like I fit right in, that these characters would get me. It’s been a while since I’ve connected with the story like this, and I’m grateful for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s