This Week, I Read… (2021 #36)

#105 – Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

  • Mount TBR: 86/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not generally a fan of romance novels where the titles are either a character’s name (doesn’t tell me anything about what to expect) or a candid description of the major trope that might attract me to the story (tells me too much, or at least is too blatant.) This title does both! So you’d think that splits the difference and makes it okay, but really, it doesn’t.

This is another one that came to me in a charity bundle, and thus I did not go out of my way to acquire it. But the author is new to me and I’m reading through my backlog, so here we go:

It’s fine. The author’s note at the beginning explains that this is low-angst fluff, and it mostly is. So in terms of delivering what it promises on, A+, it’s precisely what it says on the tin.

The problem I have with it is that it is so “low-angst” that there’s hardly any plot to speak of, with even less conflict to drive it.

They meet. He gets hired. They admit they’re attracted to each other. They give in to that attraction almost immediately. He’s good with the kids, her friends and family like him. Eventually there’s some drama with her ex, but they handle it. They get their happily ever after.

Okay, I genuinely wish more real-life people communicated as clearly and honestly as these characters do, but they don’t get a chance to grow, really, because what conflict is present in the plot is all external–her ex is 99% of it. Their internal conflicts at the start–which they both get over very, very quickly–are “is dating the person who hired me/the person I hired a good idea?” but it’s never really framed as the boss-employee dynamic you’d find in most workplace romances. They never even talk about power dynamics at all, though the set-up is certainly an inversion of the typical real-world power structure: the black woman is the boss and the white man the employee.

Which I do appreciate. But a near-total lack of internal conflict doesn’t make for a riveting plot, and pinning all the external conflict to a single source leads to a pretty predictable conclusion, and honestly the ex is so over-the-top, Grade A asshole that it’s hard to believe, even with the heroine’s explanations and backstory, that she would have ever married him in the first place, he’s that awful.

As a low-angst fluff read, yeah, it’s fine. But in my view, it’s an interesting premise with reasonably likable characters, which suffer from a lack of development due to an absence of conflict to make them grow.

#106 – Thinner, by Richard Bachman

  • Mount TBR: 87/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 44. Why that page? Because the racism graduated from constant use of the g-slur to an n-word joke told by a minor character. (One whom I suspect we’re not supposed to like, but still.)

I’ve always known that King’s relationship to racist ideas in his novels varies from book to book. Many of his works I would not say are particularly racist, and some use racist language in very specific ways as tools, tools that don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the author as a person.

This one, though, if it had somehow been the first King/Bachman novel I had ever read, would have made me say “this is racist garbage” and I never would have touched a single other work.

Now, I know that the g—- curse is a trope as old and tired as the hills, and in 1984 most non-Roma people were not batting an eyelash at it. I still wasn’t educated enough about the subject to bat my own personal eyelashes when this trope showed up more than a decade later in my beloved (but deeply, deeply flawed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’m educated enough now, dammit. I was really having trouble with the constant use of the slur, anywhere from one to ten times a page, but for the sake of finding out where the story was going, I was trying to isolate that issue in my mind from the rest of the book, to acknowledge that it’s a problem but keep it from ruining anything else good about the story.

By page 44, I hadn’t found anything good about the story for it to ruin, then a character said the n-word and I gave up.

I know it’s easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, so take this with however many grains of salt necessary, but I genuinely cannot believe that anybody read this at the time and didn’t instantly know it was Stephen King. It’s certainly got the classic King repetition problem, where you can’t go more than a few paragraphs without reading the same words over and over, and this was a particularly egregious example, because if I have to read “the old g—- man with the rotting nose” one more time, I will scream, I will scream so loud, I will shatter every window in this building. It’s also got the boring-everyman protagonist with the good-but-not-great family that you just know is going to suffer because he screwed up. It’s got the tonal disdain for the upper-class lifestyle combined with the yearning for it–in 44 pages I was also treated to many repetitions of various phrases about the local country club.

It’s just blatantly King all over, and in the worst way possible.

Whatever merit the plot might have had is completely overshadowed for me by the packaging it’s in. The racist, boring, repetitious package. I’ve already DNF’d two other books this month, and I try not to do it so often, but I just can’t keep going with this, it’s turning my stomach already and we haven’t even really gotten to the body horror yet…

#107 – Brave Hearts, by Phoenix Sullivan

  • Mount TBR: 88/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What a mess.

There’s no consistency to this, no romantic arc to follow. I’m not against our leads starting their relationship as a hookup that becomes more, but it stays in a weird, not-really-romantic place for a long time, where they keep having sex as boss/employee without becoming emotionally attached to each other. And then when they do form emotional attachments, it’s more that they’re both projecting their needs and insecurities onto Jasiri the elephant, whom they’re both so invested in, rather than each other.

I was uncomfortable with their extended banter at the beginning, when both of them were dancing around the idea that sex was part of the hiring package that Nicky was/wasn’t offering Peter. But I’m genuinely squicked out by the idea of them deliberately having sex near the elephant’s enclosure to try to bond with her, or to show that life is still worth living? I think I understand what the point was, even though I’m having a hard time describing it, because by that point in the story all of their emotional development was tied to this elephant. And this happens more than once.

Their inability to bond to each other for most of the book seems to rely heavily on their traumatic backstories, but neither is well-developed. Peter’s is an incredibly standard “I’m ex-military and I’ve seen some shit that damaged me,” but Nicky’s is… I don’t really know? So their eventual happy ending feels forced, because I believe they have had lots of sex with each other, but I never once thought they were falling in love. (Also I’m not in love myself with the idea that they only get together once Jasiri has had her own happy ending, and that they get together because they succeeded with Jasiri. She’s not your third wheel, guys, stop basing your personal life choices on her.)

I think the only good thing I can say about the “romance” here–which is incredibly minor–is that our leads did sometimes have bad sex when they weren’t really in the right mood for it, which is something a lot of romance novels pretend never happens, because it spoils the fantasy. Yeah, not all sex is “starfire.” (Which came up a lot as a descriptor here, and honestly if it had only been once, I think that’s fine, but it showed up too often.)

The b-plot with the unscrupulous animal broker seemed thin overall, and it wandered in and out of the story at seemingly odd times. It felt both like an excuse to make this story novel-length without investing more in the actual romance, and an excuse to have Peter be in danger a lot so that Nicky could be upset about it.

Ultimately the problem with this novel is likely that the animals are more important characters in the story than the people, and that’s not what I want from a romance.

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