This Week, I Read… (2021 #44)

#133 – Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown

  • Mount TBR: 104/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a book I’ve heard so many good things about, this was a disappointment, because it had an awful lot of “yikes” moments and even more unquestioned ableism, biphobia, and internalized misogyny on the part of many characters.

If you’re a teenage Christian lesbian questioning how to navigate your own fraught existence within the teachings of your faith, this book is for you. If you fail to check even one of those boxes, something about this story might very well make you angry.

But let’s start with what’s good about it–despite my one-star rating, there are a few things I liked, just not enough to outweigh all the bad.

1. Friendship. The circle of friends Joanna finds herself with after her relocation to small-town Georgia is generally a good one (minus the obviously telegraphed homophobic apple of the bunch, who is both hater and hated by the end.) When things get messy for both Joanna and Mary Carlson, these friends really do step up and prove they believe in love, forgiveness, and having each others’ backs.

2. Elizabeth, the stepmom. No, she’s not perfect, but over the course of the story I’d argue she gets a better character arc than Joanna herself; she really finds it in her to shed the homophobia inherent in her upbringing (and still pointedly present in her mother) to be a positive force in Joanna’s life. Also, I’m just so tired of the Evil Stepmother.

3. Dana, which I’m honestly surprised to find myself saying. Sure, she’s a total delinquent, but delinquency isn’t a solely male pastime as other media might have you believe, and also not all lesbians are perfect angels who don’t have other problems. Plus, she’s just about the only character in the whole book who consistently calls Joanna on her bullshit, which there’s a lot of.

So what’s bad about it? Everything else.

1. Biphobia: everyone in this book is either lesbian or straight. There are no gay men (ETA: I remembered a few hours after I wrote this that there’s a gay couple at the dance who compliments Joanna’s outfit, but I don’t remember their names, if they even had any, and they never showed up again) and no bisexuals of any gender, let alone any of the even-less-well-known flavors of queerness. When Christianity intersects with the homophobia I’ll give this a pass–like the “returns to being a breeder” example in one of the glossed-over sermons early in the book–but from the actual behavior of named characters, I want to see better. While Joanna knows herself to be a lesbian, so we as readers know she was never really interested in George, to others that apparent interest is confirmation that she’s straight; to everyone else, constantly in all of their discussions and actions, you’re either attracted to men or attracted to women, and that’s that, no murkiness allowed. No one ever goes so far as to say anything directly biphobic, but they don’t have to, because bisexuality simply does not exist in this story, there’s no room for it to.

2. Ableism: other reviewers have gone into far more detail about this subject that I can with my own limited experience, but even I know that this pervasive air of patient but condescending tolerance of the differently abled may appear benign but is still ableism. And as charming as B.T.B. could be out of context–I do genuinely like some of the things he says in conversation–he doesn’t strike me as positive representation of, well, anything, firstly because his disability/neurodivergence is never addressed directly so I don’t know what he’s meant to be representing; also because simply making a teenage character so obviously child-like without further explanation of why is such a lazy way of going about it.

3. Internalized misogyny: listen, I’m not a lesbian, I’m bi, so I can’t begin to unpack the complicated relationship any given lesbian might have to traditionally feminine presentation and how that differs (or doesn’t) from my lived experience. But I do know that this book opened by assuming I already knew exactly what Jo the teenage lesbian looked like, because it wasn’t described in any great detail before she suddenly remakes her entire appearance to fit in better with the small-town Christian vibe of her new home. She feels conflicted about making those changes, but then later conflicted about liking some of those changes, while the whole time Dana (in an aspect of her character that I did not like) is constantly ragging on her for selling out, basically. As if the only way to be a “true” lesbian is whatever the mashup of goth and punk and any other fashion trend they think rejects traditional femininity. I hate to tell you if you didn’t already know, but femme lesbians exist and are just as valid, and appearing more traditionally feminine is not a sign of straightness or selling out. Also, Joanna makes a lot of offhanded comments about how her crying is also weakness or “girly girl”-ness, and I’m just not here for that, because crying is both an entirely natural response to stress or emotional turmoil, and that’s not just misogyny, it’s misandry, because dammit, boys cry too and they should absolutely be allowed to, so stop equating crying with weakness and femininity already!

4. Christianity: woooo boy. As someone raised Christian who has left the faith, I suppose I should be applauding that books like this even exist, that there are Christians who say “love is love” and not “God hates fags.” But even the “good” Christians in this book are still pretty inflexible for a big chunk of it and have to have their own character arcs of Joanna holding their hands and gently leading them to acceptance, or occasionally yelling at them to prod them along. (The notable exception being Mary Carlson’s parents, who seem to be awesome and accepting right off the bat, but their transition from not knowing their daughter was queer to being supportive parents happens entirely off-page, until MC and Joanna make up at the end.) It was honestly just exhausting, and that tentative, hand-holding level of change made the whole book come off as apologia for that very same religious inflexibility. Yes, the worst offenders are either disliked by the important characters (Mrs. Foley) or socially ostracized from the friend group (Jessica) but everyone else gets babied about it.

5. Actual writing problems that aren’t some sort of social justice problematic bullhonky: This book is entirely too long for its plot and spends far too much time indulging itself in Joanna waffling about literally everything in her life. Cut even just 50% of her internal whining and the story gets 100 pages shorter. Also, she’s a terrible protagonist, not on a moral or social level, but simply because 90% of her problems are her own fault, in such ways that I don’t feel any sympathy for her. Yes, her father asked her to do something out of line; but she agreed to it, bargained for things she wanted with that leverage, then started a whirlwind of lies to basically everyone she interacted with in order to hold the door open for still getting what she wanted. And that’s most of the story–an external threat to Joanna’s journey of self-hood doesn’t rear its head again until about 2/3 of the way through, with the stepmom’s pregnancy subplot. Yes, the story has to threaten Joanna with being a potentially miscarriage-inducing source of stress to her family in order to raise the stakes, because she’d gotten so close to coming clean about everything that possible sibling death was the only thing to prevent her. Was that really the right way to escalate the situation?

6. The ending: am I actually supposed to be happy that MC took Joanna back after the 400 pages of lies Joanna told her? Oh, right, Christian forgiveness and all. But seriously, MC would be better off with almost anyone else, and the possible girlfriend after Joanna, Deidre, had to be a blatantly manipulative (possible, future) abuser in order to seem like Joanna was a better choice. And in case you didn’t notice this from Deidre’s behavior, more than one friend character literally says so out loud to Joanna, to eliminate any possibility of missing the messaging. It’s a pretty bad romance book when I’m not actually happy that the couple gets back together at the end, right?

#134 – Burn for Me, by Ilona Andrews

  • Mount TBR: 105/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

By all rights, I should be panning this book to some degree, because it should feel like a direct rehash of the Kate Daniels series. Sure, the setting is different–there’s magic, but so far no beast people or mythical creatures, and it’s definitely pre- rather than post-apocalypse–but the same major elements are there. The heroine is a smart and spunky private investigator who isn’t fully aware or or able to utilize her own power, hinting at secrets in her past. Her love interest, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful men around, with the skewed moral compass and priorities to match. They’re forced to work together by circumstances when they don’t fully trust each other, but sparks are constantly flying.

It’s Kate and Curran all over again, minus the shapeshifting part.

But I’m giving this book five stars, and you want to know why? Because it all still works. I’m not above reading stories based on the tropes and dynamics I love over and over again. If I were, I wouldn’t be a romance reader, because while I value variety in how storytelling is approached, romances do follow certain patterns, and this push-pull power dynamic is one of them, and it’s one that Andrews does extremely well.

I wish I were already reading the next book, and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is. (I don’t own it yet. Is it on Hoopla? I should check to see if it’s on Hoopla, because then I could start it today.)

#135 – White Hot, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Five stars for being an addictive read that I tore through in less than 24 hours. Maybe only four for the actual plot–this suffers slightly from what I presume is middle-book syndrome, where everything that’s up in the air at the end of the first novel (the romance, the conspiracy plot) still has to be an least somewhat unresolved at the end of the second so that we can tie it all up (hopefully) in the third.

As I said with Burn for Me, the primary romance dynamic is still roughly the same as Kate and Curran from the Kate Daniels series; Incredibly Powerful Alpha meets a Plucky Female Private Investigator who doesn’t put up with his bullshit. And yes, I still like it. But what I like more is that in between all these crazy action scenes, we get to know both of them better and both have moved away from that reductive framework I slotted them into at first. Nevada is defined by her love for her family and the pressure of her (at least partially self-imposed) responsibilities towards them. Rogan is struggling with how his highly unusual military service has affected his mindset and personality. Both seem to spend a lot of time wondering how tenable a relationship is for them beyond their wild and compelling sexual attraction, and that’s still a question at the end of the story, though matters have (*cough*) progressed in some respects.

As we get to know Nevada we’re also getting to know her family better, and I have to say I like them too. It’s only snippets at this point because there are a fair number of them as a supporting cast, but they not only feel like real people but interesting ones: I look forward to watching the younger ones come into their magic as the series progresses (because I peeked ahead and I know that one of Nevada’s sisters will move up to protagonist status.) Meanwhile, I will wonder quietly about potential future romances for Leon and Bern (extremely unlikely, I know, but an interesting thought exercise in what sort of stories they would star in) and look forward to both this arc’s conclusion with the next book, and the start of Catalina’s down the road.

#136 – Clean Sweep, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Using up my Hoopla digital borrows for this month led me to a backlog of Ilona Andrews books I haven’t read yet, so I took a break from the Hidden Legacy series to give the Innkeeper Chronicles a try.

For this author, honestly, this book is kind of bad. Which still makes it better than a lot of the romances I try randomly across many authors and subgenres, true, but it feels lean, underdeveloped, and mildly disappointing.

The world-building has potential and I like what I do get of it, but there are also a lot of moments where events hinge on things that haven’t already been introduced. Most telling in this is that at the beginning, it seems like it’s going to be a Sean/Dina romance by the end, but partway through, suddenly there’s a vampire who becomes both a major character and another potential love interest, leading to an unresolved love triangle cliffhanger that was not at all satisfying. At several points through the rising action of the vampire’s plot line, he stops to work out and/or explain precisely why all this nonsense is happening, based on complicated cultural politics that no one else involved (me the reader included) could possibly have known at that point, so despite the stakes being at least a little personal for Dina (the safety of her inn was threatened) it felt like the story wasn’t actually about her. Especially because it’s hammered in repeatedly that she probably shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place, which gives everything an extra layer of contrivance.

(The pointed final lampshade between Sean and Arland that was clearly referencing the Twilight series didn’t help. Okay, IA, you wanted to write a vampire/werewolf love triangle of your own. Fine. There’s no need to be cute about it.)

What rescued this from being unreadable was the characteristic snark and sass that at least two or three characters in any IA book are required to have, and in this case, one of those was an obviously powerful but equally mysterious permanent “guest” of Dina’s inn, whose nearly every line was a treasure of attitude and humor. Sean also came out on the funnier side of the Badass Alpha Male stereotype, which I appreciated.

When my borrows refresh in a few days I’ll give the second book a try, but I’m not a huge fan of love triangles, so if this series doesn’t get better in a real hurry, I’ll drop it.

#137 – Wildfire, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A solid conclusion to Nevada’s trilogy within the larger series, but it fell down on enough minor stuff that no matter how much I enjoyed parts of it, it’s not a five-star finale.

I love that Cornelius, the client from book two, is still around in his new capacity. Compared to Rogan he’s definitely painted as a beta male and less desirable (not that he’s remotely a love interest possibility in universe, just in general) but I love that he’s a good, caring dad, he’s intelligent and willing to learn from his mistakes, and he’s constantly surrounded by animals like a Disney Princess. A+ supporting character.

I thought the conspiracy plot was finished off well (aside from that one all-important detail, which I’ll get back to later) and most of the action surrounding it was fine. I did think that the Final Boss himself was a bit of a letdown, not in terms of power, but in terms of plot importance–the encounters with his henchmen earlier had more personal stakes, and the escalation to “but now we have to save the city from this semi-madman who wants to destroy it to escape the consequences of his actions” was a pretty big jump and somehow actually felt less important than saving the kids did earlier.

The weakest part of the book to me overall was Rynda, both in her capacity as client, and as Rogan’s ex. Sure, her husband was kidnapped and that’s what starts the plot moving, but at all points she’s a pretty terrible person to everyone involved (except her kids, in theory, though we don’t actually see her parenting them at all, they’re just props for her to worry about) and something about her behavior always rang false to me in a way that the story wasn’t accounting for. I understand that she’s supposed to be an empath who doesn’t use her powers because she’s convinced everyone hates her and she feels deeply unloved, which she then turns outward into being an off-putting person as a defense mechanism. But her excessively needy behavior and reliance on men to solve her problems never squared neatly with that, and her desperate attempts to get Rogan back, especially late in the story, were in direct conflict with what she’d said earlier about how she was actually frightened of Rogan. Also, Edward seemed like a decent guy in the end, so why on earth did he pine so bad for Rynda when she’s such an unlovable person, both in terms of suitability under House strictures (her genetic wild card status) and her general pattern of horrible behavior? What on earth does he see in her? I can’t understand it.

As for the very, very end, the epilogue…I’m not the greatest at figuring out mystery identities, but the unnamed man gives himself away with a key line of dialogue we’ve already heard him say, and we know that our intrepid investigators didn’t find the head of the conspiracy, so clearly that’s who he is. I feel great, in one sense, that I figured something out when usually I’d be scratching my head in confusion, but on the other hand, this feels so blatantly obvious that I almost don’t believe I’ve uncovered anything, that this is somehow another layer of plot confusion and maybe the head of the conspiracy is Somehow Good Actually. I genuinely don’t know if I’m overthinking this because I’m so unused to having this level of knowledge. I’m probably going to be second-guessing myself as the series moves forward.

#138 – Diamond Fire, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I congratulate this novella for doing something I rarely see them do: tackling a story idea that suits itself to the novella length. A few romance novellas I’ve read are glorified short stories with thin plot and extra padding, but by far most of them are actually novel- or near-novel-length ideas with rushed pacing and something else cut for time, be it character development, setting description, whatever. Novellas frequently try to do too much, and this one felt like the perfect length for what it wanted to accomplish.

It also serves as an excellent bridge to cross over from Nevada’s POV in the first three book and this novella’s prologue, to Catalina’s POV. While she’s stepping into Nevada’s role in the story as protagonist, and into her shoes as well in-universe as a private investigator, her methods, personality, and character voice are all distinct, even with a relatively short amount of time to nail them down. Catalina does not already have years of experience dealing with people, and it shows; this also naturally leads to the touching moment at the end when Rogan’s mother steps up to be Catalina’s mentor.

The major flaw I felt this had was to populate Rogan’s extended family with so many people. I understand that as a mini heist mystery, we had to have a decent field of suspects; but when Catalina herself mentions that the long Spanish names are confusing, especially when there are so many of them, I groaned a little at the obvious lampshading of an author-created problem. It’s not that I had trouble tracking the most important ones once their subplots were set up, but I did wonder why there were a generous handful of names leftover that didn’t end up being important to the plot at all. Couldn’t some of those have been trimmed out during the editing phase?

After reading this, I’m really looking forward to the next book.


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