This Week, I Read… (2022 #2)

#4 – Emerald Blaze, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it to pieces.

I already liked Alessandro just fine because I could tell some sort of wonderfully juicy vulnerability was hiding under that smooth exterior, and now it’s on full display (at least to Catalina and the readers.)

I already liked Catalina just fine because she was struggling to come into her own under an overwhelming wave of outside pressures, and now she’s much more confident and cannier about how she presents herself to others, manipulating them by showing them different faces. (ie, she’s more like Alessandro from the previous book, even if she keeps insisting she’s starting to become her grandmother.)

So the romance is a grand roller coaster of fun and the right amount of angst.

But what really stepped up in this novel compared to the earlier installments in the series was the main plot. Stakes were definitely raised, to the point where I’m actually worried that Ruby Fever won’t be able to raise them further–our plucky heroes having to deal with something that is a literal existential threat to humanity feels really big and possibly un-toppable.

Add to that the continuing presence and expansion of the family surrounding Catalina–bringing Runa in from former-client status to almost-family is a good call, for basically the same reasons I was happy to see Cornelius stick around. Leon and Bern are still awesome. Grandma Frida is still a total badass. Arabella is starting to grow up a little more and got an excellent chance to be clever in a plot-relevant way. I love all them all!

Waiting for the next book is going to be hard.

#5 – Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia

  • Forgotten YA Gems BOTM
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I like a few of the things this story was trying to say, and a few small things it managed to accomplish, but I don’t care for the great bulk of it.

First, the entire premise. I get that YA can depict teens in unrealistically aspirational situations, but as an adult reader I had trouble swallowing the idea that a teenage artist still in school was capable of producing such a beloved and beyond-wildly popular webcomic. It just felt fake to me the entire time, and since it’s the entire core of the story, that’s a problem.

Second, what is Eliza’s deal? I mean that in good faith, because over the course of the story she shows various markers for a variety of mental illnesses or inherent neurodivergence, but the only aspect of her mental health that is actually addressed at any point is her post-revelation anxiety. Her obsession/hyperfixation on her art and the community it created could be read as a sign of autism, or ADHD, or depression-related escapism. Her absolute lack of interest in relating to other people on a face-to-face level could be any of those things or straight up social anxiety. At some points she clearly dissociates from her body, and that’s never explored. And her final dip into briefly-possibly-suicidal territory happens in a flash for plot reasons and is never important again.

Nothing about her mental landscape is ever definitive, and by the end, treating her anxiety and calling that a day seemed shallow and slapdash. The inability (or unwillingness) of her family to recognize that she’s not “normal” and take steps to either heal that (if it’s treatable illness) or accommodate that (if it’s neurodivergence) is a source of conflict that was genuinely painful to read, and not resolved to my satisfaction.

Third, Eliza’s constant insistence that she’s not a “writer,” she’s an artist. Okay, I get that you’re not producing vast quantities of prose like Wallace’s fan fiction or his novelization of your comic, but even if you’re primarily using art, you’re still “writing” a “story,” Eliza. If you were just an artist, there would be no narrative, you’d just do endless portraits and landscapes of your fictional characters and world, and there would be no movement to it. Every time it came up, it felt so disingenuous.

Fourth, the romance, which was the thing I disliked the least. Even if I don’t think it’s great overall, it has the lion’s share of individual good moments of the story. I liked that Wallace and Eliza became friends and eventually a couple by slowly accepting each other’s weirdness. That’s wonderful and I’m here for it whenever that’s the basis for a relationship. I also love, truly and actually love, that when the split happens over Eliza’s withheld identity, Wallace is allowed to be angry and stay that way for a good long while. So many romances rely on near-instantaneous forgiveness from the wronged party, and it often comes off as unbelievable that those characters get over their anger or betrayal so fast and with so little consequence. But here, Wallace is given the space to be rightfully (or perhaps even righteously) angry, he’s allowed to express his hurt, and while our protagonist is clearly unhappy about that, she’s not trying to pretend it’s unjustified.

I’m less in love with how he does actually forgive her, because it’s related to the book’s ultimately shallow treatment of suicide. I think that really cheapens the ending of their arc, and also is another nail in the coffin of how this story poorly represents mental illness.

Finally, in the “things I didn’t like” category, I don’t feel that the story snippets included from the comic, or the comic pages themselves, added anything of noticeable value to the novel. I get what they’re trying to do, but since I don’t actually read this fictional web comic and I only have the vaguest idea of who these ancillary characters are from what the story characters say about them, I could never bring myself to care, nor could I easily see what were probably supposed to be parallels with the story characters. The book wanted me to be as deeply invested in this web comic as Eliza or her fans, but I can’t be, because it doesn’t actually exist for me to be invested in. I wanted to be invested in the story I was actually getting, and every time it dragged my attention away from that to the comic or the prose transcription of the comic, I didn’t want that, I wanted more story.

#6 – Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What a disappointment.

The plot was mildly engaging, eventually. It took me about half the book to start to care, though, because of the presentation. I don’t think the interview format is a good choice for a number of reasons:

1. It takes a long time to differentiate characters because so many of them are presented so quickly, and in small chunks of transcript that don’t give any individual much chance to develop a clear voice.
2. It doesn’t lend itself to the page well, compared with visual media. Even if I intellectually understand that these are snippets interlaced from presumably separate interviews with the subjects, presenting them all at once gives the sense that they’re all in a room together talking to the interviewer, and I had to remind myself frequently that that was probably never the case. In a film or television documentary, you would see each character separately in frame as they were speaking to reinforce this (or not, if anyone was actually interviewed together.) The cuts between segments would be clear, where on the page everything runs together for the length of the section.
3. The style is flat and unrelieved; it never changes tempo or tension, because it’s always a single person speaking about themselves or someone else, and there’s no body language included to give indicators on how they’re speaking. Only vocal sounds like [laughs], [chuckles], etc., are included, which further flatten the narrative.

My other complaint is that the revelation near the end of the interviewer’s/author’s identity felt unnecessary. Once I knew what was going on, I realized that’s why I’d been seeing a certain [name] in brackets for clarity to the reader, because the interview subjects had been referring to them another way that would have spoiled the mystery. Except there was no mystery? Because I never thought it was going to be important in the slightest who the interviewer was, as there was very little in the text beyond those infrequent clarifications to even hint that the interviewer’s identity needed to be concealed somehow. It’s all setup for a somewhat maudlin ending that ties up the plot neatly but was so clearly attempting to be a tearjerker that I didn’t cry, because the presentation of the story had prevented me from being fully invested in these characters. I was too detached, because everything was so lifeless.

#7 – First Comes Like, by Alisha Rai

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Starts with a solid setup, rushes through a few common and somewhat artificial tropes to get to a happy ending that maybe could have been better earned. What rescued this from a lower rating (I did debate between three and four stars) was how much I loved the characters.

Jia is a hot mess in many ways, and she’s painfully aware of it because she believes she’s the current black sheep of the family. While they may often see her impulsiveness as a negative quality, the story frames it positively (and to some extent uses it to justify the rushed wedding.)

Dev can go on my book boyfriend list with a big gold star next to his name, because at every point in the plot he takes Jia seriously–her grievances against his family because of the situation that brings them together, her job, her needs and desires–and it’s clear that no one else in Jia’s life has ever done that to the same extent. Which obviously makes them perfect for each other, and I’m thrilled about that!

The plot… ugh. It does jump through a series of really common tropes (there’s only one bed, fake dating, fake or real engagement, let’s get married tomorrow) and tropes in and of themselves aren’t evil, having so many crammed together in such a small space (the second half of the book) felt like an escalating comedy of errors, only not in a good way. I see why this is the way it has to go, to some extent, in order to get these two to a happy ending: neither of them, for their various personal reasons, is going to hop in the sack before marriage, and I respect that. But it does mean in order to get the sex scene before the end, everything else needs to rush to get them there.

I did still enjoy it, obviously, and any problems aside, four stars feels like the right rating because I liked it better than The Right Swipe (which I gave three,) but not as much as Girl Gone Viral (which I gave five but it could have been six or ten or twenty, if that were the scale.)

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