This Week, I Read… (2017 #45)

162 - Sacred Hearts

#162 – Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

I often find historical fiction weighed down by superfluous detail, but that was not the case here. The picture painted of life in a Renaissance-era Italian convent was bleak and unforgiving, and yet there were moments of beauty, not just in the peace and grace the characters find through their faith, but in the support these women give each other.

This is only one of a few novels I can remember reading that had no significant male characters. There’s the lover young novice Serafina pines for, but for most of the book he’s absent. There’s their confessor, Father Romero, but he’s only mentioned in passing, never speaks, and is spoken/thought of by the nuns with disdain for his ineffectiveness. And there’s the distant bishop, who holds power over the lives of these women through the threat of encroaching reforms, but his influence in the story is small compared to the powerful movers and shakers within the convent itself.

This novel also demonstrates the paradoxical freedom the sisters had–while shut up in the convent, cut off from the outside world, some of them–our main character Zuana in particular, but also the choir mistress who wrote the convent’s music, and the sister who wrote the plays they performed for festivals–had the freedom to pursue interests that a typical life of marriage and motherhood would have denied them. This isn’t to say the practice of selling off extra daughters against their will to a convent was a moral one–it’s not–and ultimately the story agrees, as the ending makes clear. But it also depicts the ability to find personal freedoms in strange places, which I find a hopeful message.

163 - Auraria

#163 – Auraria, by Tim Westover

DNF @ 25 percent because I got bored. The entire first quarter of the book was a lather-rinse-repeat of the protagonist going to a person to buy their land, having basically the same conversation with each one until something weird happened, buying the land, and then going on his merry way while completely failing to be affected by the weird thing.

While I did like some of the weird things–the house that had more stories when you were in it than appeared from the outside, with each one getting smaller, until the top floor only had room for “thimble and thread”, that was actually pretty neat–the story as presented felt like an excuse to have a mystical, cool setting more than an actual story. The emphasis was definitely placed on how strange the town and its inhabitants were, rather than any actual plot, which was plodding and dull.

164 - Trade Me

#164 – Trade Me, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 12/3/17 – 12/4/17
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This book goes so far above and beyond the New Adult Contemporary romances I’ve read before that I feel like it’s on a different plane of existence.

This story covers conflicts based on relative wealth (it is a billionaire story, after all); eating disorders; cultural differences; and plain old stubbornness.

Given that I’ve been paycheck-to-paycheck working poor in my life, I found Tina’s portrayal sharp and accurate. And Blake isn’t your typical Billionaire Romance Hero at all–he recognizes his privilege and doesn’t dismiss criticism directed at him based on his charmed upbringing.

Their attraction feels real and unforced, and their budding relationship takes a whole bunch of twists and turns before it develops into love. The HFN, hopeful ending definitely makes me want to read more of this series, especially since the author’s note at the end of the book says they’re coming back in a future book!

(In fact, the extensive author’s notes at the end were a great addition, explaining the process of how such an unusual and original book came together. Definitely read those too, if you pick this up!)

165 - Must Love Mistletoe

#165 – Must Love Mistletoe, by Christie Ridgway

  • Read: 12/4/17 – 12/5/17
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (151/150) [yes I’m still counting!]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I don’t think this story knew what it wanted to be. Sure, it’s primarily a romance, but the tone shifted often and wildly from super-serious (Finn’s Secret Service past and recently acquired disability) to super-silly (the excessive Christmas spirit of the town and everything that happened at the shop) to super-irritating (Bailey, all the time.)

And how reasonable is it, even given Bailey’s history, for her to simply vanish on Finn with no explanation or contact–and for him never to try to contact her? She didn’t change her identity or go into space, he could have tried. But that doesn’t make for as much drama, even if it doesn’t make any sense. No, young Finn just accepted that Bailey left him and never did a thing about it.

On that footing, it makes their reunion less believable, and I found the ending anti-climactic. I also didn’t care for the subplot involving the fading marriage between her mother and stepfather, which was underdeveloped and not thematically tied to anything else in the story. Plus, I found it vaguely uncomfortable to be reading Bailey’s mother’s dramatic sex scene, both because it was poorly written–noticeably more so than the other sex scenes–and because I JUST READ ABOUT YOUR DAUGHTER HAVING SEX. Why did any of that need to be in the story?

166 - The Talented Mr. Ripley

#166 – The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

I think this novel might be the best argument for show, don’t tell that I’ve ever read. Everything about Tom Ripley comes from his actions, not his words; emphasized by the fact that he rarely speaks, compared to the other characters. The story is told in third-person limited, centered on Tom, but despite that, we rarely hear him talking.

But we do see everything he does, and get a lot of his thought process. So much of his characterization, as well, comes from what he doesn’t think about–he suffers more anxiety from seeing Marge’s bra lying out in the open than he does from committing murder. He never thinks about sex; the few times he observes women’s bodies, it’s always with disdain or outright disgust–I’m head-canoning him as ace, because when the issue comes up with Dickie about whether Tom is queer and/or attracted to Dickie, Tom’s almost bewildered that he might think that.

No, Tom’s aspirations toward Dickie aren’t sexual or romantic–Tom wants to be Dickie, not love him. And it couldn’t be clearer, even before Tom hatches his impromptu scheme, by the way he covets Dickie’s possessions, even tries on his clothing.

It’s absolutely chilling, how logical and sane a completely amoral character can seem, when you’re getting his side of the story.

167 - Candide

#167 – Candide, by Voltaire

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good satire when I see one, but I already know we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, so I didn’t need to read this book to have it tell me so. I can appreciate good absurdity when I see it, and if this were a romance novel, then absurd it would be, with every character trying to outdo the previous one for traumatic backstory. But this reads much more like a fable, or dare I say a play–I could definitely envision this on stage being performed in ridiculously outrageous costumes and grandiose gestures–and as a simple, short book, I found it flat.

Even with the historical context, I think this is simply past its time. I’m sure it was witty in its day, but now it’s just dull.

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Reading Challenge Complete: Mount TBR 2017!

mount-tbr-2017

For a while, there, I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get this done! I signed up to read 150 of My Own Damn Books–unread books that I owned prior to January 1st, 2017. At the beginning of the year, thanks to used book sales and free stuff from Amazon promotions, I had well over 300 books that qualified.

But I finished on December 3rd, with most of a month left to go! I’m going to keep listing books in my reviews that qualify for this challenge, counting up from 150–I have no idea how many more I’ll get through.

Usually this is where, based on previous Challenge Complete posts, I would make a list of all the books I read and link them on Goodreads…but it’s 150 of them. That’s not going to happen.

Instead, take a look at my shelf there to see them all!

To reward myself for this huuuuge accomplishment, I made a new TBR Jar with a few of the books I was looking forward to most, from my 2017 acquisitions. I drew one to celebrate!

2017 TBR Jar

My next (easy) goal for knocking down TBR books is to read the very last unread book from my 2015 acquisitions, Ripley Under Ground, one of the books I won in that Twitter contest I completely forgot about. I have read The Talented Mr. Ripley, back in college, but not since, so I’ll be rereading that first.

Once I do that, I got a few other mini-goals brainstormed, one of which is definitely to read all those free Christmas romances I picked up last December, which hopefully means I’ll be too busy to get more!

End of the Month Wrap-Up: November 2017!

nano2017

In November, in case you missed it (har har) I won NaNoWriMo! I worked on an entirely new project about a small town of non-hierarchical wolf shapeshifters. Two of whom are falling in love.

With the 60K+ I wrote (my non-official count according to the document stats is just about 61K) I’m not even halfway through the story. Not that I think this is necessarily going to be a long, long novel–just that I’m front-loading a lot of angst and worldbuilding that will undoubtedly be shortened, moved, or cut during the editing process.

But as I still have about half the story to go, I’ve got to keep writing! I gave myself the first two days of December off, because breaks are a good thing, but I’m taking advantage of the personal goal trackers one can enable on the NaNo site to institute at least 1K/day throughout December. I should be able to manage that even with holiday shenanigans, and of course I’ll be visiting family for the holidays/my own personal writing retreat for a week mid-December. I’m so productive there!

As for reading, I read twelve books this month, which blows last year’s measly four out of the water. Of course, last year I wasn’t desperately trying to finish Mount TBR – Mount Olympus (Mars): 150 of My Own Damn Books read!

(I actually have finished, as of yesterday, but that’s a separate post since it didn’t happen in November–look for it on Wednesday!)

And now it’s confession time: in November I went to the library twice, and that part of it’s a good thing, since I’ve hardly gone all year due to Mount TBR–the first time I dropped off eight books as a donation, but came home with thirteen more from the book sale room; the second time I was there to pick up a book request I need for this season of Crash Course Literature, but I hit the sale room again and found fourteen more books. And I ordered a few free or 99-cent romances off Amazon. And I have four books from Thriftbooks coming. And I gave my mother a list of about a dozen books I could use for Christmas…

All this has led to me still having acquired more books this year than I read, with the potential for a handful more.

Which means I signed up for Mount TBR 2018, again at the Mars-150 book level. And I’m running the Expand Your Horizons challenge. And I’ve already got an idea list for the PopSugar challenge. And since I’m already doing those three, I suppose I should take a look at the BookRiot Read Harder challenge list, which I skipped this year…

But I definitely missed going to the library, so I’m going to make more room in my reading schedule for that.

Here’s to a successful month, and I hope I have as productive a December, and that all of you do as well!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #44)

157 - Christmas with the Billionaire

#157 – Christmas with the Billionaire, by Amy Lamont

A cute little novella that tackles a lot in its short length–Christmas spirit vs. cynicism, lovers from different social classes, friendship and family and trust.

While my personal preference isn’t for heroines that see themselves as dumpy and unattractive, Emma still comes across as both believable and relatable in her self-doubt. Nate is a total charmer with the predatory edge of an alpha male, and while he and Emma both make assumptions and misjudgments, they do actually talk about them before flinging themselves at each other again.

I would have liked to see this story fleshed out into a full novel, to give the likable characters more time for development, and to let the weighty themes have enough space to breathe instead of being piled on top of each other. That being said, I did enjoy this and would recommend it to anyone in the mood for a quick Christmas treat.

158 - Revelation Space

#158 – Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

Did not finish @ page 112. I wanted to like this, and I found the style engaging, but the timeline was too muddled and complex for me to follow. I like that the three different storylines compensated for the decades necessary for near-relativistic travel, a detail which makes the novel more “real” but also incredibly complicated. Without a clear idea of what was going on when, it wasn’t as enjoyable as I hoped it would be, despite the interesting worldbuilding.

159 - Snowbound with the Biker

#159 – Snowbound with the Biker, by Amy Lamont

Snowbound romances always strike me as contrived, and this was no exception. But what it lacked in originality of premise, it made up for in honest characterization–piling the brother’s-best-friend trope on top of the snowbound-ness was a new combination for me, and one that worked to the story’s advantage. Like the first novella in the series, I think there was enough potential meat here for a longer work, but I enjoyed the tidbit I got.

160 - The Sky is Everywhere

#160 – The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson

I’m too old for this book. I read a fair bit of YA, and sometimes, as an adult, I can’t appreciate it the same way a teen would. The kicker for me here, that bogged down what was otherwise a lovely story about love, confusion, and the grieving process–the bad poetry. Lots and lots of really bad poetry.

I wrote bad poetry as a teenager, so it’s not the fact that it’s bad that’s an issue–it’s incredibly true to both the character and the age group. But that doesn’t mean I want to read endless bad poetry when I thought I was reading a YA novel about love, confusion, and the grieving process.

My other issue, of course, since I am vehemently anti-cheating, is that grief does not give a person a free pass to cheat. I know Lennie was confused. I know she didn’t have her head on straight. But she told herself repeatedly to break it off with Toby…and she just didn’t. It’s presented in a way that doesn’t absolve her of either guilt or responsibility, which I appreciate, but Joe forgives her pretty easily.

I realize this is a deeply personal criticism, one that others might not share as strongly, but I’m always disappointed when “I can’t be with you/forgive you” turns into “but you really do love me” by the end of the book.

161 - Getting Lucky with the Rockstar

#161 – Getting Lucky with the Rock Star, by Amy Lamont

Things I loved about this novella:

  1. Jared Sloane is one stand-up guy, and sweet to boot.
  2. Having the story start with an established relationship, even if it’s only a casual one, is a plot point I don’t often see in romances–I always appreciate something that differs from the norm, if it’s done well.
  3. The conflicts in this relationship, both internal and external, made perfect sense, and were resolved without resorting to blanket forgiveness or one character ignoring their needs to support their partner.

Things I didn’t like about this novella:

WHY IS IT SO SHORT WHY CAN’T IT BE A FULL NOVEL I WOULD READ ABOUT JARED FOREVER

NaNoWriMo ’17: Progress Report, Week 4–WINNER!

The week’s word counts:

  • Day 22: 470
  • Day 23: 916
  • Day 24: 1,285 — the winning day, at 50,007!
  • Day 25: 1,210
  • Day 26: 2,143
  • Day 27: 2,532
  • Day 28: 2,020

With two days left to write, my final count will come with the End of the Month Wrap-Up post next week, but I won! And I feel like I’m not even halfway through my story–which is both good and bad, because wow, have I got a lot of plot points left. I think this year I successfully embraced the true spirit of word vomit, and I’m churning out lots of my character’s feelings on the page, which is ALL going to need to be cut.

But the first draft is just me telling myself the story, which I’ve heard before, and this time, I really feel it. I’m going to need to take a long look at the themes and character arcs in this one, but I’ve got a sense of direction now beyond just “romance” and I’m digging it.

As before, I’ll do my best to keep up a NaNo-like pace through December (and January, if necessary) to get the draft done.

BUT I WON! I WON!

I really do love NaNo so much…

Reading Challenge Complete: Beat the Backlist 2017!

In this personalized reading challenge, participants were instructed to choose any number of books from their TBR that had been sitting unread for too long, and commit to reading them in 2017.

I quite arbitrarily picked 40 books, and I read 39 of them.

(But wait, the year’s not over, and you’re a book short. What gives?)

The major theme I used to choose the specific books for this challenge was finishing unfinished series, and I DNF’d the penultimate book in one of those series, so obviously I’m not going to bother with the last one, right?

Still, I tried, and I can’t really go back and say “I never had that on the list at all, I’ll read this instead!”

So here it is, my completed Beat the Backlist Challenge.

  1. Bridge of Dreams
  2. The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
  3. The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You
  4. The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections
  5. The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives
  6. The Sandman, Vol. 8: World’s End
  7. The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones
  8. The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake
  9. The Sandman: Endless Nights
  10. The Drawing of the Three
  11. The Waste Lands
  12. Wizard and Glass
  13. Wolves of the Calla
  14. Song of Susannah
  15. The Dark Tower
  16. Between Shades of Grey
  17. A Thousand Splendid Suns
  18. The Redwood Rebel
  19. The Princess Saves Herself in this One
  20. Blood of Elves
  21. The Summer Tree
  22. The Wandering Fire
  23. The Darkest Road
  24. Poison Study
  25. Magic Study
  26. Fire Study
  27. The Secret History
  28. The Girl Who Played with Fire
  29. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
  30. Seduce Me at Sunrise
  31. The Mabinogion Tetralogy
  32. Ruined
  33. Drums of Autumn
  34. The Fiery Cross
  35. A Breath of Snow and Ashes
  36. An Echo in the Bone
  37. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
  38. Seduced
  39. Rocked
  40. Twisted

This Week, I Read… (2017 #43)

153 - An Echo in the Bone

#153 – An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

I gave up around 20%. I simply don’t care anymore, mostly because I’m tired of having my attention divided between so many POV characters, and the large amount of characters in general. It isn’t fun for me to read about a big reveal that Person X isn’t actually who he says he is, he’s actually somebody we met five books ago and haven’t thought of since. I don’t remember him! He wasn’t that interesting!

Also, while I like Roger and Bree well enough, spending so much time with them after they’ve gone back to modern times doesn’t interest me, either. And I don’t care for William’s chapters at all.

I’m just bored and worn out on this series. I should have given up sooner.

154 - Seeing Me Naked

#154 – Seeing Me Naked, by Liza Palmer

It’s more of a 2.5, really, but I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, so I’ll give it the half star for sheer improvement as the story goes.

I’m not much of a chick-lit person–it’s distinctly different from romance, despite the many themes they can share between genres. I guess because all the chick-lit I’ve read has been about horribly narcissistic women “finding” themselves?

And this doesn’t start off any different. Elisabeth is the daughter of a famous novelist and now the sister of another one; she’s completely overshadowed by the other members of her family, and her father is deeply disappointed by her career choice as a pastry chef.

Everyone in this family is awful to each other. Even Elisabeth and her brother, who Palmer appears to want us to believe are close, are constantly sniping at each other, and not in joking, friendly ways.

Elisabeth also has an extremely long-distance, almost non-existent relationship with her childhood-friend-turned-adult-lover, Will. Who is also a patently horrible person, for not devoting any significant energy to their relationship and constantly jetting off for his journalism job with no notice to Elisabeth of where he’s going or how long he’s going to be gone.

I found this incredibly hard to believe. Will’s behavior is painted as so far beyond normal that I actually can’t wrap my head around anyone putting up with it, who didn’t sign on for exactly that sort of life. I can’t fathom Elisabeth’s acceptance of it, and the fact that her dissatisfaction with it only arises/is realized at the beginning of this story.

But it does make it utterly believable that she’d fall for someone else in the meantime.

I almost gave up on this book, but somewhere around the halfway point, I found I could hardly put it down. Sure, the plot is reasonably predictable–Elisabeth decides to take a chance on a new direction in her career and a new romance, and becomes a better person for it. The tale of chick-lit everywhere.

But she actually does become a better person. That snarky, privileged attitude she started with is something she visibly struggles with during her relationship with Daniel. She first trains herself to keep her barbs to herself, only thinking and not saying them, because she doesn’t want to be the bitch anymore. And gradually, she stops feeling like one as she stops acting like one.

I guess my bar has been set so low by other chick-lit that I’m actually impressed by real character growth–but I was.

155 - Ruined

#155 – Ruined, by M.C. Frank

Okay, so last week I went on and on about how much I loved Jane Eyre. Here’s the reason I finally read it, a Regency-era retelling by a Tumblr author buddy of mine.

Ruined captures all the angst and drama, and most of the mystery, of Jane Eyre, while absolutely gutting the plot.

Jane’s analogue, Beatrice, is the one with the mysterious past instead of Rochester’s stand-in, Ashton–and I don’t think it’s a good change, not the way it’s handled.

Throughout the narrative, Beatrice has flashbacks to abuse she suffered at the hands of a mysterious (to us) man. At first so little information is given that I wondered if it was her father; in later flashbacks it was made clear this abuser was separate from him, but had some kind of hold over him, and thus access to Beatrice, eventually marrying her.

For most of the book, given the language used in these flashbacks, I honestly thought Beatrice was being raped by this man throughout her childhood. Turns out I took an extreme interpretation of the described events, as her abuser was impotent, so the molestation was of a less violent nature. Still awful, don’t get me wrong–but the fact that I could read it that way and be wrong left me concerned.

Giving Beatrice a traumatic past certainly makes her triumph in loving Ashton, and being accepted by him despite her “ruined” status, a satisfying ending in defiance of the norms of Regency England; which is similar to Jane’s rise in stature due to her acceptance of Rochester. But this is one of the two things that I really think weakens the story compared to Jane Eyre; Beatrice’s success and happiness is dependent on someone accepting her, overlooking what was done to her. Jane’s relies on her acceptance of Rochester and his infirmities, his deception about his past, and all the harm it caused her. Jane makes an active choice in her future; Beatrice is merely lucky enough to have things turn out her way.

The second thing that weakens the story is the change in perspective. So much of what I loved about Jane Eyre was Jane’s uncompromising and unique first-person voice; Ruined uses alternating third-person perspective from Beatrice and Ashton’s POVs. While it’s a common choice these days for romances (I use it myself!) I don’t think it suits the spirit of the novel Ruined is retelling.

156 - An Acceptable Time

#156 – An Acceptable Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

Let’s start with the easy complaints first, and get them out of the way: slow-paced and repetitive–the real action doesn’t start until about 2/3 of the way through the story, and until then it’s just the same five characters having the same discussion over and over again in different combinations.

Unrelatable characters–Polly doesn’t have much personality beyond idolizing her grandparents, and Zachary is downright creepy. And it’s insane to me that Meg Murry O’Keefe, Polly’s mother and protagonist of the first book, would respond to someone so creepy by giving him the location of her daughter when he called and was like, “Hey, I’m this random dude your daughter met in Greece, I’m several years older than her and I really liked her, so can I see her?” “Yep, sure, she’s staying with her grandparents, why don’t you drive out to see her?”

No, no way. Meg would not do that.

But the real meat of my absolute bewilderment with this story is the cognitive dissonance displayed by Polly’s grandparents and their friend, Dr. Louise. None of those three “believe” that Polly and the Bishop are going through a time-gate to three thousand years ago, or that people from that era are coming to their time, despite no small amount of evidence to support it. And given what we’ve seen Mr. Murry, in particular, go through in earlier works, you’d think he’d be willing to suspend a little disbelief.

But in the same breath as pointedly not believing it’s real, they’re setting rules and precautions in place on Polly to prevent it from happening again.

IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN IT, WHY ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT IT?

How can they possibly claim not to believe in Polly’s story if they’re so overprotectively concerned about her not going through the time-gate again?

I simply could not reconcile those two warring states of being for those characters.