This Week, I Read… (2019 #32)

101 - Blackout

#101 – Blackout, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 7/29/19 – 8/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (31/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

[SPOILER-HEAVY. HEAVIER THAN USUAL, ANYWAY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]

You’d think, when one of my major complaints about Deadline was that I didn’t care for Shaun’s narration, the reintroduction of Georgia to the mix would make this a better book, and it does in some ways. But not enough. While this does fix some of my issues with the second book, there are enough new problems that on the whole, I’m pretty damn disappointed.

The narrative style, no matter who’s talking, remains incredibly repetitive. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t in Feed, only that I probably didn’t notice it as much because I was so drawn in by the shiny new world-building so I gulped down every word without complaint. But there’s nothing new here in that regard. Some of the rules of the world have changed over the course of the story, because medical research keeps dropping in their laps at every turn, but I didn’t find any of it as fascinating at the original setup. This book isn’t about zombies, it’s about the world that living with zombies created, and the political conspiracies surrounding that, and that just got old after a while.

Let me break that down a bit.

I was impressed, back in Feed, with Grant’s extrapolation of what American government would become in response to the crisis. I saw parallels to the non-zombie surveillance state we’re approaching (or are already in, depending on where in the country you live, how much technology you’re surrounded by, and how paranoid your perception of your environment is. That’s not a argument I want to have through this review, though.) I was impressed.

By the end of that book, it’s clear that, as with most zombie-based media, the zombies aren’t the point. They’re a condition of the world that causes other things to happen, and they get progressively less interesting and less important as the story goes on. Blackout doesn’t do this differently. The entire plot is a lather, rinse, repeat cycle of Something Important Happens which then gives our heroes information the government doesn’t want them to have or share, then the conspiracy engineers a zombie outbreak to put our heroes in harm’s way so hopefully they get killed, either by the zombies or by the cleanup to suppress the zombies. Sometimes the outbreak is just a few scientists in a lab, sometimes it takes out a city, sometimes it takes out Florida, because why not? Why not destroy an entire state to prove just how serious this conspiracy is? (Yeah, so that was a mistake in planning on the conspiracy’s part, but not on the author’s. If the stakes are that huge, why did I not feel more invested, like I did back in Feed?)

I won’t say the conspiracy itself was fully predictable, though I’d guessed some of its parameters. But the plot structure was incredibly predictable. Coupled with the insane amounts of repetition (Shaun still has to constantly remark on his craziness, the cans of Coke, every blood test has to be shown and always uses the same language to describe it, and so forth) I found myself skimming a lot of the non-dialogue, especially in the second half of the book, especially in Shaun’s chapters. If I ever ran into anything that confused me, I paged back until I found what explained it, but I feel like I have a good handle on the story now that I’ve finished.

And I’m just not particularly impressed with the payoff. It felt anticlimactic, honestly. It shouldn’t–I understand the importance of the themes involved and the choices made, and in summary, it’s a great ending. But I didn’t feel it while I was reading. It took too long to get here, and I had to wade through too much crap on the way. I didn’t feel much when a character died near the end, because developing side characters has never been a strength of this series, it’s all the Shaun and Georgia show. I can appreciate seeing the return of key figures we haven’t seen much of since Feed–the Masons, Rick, Ryman–but they’re still essentially bit players, and the moral conflicts their appearances create are brushed past really, really quickly.

The best parts of the book, to me, were Georgia’s chapters in the first half, before her escape from captivity, only I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time because I was so impatient for her reunion with Shaun. Which led to the plot twist that I hadn’t predicted, because who goes there? Even though I know, intellectually, that it’s not incest, and that it explains so much, I couldn’t find myself fully on board with them being a couple. Not because of the faux-incest moral quandary I might have been suffering, but because of those very anomalies in their relationship that the story has spent two and a half books skirting around. We’ve had the pleasure of living inside both Shaun and Georgia’s heads for over a thousand pages at that point, and neither of them ever thought about this until now? It’s simply not creditable. Yes, they were keeping their relationship secret from those around them. Yes, they never wrote anything pertaining to it down. BUT WE THE READERS HAD ACCESS TO THEIR INNER LIVES AND WE STILL WEREN’T EVER TOLD? Sitting on that for two and a half books just to make it a big reveal was ridiculous. The first book had so little relating to romance or sex in it, I was wondering if Shaun, Georgia, or both weren’t intended to be read as asexual (or aromantic, or both.) Shaun’s one-night stand with Becks in the second book made me wonder where on earth he’d gotten any sexual experience at all, because as far as I knew he was a virgin, since the narrative had never taken the time to explain that he might have been having casual sex with random women in his younger years or anything similar, but also never hinted he was sleeping with his “sister.”

Hindsight now shows me all those anomalies were leading to this revelation, but when I look at them together, my brain doesn’t go “okay, so it’s incest,” it still says “these two simply aren’t interested in romantic or sexual relationships because their unusual upbringing pair-bonded them as co-dependent siblings instead” and I think I can be forgiven for not spinning that myself into the faux-incest, what Georgia later claims is close to an obvious taboo, when she reflects on how almost no one figured it out.

I HAD ACCESS TO YOUR INNER LIVES FOR A THOUSAND PAGES AND I DIDN’T FIGURE IT OUT. HOW COULD YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES POSSIBLY HAVE DONE IT?

I honestly think this twist is a real failure of storytelling. Even though I didn’t figure it out beforehand, when it was revealed, I didn’t smack my forehead and go “Of course!” I was still pretty much, “huh?” about it, and if that’s honestly the lay of the land, the story Grant wanted to tell, I would have been much more interested in knowing from the start and watching the two of them struggle to find time for each other while both keeping it a secret under dire circumstances and also trying to save the world from the zombie-government conspiracy. I truly think that would have been a much more engaging story, with another layer of conflict that would make the stakes more personal.

102 - All the Birds in the Sky

#102 – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

  • Read: 8/2/19 – 8/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (66/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A bird in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All book reviews come with personal bias attached–as much as many reviewers (myself often included) like to think we are working from some hypothetically universal standard of “good” writing, we can’t always agree on what those standards are and how to apply them fairly across all books. I say this now, because I’m about to write a negative review for this book, but for once, I recognize that my intense dislike is coming from a deeply personal place, and that my experience with it isn’t necessarily a good sign post for whether or not this book is worth reading. I often write bad reviews for books because of things that I don’t think other people want to be reading–unchallenged racism, sexism, homophobia, or pedophilia being the big ones, and I stand by those. I will continue to do my part warning people away from books that promote harmful ideologies, whenever I can.

That isn’t the case here. I can’t stand this book because it reminds me too much of how I wrote when I was a teenager, and of all of the people who read my work then and told me how terrible it was.

Yeah, it’s personal.

So, I didn’t finish. I read the first hundred pages, and I gave up. I couldn’t stand the constant misery, and I mean that quite seriously. Laurence and Patricia don’t have much more personality than “I’m so weird and nonconformist that everyone bullies me.” Laurence is science-flavored on top of that, Patricia witch-flavored. But they’re such thin characters, and they simply can’t support a story solely about the two of them without more development. To pile on extra misery, all of the members of both families are also horrible people who also mistreat them in some way. In that sort of environment I’d expect the two of them to become close friends, to be the only spot of good in each other’s awful lives–but despite the overall narrative the blurb is trying to sell me, I’m not at all convinced these two are friends at all–they tolerate each other at best, and at worst they spend weeks not speaking to each other–and this setup does not have me confident that they’re going to eventually fall in love. I’d be laughing at the reviews that call this book “romantic” if I weren’t so disappointed, because I adore real romance, and I don’t feel like I’m going to get that here.

Let’s go back to that science vs. witchcraft characterization. Because at a hundred pages in, I had only just gotten what looked like a plot, rather than chapter upon chapter of “look at how miserable and bullied these two kids are, don’t you feel for them?” Theodolphus Rose, master assassin posing as a school counselor, tells Patricia that Laurence is an enemy of nature and must be killed. That’s the conflict, and in other circumstances I might be interested–pitting kids against each other isn’t new at all, but done well, it can certainly be compelling. Pitting potential romantic partners against each other can be awesome, whatever age group. So I’m not opposed to this basic plot. I am opposed to it taking almost one hundred pages to show up, and I’m opposed to the flimsy world-building that has done nothing to define the relative power of science and witchcraft. At first (in the very first chapter when I still thought I might like this book, it looked like my kind of weird,) I was enchanted by Patricia’s magic and her talking to birds and going to the forest to see the Parliament. But there’s no rules to anything related to magic, and without any sort of standards or explanations, there’s really no upper limit on what magic can do in a story, whereas the real world has definite limits on science. Without the author setting up a system deliberately to make science and magic balanced, I find myself assuming magic can be more powerful (if Patricia ever gets access to it again, if not, this will be a dull story I didn’t finish) so magic will obviously win. And that’s just not interesting, if there’s an obvious winner before the battle is even fought. Now, there are ways to subvert that expectation, and there are ways to move forward from the point where I stopped reading that might result in a better book than I expect it to be. But that low bar I have set in my mind is a result of that slapdash, flimsy world-building that amounts to “this is basically contemporary fiction but I want to put whatever I want into it and call it sci-fi and magical realism at the same time.”

I don’t have a problem with genre-mixing. I’d be a giant hypocrite if I did. But a work doesn’t get a free pass on mixing genres sloppily because it’s quirky.

It’s the “quirky” thing that really gets me. I love absurdist humor, and there are elements of it here. Theodolphus’ introduction at the mall almost had me laughing, it was so over the top and ridiculous, in just the way I like. I can’t take it seriously in context, because it’s so off-tone from everything else I read surrounding it, but in isolation it was hilarious and I loved it. For a brief moment, I felt like the author was channeling Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and I was on board. But if the whole book is meant to be absurdist, it doesn’t go far enough, and absurdity for its own sake is exactly what my teenage writing (yeah, we’re back to the personal part) was mocked by my peers for. And occasionally my teachers as well.

I was a weird kid. I have no problem admitting that, though I was never bullied anything like Laurence and Patricia are shown to be. I had friends–it’s not impossible to be weird and also have friends. I was also often an unhappy kid–teenagerhood was not particularly a good time for me–and writing was a thing I did to cope. I wrote escapist fantasy. I wrote about magic. I wrote about absurdity. I wrote about depression and misery.

I wrote things in high school that were very like this story, both in tone and overall quality. The nearly universal response to these stories, when I was brave enough to let my friends read them or turn them in for writing assignments, was basically derision and ridicule. “It’s too weird.” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?” “I don’t like how strange it is.” “It doesn’t make sense.” No matter how many times I tried to defend some of the most “weird” pieces by explaining that the absurdity of it was the whole point, the overall reaction was “stop being so childish and write things that make sense.”

I do, now. I’ve found ways to channel my love of the absurd in more palatable directions. I’ve studied my craft and “grown up,” so to speak. I take great pains to make my worlds, no matter how “strange” they are, internally consistent and understandable.

So here’s the incredibly, undeniably personal part that you absolutely shouldn’t apply to yourself and whether or not you want to read this book: I am (mildly) professionally envious and angry that this book is so praised when it reads exactly like the stuff I churning out by the notebook-full at fifteen that everyone hated. It stings. I cringed constantly with second-hand embarrassment while I was reading this, as if all of my flaws had come back to haunt me. Thin world-building because I wanted it the way I wanted it and I didn’t do the work making it cohesive. Awkward and stilted dialogue. An “me against them” mentality in my main characters. No plot to speak of for ages because I was more interested in making my world weird than having a story take place in it.

Objectively speaking–as objectively as possible for me, at this point–I don’t think this is a good book, but obviously its weirdness resonates with a lot of people, and you might enjoy it. If you think it sounds good, then maybe for you, it will be.

Speaking with extreme and noted bias, this book is bad, and I can’t stand it, and I will never finish it and wish I hadn’t spent the few hours I already did attempting to read it. I want that time back.

**After I spent a solid hour writing, rewriting, and editing this review, I wondered if I should even post it in full. After all, it is highly biased and not particularly applicable to other people in many places. I thought about it a lot. I considered where I could cut the stuff that shouldn’t matter to anyone else, the stuff that revealed too much of me, the things that might do more harm than good. But I’ve always written honest reactions to books, because I think reviews are only useful and helpful when they’re honest. So I’m posting the whole thing, because I worked hard putting my thoughts and feelings in order and being up front about my biases. Whether or not this is a helpful, useful review is only part of the point. It was cathartic to write, and if another writer sees this and feels understood, then it’s worth it.

103 - Saga, Vol. 5

#103 – Saga, Vol. 5, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/4/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (32/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

By opening with a short meditation on the reasons people become soldiers, the progression of war from an immediate and visceral concern to a mere background noise to daily life, Volume 5 has jumped back up to five stars, where the series had dipped slightly for me in the middle.

This felt grounded, which is a weird thing to say about a work that thrives on covering serious issues through ludicrous situations. This series is almost nothing but high drama and action, yet it’s constructed on a firm thematic base that supports it, that reminds you the story might look insane on the surface, but it has something to say.

In this volume, particularly, I appreciate Hazel’s occasional spoilers in narration, how unflappably awesome Ghus is at all turns (new favorite side character? quite possibly!), the relatively nuanced look at drug usage (for the short span given to it, anyway,) and the effective use of dreams/nightmares/drug trips to convey the personal history of a few characters. I’m just freaking impressed, because I’ve got a thing about dreams as a trope, they’re almost never as good on the page as the author wants them to be, but here? Fantastic.

Looking forward to the next volume, already got it checked out on Hoopla.

104 - Justice Calling

#104 – Justice Calling, by Annie Bellet

  • Read: 8/4/19 – 8/5/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (67/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A moon in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I almost gave this a second star to reflect that fact that I’m a gamer nerd and got every single reference–but in the end, the author’s gamer cred doesn’t actually make me like the book better, its flaws are so serious.

1. It’s too short. That’s the overarching problem that all the other problems could be considered children of. As I have the digital omnibus of the first three books, and as I had no clear idea how long each one was, I expected to hit the end of the first book in the neighborhood of 30-35% read; it actually came at 24%. It’s not a bad thing that the other two books are apparently longer, but now that I see the first one is barely a hundred pages, that’s not a book, it’s a novella, and it’s trying to fit a book-sized plot into it.

2. Squeezing that much plot in leaves no room for character development. Jade is a bundle of Native American sass, heavy on the sass and suspiciously light on literally anything I would hope to see in a Native narrator. Anything about her background that isn’t directly related to her magic or her tragic backstory is absent, so being Native is just a label–it’s jarring that the only time it comes up is when she lashes out at a dude by calling him “white man.” It was honestly easy to forget her heritage until that point because it had no bearing on her characterization or history. The side characters, Jade’s friends, don’t even fare that well–they get brief physical descriptions when they’re introduced, two of them get clear sexual orientations (either one didn’t, or I missed it in the rush of how fast this story moves), and none of them get anything approaching a personality. They’re just names on a page and physical bodies to be hurt so that Jade has motivation for things.

3. Most of this story is devoted to action, snarkiness, and world-building. The world-building isn’t terribly robust–there’s barely time for it even when it’s clearly important to the story–but what was there was interesting enough that, had this been a full-length novel instead of this bite-sized cliffhanger romance, I might be giving the book a vastly different rating right now. The world has potential, at least. But this is so Action-Packed that the pace crowds out pretty much everything else.

4. This is a romance? What? It’s instant lust, okay, fair, that’s a real thing and I have no problem with romances starting there. But Jade and Alek don’t develop enough of a bond, any kind of bond, to make me believe they’re interested in more than some hot sex, and then we don’t even get to see the hot sex, because the book ends immediately before they jump into bed. (Though without starting the next book, I don’t know if that happens, or it’s just a teaser before some horrible thing occurs to keep them apart for a while longer.) There’s no emotion, there’s no relationship, there’s only unfulfilled lust, and that’s not a romance at all. Again, because THERE’S NO TIME FOR IT.

This book really needs to be twice as long to tell the story it wants to tell. In the final chapters, especially, events that could have been whole scenes on their own, scenes I would have wanted to read, are summarized in a few chapters so we can get to the ending faster. Everything is just woefully underdeveloped.

105 - Moloka'i

#105 – Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert

  • Read: 8/5/19 – 8/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (68/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A flower in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A pretty typical structure of “this is a woman’s life under these historical conditions,” complicated by leprosy. If you choose to look at it from an inspirational viewpoint, it’s quite “having a disease, even one this serious, isn’t necessary the end of your life.” I generally find that sort of narrative bland, and eventually, I did here.

The first hundred pages or so kept my attention, with lots of historical detail and a firmly woven plot introducing Rachel and her family, and their complicated situation. The worst flaw I could pin on the first section of the book was constant head-hopping, a style of writing I find irritating at best and unreadable at worst, but this had a flow to it that wasn’t as disruptive as most cases I’ve read before. So I soldiered on.

Aging Rachel over a section break from seven to seventeen was fine, and I was interested to see how she’d progressed after ten years living on Moloka’i. Slightly disappointed that she was the “special” one of her peers whose leprosy wasn’t actually that bad, that she was basically able-bodied despite the disease. Obviously if she was going to die young, the rest of the book wouldn’t happen, so she couldn’t be at death’s door, but for a story about a woman living with leprosy, it was far more about how the disease shaped the external trappings of her life, rather than her actual body. Both are valuable to the story, of course, but it felt imbalanced, that she was basically healthy compared to everyone else.

The rest of the book rushed through major life events at a speed that left me bewildered. If you’re going to spend the first half of the book painstakingly detailing her childhood and adolescence, then why is her entire adulthood and death in old age rushed through in the second? Serious pacing issues. It felt like I spent the same amount of page time on Rachel’s plight about wanting to live with her uncle instead of the girls’ home, as we did on the birth and giving up for adoption of her daughter. Skip a few pages and you’d miss it entirely! I understand if the author didn’t want to make this a six-hundred page book instead of four hundred, but speeding her adulthood along like that (while also managing to spend a lot of page time worried about the logistics of her travel arrangements) didn’t make me like this book or enjoy its ending. Given the high level of narrative focus and detail in the first half, the second half just felt lazy and flat.

106 - The Right Swipe

#106 – The Right Swipe, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 8/7/19 – 8/9/19
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s rare, but every once in a while I stumble across a romance novel where the characters who are supposed to be falling in love are too busy have fantastic arcs of personal growth that they don’t actually have time for a romance. That’s what’s happened here.

Samson is wonderful and adorable, but his story line is far more focused on his football legacy (which encompasses the controversy about long-term concussion damage to players,) his family issues, and overcoming the grudges of his past than it is on his courtship with Rhiannon. Rhiannon’s story line is more about her business goals, her traumatic former relationship, and overcoming her fear of showing weakness and vulnerability than it is about her courtship with Samson.

Stuffed into all the small spaces in between these huge, life-changing issues are many lesser bits of social consciousness, especially concerning the struggles of those with mental illnesses. And don’t get me wrong, I want my romances to be progressive and socially conscious: I just don’t want them to be so concerned with the big social justice issues that there’s no room left for the romance.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Do I get the sense that Samson and Rhiannon like each other? Absolutely. Want to fall into bed with each other, sometimes despite their better judgment, as often as possible? Hell yes. But do I feel like they’re falling in love? No, not really. Ultimately, I don’t want the romance to be the subplot of the “romance” novel I’m reading, and the romance is really the least important thing in this story. Yes, each of them is the catalyst of change and growth for the other, and that’s fantastic, but there’s very little feeling evident in it–probably more so on Rhiannon’s part than Samson’s, he’s a bit more open.

I will say, on a much more positive note, as this is the first in a new series, I can’t immediately tell from this story who the next romance will focus on. Sometimes in romance series it’s brutally, painfully obvious where the setup for the next book lies, and it’s not at all organic to the story. Here, both Rhiannon’s and Samson’s friends and colleagues are integral parts of their lives, not thrown in to tick off boxes or obviously set up future stories. I’m kind of hoping it’s Katrina, or at least that she’ll get a story eventually if not next, because she was interesting, and the narrative was incredibly sensitive to her deep anxiety (agoraphobia? It’s never stated explicitly, but there are strong elements of both.) As someone who struggles with anxiety myself, I always love to see good portrayals of it in media, something that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

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Down the TBR Hole #21

Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide: keep it or let it go?

My TBR has been creeping steadily downwards as I read stuff, and honestly I didn’t add that much to it in July. But I’m still well over 700, and while I own a lot of unread books, I don’t own them all! They don’t all have to stay on the list! So it’s time to put the next ten on the chopping block.

#1 – All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater

30025336._SY475_Since Stiefvater is one of my recent additions to my favorite authors list, this seems like a no-brainer, and I was tempted to skip it because there was no chance I’d cut it. But it’s worth a second look, because I really wasn’t that excited about it when it released, and the reviews I’ve seen of it are as much negative as positive. And I’m much, much more excited about the forthcoming Call Down the Hawk, which starts a new trilogy about Ronan, my second favorite character from The Raven Cycle books. So, honestly, do I need to read this? I think it’s actually going to go. I’m not obligated to read every book by an author I love, if the book itself doesn’t do much to make me want to read it.

#2 – Bound to Be a Groom, by Megan Mulry

20967590Okay, yeah, it’s a polyamorous Regency BDSM erotica. That was definitely outside-the-box enough to put it on my list, and when I found it (however that was) I saw that there’s a prequel novella that was free, so I have that. This can stay, provisionally, just because it’s such a novel concept, but I’ll read the novella first and if anything about it doesn’t wow me, I’ll come back and scratch this off the list.

 

 

 

#3 – Dead Ringer, by Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler

25932559._SY475_I’m positive this came off a queer romance rec list at some point, but I must have been picking the best of a bad lot when I added it, because now I’m questioning myself. If one of the characters is a celebrity fan boy, well, that’s just not my thing, and I got uncomfortable reading the blurb about this setup. Also, while the good reviews are telling me this is the best M/M romance since sliced bread, the bad ones are throwing up all sorts of flags that I care about–bad pacing, relying on misunderstandings to create conflict, etc. This goes. It just doesn’t look like it’s for me, and I’d rather figure that out now than after I start reading it.

 

#4 – The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.inddI knew about this book long before it made it on to my TBR, and I ignored the hype surrounding it because I didn’t think I would like it. I’m reasonably sure a friend recommended this specifically to me after reading my review of a similar YA title (though I forget which one) so on the list it went, because maybe I was wrong? But looking at it now, my Goodreads friends’ ratings are all over the place, and the selling point of the blurb seems to be instalove, which is a trope I can’t stand. So I think it’s time this came back off the list, because life’s too short for yet another YA romance I probably won’t love.

 

#5 – The Lawrence Browne Affair, by Cat Sebastian

30226770This is a case where I hear an author recommended over and over again, and this is the book that I finally put on the list to try them out. Historical M/M romance is a thing I haven’t really tried yet, and Sebastian is reputedly one of the best, so here we are. The story itself does sound intriguing–con man and scientist/earl at odds with each other–so I’ve got no complaints there. It stays.

 

 

 

#6 – Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

25686927._SY475_Bowen is one of the few romance authors I’ve found by picking up a random free book of theirs and then genuinely liking it, as opposed to the multitudes that turned out on the scale from “meh” to “terrible.” So when I did some digging and found an M/M romance co-authored by her, that was enough to put it on the list. I reread the blurb, it still sounds like a fun time, it can stay.

 

 

 

#7 – Pairing Off, by Elizabeth Harmon

23440537I know precisely where this came from, a sports-romance rec list that was going around during the 2018 Olympics because of a certain shippable ice dancing pair. (Not that I approve of shipping real people, because I don’t–this list was a “so you want romances about figure skaters and other Olympic-type athletes, huh?” reaction to that hubbub.) This one in particular references The Cutting Edge as an inspiration/template–a movie I adore the hell out of. There was no question I wanted to read it then, and I still want to read it now. It stays.

 

#8 – Letters to Nowhere, by Julie Cross

18046135From that same list came this YA gymnastics romance, and I think I’m less excited by this now as I was then. Also there’s no ebook edition currently (though it appears there used to be), it’s not available at my library, and I don’t think I’m invested enough to invest in the paperback edition? Like, it still sounds cute, but again, life’s too short for another YA romance I’m not terribly excited about. It goes.

 

 

 

#9 – #11 The Iron Seas series, books 2-4, by Meljean Brook

I read The Iron Duke back in 2017 and loved it. Adored it. Fantastic. So I added the rest of the series to my TBR (minus the huge collection of novellas, though I did read Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City because it was included as a bonus in my paperback.) But a) I haven’t really thought about that book or this series since, and b) reviews for book 2, especially, but in general all the remaining books, seem to indicate a significant drop in quality. Now, The Iron Duke was pretty damn amazing, so I’d understand if the other books were good, but not as great–but I have one Goodreads friend in particular whose romance tastes seem to mostly line up with mine, and they’re not impressed. And I’m just not invested. They can all go. If I ever happen to find one of these at a used book sale, I’ll maybe pick it up and give it a try, but in the meantime I will just consider Duke a standalone that wowed me.


This month I cut seven of eleven. Feels good. Feels like progress. Cleaning house is such a positive thing, whether it’s your actual living space or your virtual bookshelves. But as always, if you’ve read anything on this list and want to make a case for changing my mind (in either direction) leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #31)

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#99 – Deadline, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 7/24/19 – 7/28/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (30/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked it, and I’m going to finish the trilogy, but this was a step down from Feed.

I just don’t care as much for Shaun as I did for George. She was a more compelling narrator, and I got tired of Shaun’s constant need to tell us how crazy he was. Yeah, I get it–but did the narrative really need to remind us, every single time he talked to himself out loud and others could hear him, that they mostly knew he was crazy so it was okay? It’s repetitive, annoyingly so. Once it’s established that he’s delusional, even if just in one relatively straightforward way, can’t we limit the reminders of how the rest of the characters perceive him to the times when they have interesting reactions, instead of letting him do his thing? Only bring it up when it matters!

So that’s my first major gripe. The second being, Kelly the helper/hostage got much the same repetitive treatment. Shaun, as a narrator, had to constantly make sure that we, the reader, knew she was guarded every second of every scene. Can’t we assume that after a while? Can’t it only matter when he wanted to assign people to tasks and realized he didn’t have enough people for them and guarding Kelly, so that he had to make some kind of important choice, either about how to reshuffle things or who to send her with? Routine logistics don’t need to be remarked upon every five pages!

With my stylistic issues out of the way, I can say the plot was mostly fine. Interesting things happen, which occasionally also means horrible things. Stuff we think we know, incontrovertible stuff, is questioned and found lacking. The ending might have included one currently inexplicable miracle-level event. I’m on this train and I want to find out where it goes. I already have the final book borrowed from the library.

I just think Shaun is way less interesting than his sister. I hope the final book finds a way to make him more palatable.

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#100 – How to Say Goodbye, by Amber Lin

  • Read: 7/28/19 – 7/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (65/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Okay, it’s New Adult, but it lacks the two major hallmarks of NA romances: a tone of hyperbolic angst or a scene breakdown that skirts the line between a reasonable level of smut and full-fledged erotica. There’s sex scenes, sure, but not every two pages, and not immediately after these characters meet. And there’s angst, yeah, but it’s not for its own sake, it’s actually mostly centered around the dual issues of runaways and homelessness. Which is not something I’ve really seen romances tackle with any seriousness (though of course my exposure is not universal and there are probably other romances out there in this wheelhouse..)

I enjoyed it, but not to the point where I don’t see its flaws, or to the point where I wasn’t uncomfortable with how the delicate subject matter was handled. The simple fact of the matter is: I don’t know how realistic this portrayal is of a teenager running away from an unsafe home environment and living on the streets for four years. The story doesn’t ignore the darker aspects of survival without support, but I question if they’re being romanticized or softened to be palatable to the reader. Like, on the one hand, homelessness is obviously not good for somebody and can entail a whole host of legal and moral issues, but am I projecting how awful I think it is when I read this and think, well, Dane doesn’t actually have it that tough? It’s not ideal but it could be worse? I’m not a fair judge of that, and I don’t know that the author is, either, so I don’t know how much of this serious issue is being prettied up for the romance side of things.

And if the core conflict of the story is undermined by my questionable trust in how it’s presented, that’s an issue.

That being said, I do like our characters. They’re both well-developed, with personality flaws and past issues that make for compelling conflict between them. At the same time, though, the end of the story has them see-sawing constantly between breaking up and being together, and I’m just not on board, personally, for that level of lack of commitment. Having the main couple break up once during a typical-length romance, sure. Having them constantly turning away from each other every few chapters? That got old for me, quick, and the last time they did it didn’t feel like a real ending. Nor did them getting back together for their happy ending feel like it was deserved, like it had the proper dramatic weight. It was just another “up” section of their relationship roller coaster to me, which didn’t leave a positive impression of the book to linger with me.

So I enjoyed some of the book. Mostly the scenes that focused on Amy and Dane interacting directly, because their chemistry is solid and their dynamic is pretty adorable at times. But whenever the plot got serious, I liked it less.

End of the Month Wrap-Up: July 2019!

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Where did July go? How is it over already? I spent a good chunk of the early part of the month redoing our walk-in closet; there was a quick weekend getaway to an event late in the month; there was a lot of going to work, and working on writing. And reading. Of course, so much reading, so let’s start there.

Reading: Thirteen books this month. I finished the monthly challenge for The Reading Frenzy, though I did substitute two of the original books, one because I had a better choice when I thought about it, and the other because the original book was so long I might not have finished it in time. I’m still ahead of the curve on all three of my year-long challenges. It was a good month for good reads, too, I gave three books five-star ratings: Saga, Vol. 4; Caliban’s War; and Strange the Dreamer.

Writing: I started the month fantastic by finding three beta readers for #spookyromancenovel, via open call on Tumblr, in less than 24 hours. Which was about a week faster than I expected that to happen. I tested out BetaBooks as a service, only to be disappointed that I sent them a help request in that first week, and I still haven’t gotten an answer. (Yes, I’ve checked my spam folder.) I know this is only one negative incident, but it doesn’t inspire confidence; I doubt I’ll be using them for any future beta sessions. Because that happened, I ended up making a Google Doc anyway (just like I’d done for my previous three books during their beta rounds) which meant I wasn’t limited to any certain number of readers, and I picked up two more. The feedback is coming in, and it’s been helpful, though I’m trying not to look at most of it until I’m ready to sit down and do something about it. Because my extra readers got in late, I’m not holding them to the original deadline and I won’t be ready to start the next revision draft at the beginning of August, as I’d hoped. But that’s life for you.

I have been using some of this time not spent project-writing to get ahead on blog posts, to be more active on Tumblr (in spurts, anyway) and to start planning work for the next (possible) novel project, a romance in the same setting as #spookyromancenovel, involving one of its supporting characters getting her own love story. I want it to happen, I want to make this a series, but we’ll see. I’m already not thrilled about the plot I’ve constructed, because planning like this feels so forced to me, the perennial pantser. The more I work with the skeleton, though, the more ideas I get, and everyone knows outlines can change!

Everything else: The insane heat this year has kept me inside more than I’d like, so my running schedule fell apart. I’m forgiving myself, because a) I’m still adjusting to an entirely new life schedule, thanks to my new job–I’ve only been there a few months!–and b) because I’ve spent that time doing yoga instead. Which, since I’m out of practice, has led to its own frustrations, but the only way to get better is to keep doing it, so I am.

I’m journaling again, not every day but certainly more than I was any other time this year. Most of it is of the very-personal-don’t-share kind, so my journal sideblog on Tumblr hasn’t seen any action, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the near future.

Also, strangely enough given the demands on my time, I got frustrated that I’ve started so many video games in recent years and not finished them, so I made a list about a week ago, stuff that needs completion and games I want to start, old or new. Since then I’ve finished Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and permanently abandoned King’s Quest, which I had already given up on once because Chapter 2 was so stupidly confusing, and this time because I’ve started Chapter 5 and I’m simply bored of it. The first chapter was so strong and engaging, and everything since has mostly felt like a chore.

While I have three more unfinished games that are high-priority for returning to soon, but also, we went to see Spiderman: Far From Home last week, and the PS4 Spiderman game is high on my list to start, so I think that’s happening next. I do love me some web-slinging.

Moving on to August 2019 goals:

  1. Collect, read, and digest all the beta feedback. Formulate a plan for the next draft, and time permitting, get started. While waiting to do that, continue planning its sequel.
  2. Continue doing yoga every day (or as close to every day as I can manage without injuring myself.)
  3. Run at least twice a week, preferably three times.
  4. Complete The Reading Frenzy’s challenge for August, the Bookish Treasure Hunt. (Six books)
  5. Maybe try to finish Saga? I used up my remaining Hoopla borrows for July getting volumes 5-7, so then if I use two more in August, that’s the whole series. And I can read a volume in one sitting.

Motivation Monday: Experimentation

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While #spookyromancenovel is off being dissected by my hard-working beta readers, I’ve been cooling my heels a little in terms of project writing. I’m writing a lot of blog posts and Tumblr bits and some journal entries, but until last week I hadn’t done much work on anything book-like.

Then, after years of ignoring it after my last failed attempt to Plan A Real Novel, I dug up an article on the Snowflake Method and dove into what could possibly become a sequel to #spookyromancenovel. I tried to use it to develop a plot bunny back in 2015, when What We Need to Survive didn’t look like it was going to get off the ground and I wanted to write about a photographer finding a new model at his local bakery and falling in love with her. I wrote the first scene, the meet-cute, as it were, and had no idea where to go from there, so I turned to the Snowflake. And it failed me miserably–either it’s not suited to me, or I wasn’t ready for something so intense.

But I’m revisiting it now, four years later, for the potential successor to #spookyromancenovel.

It’s a standalone currently, and it may remain a standalone. I have vague story ideas about romances involving some of its side characters, who turned out to be a such an interesting and vibrant bunch that I’d be sad not to give them their own books, their own shots at love.

But I pantsed the hell out of #spookryomancenovel with a month worth of prompts to guide me, then another month of “I think I know where this is going now, I have to finish it.” I planned nothing aside from the fact that, as a romance, there would be a happy ending.

So why am I trying to plan the next one? And why am I using one of the most effort-intensive planning methods out there?

Well, first of all, to be entirely fair, I’ve started planning. I haven’t finished. I’ve worked up the one-sentence summary, turned it into the five-sentence paragraph, extended that into a character-based overview of the plot. What I have not done is the bulk of the expansion process–a full synopsis, a scene breakdown, rough sketches of those scenes, etc. I’m still in the shallow end. I don’t know that I’ll finish–there’s still plenty of time to jump off the SS Snowflake and try to write based on the work I’ve already done.

But the desire to arm myself for this (possible) second book in the series comes out of the frustration of the rewriting process from #spookyromancenovel. I didn’t plan anything. It makes rewriting hell to find out you forgot entirely about a plot thread a third of the way through the story and never picked it up again, because you were barreling through your first draft like hell hounds were biting at your ankles. It stinks when you have a crappy timeline that doesn’t make any sense and is a complete pain to reconcile with actual linear time because you didn’t remember that fall turns into winter when you set your story in a place with seasons but neglect to allow time to pass physically even when your narrative says “Three weeks later…”

My second draft was put-together enough to get some initial feedback, sure, and I’m happy with a lot of the plot, a lot of the scenes, but not how rough it all still feels around the edges. It’s less of a mess than it was, but it’s not done. It’s not clean.

My turn toward Snowflake planning, with its progressively more detailed structure, its rigid guidelines, is reactionary. I understand that. I also understand it might not work for me, I might do as I’ve often done in the past and get frustrated by all the pre-writing work it involves. My stories are character-driven–their personalities dictate their actions, not some overarcing plot needs. Which is not always compatible with strong advance planning, when I go to write and I realize my character wouldn’t do the thing the plot needs her to do to move along the predetermined path.

This all might be for nothing, in terms of actually getting me to write this (proposed, possible) book.

But a writer that refuses to try new things is a writer who will stagnate. Having a routine isn’t a bad thing, and having a preferred method of planning (or not planning) isn’t a bad thing. But never trying anything else means being shut off to avenues of potential improvement. Maybe the Snowflake method won’t end up helping me as much as I hope, and I’ll abandon it. Or maybe I’ll finish the planning and then find myself less excited to actually write the story–a common complaint I hear from Plotters, whereas Pantsers often get the joy of character and/or story discovery as they write and things take unexpected turns.

Or maybe, just maybe, this will all go swimmingly and I’ll have a new tool in my arsenal to help me get my stories out of my head and into the hands of my readers. Maybe doing some of the work before writing the story will cut down on the amount of work I have to do after. It’s possible, or people wouldn’t be doing it.

It just remains to be seen if I will be one of them.

Keep experimenting, writers. It’s the way to grow.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #30)

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#97 – Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

  • Read: 7/19/19 – 7/23/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (63/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: Read a hyped book
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s been a few years since I read anything that came from the inside of Laini Taylor’s head, but I see her worlds are still vibrant, dangerous, beautiful, monstrous, and most of all, tender. I haven’t met another author yet who could write a single kiss that took three pages (four? maybe it was four) and keep me enthralled the whole time. She did.

I’m moved, I’m mystified, I’m glad I only have to wait as long for the sequel as it takes me to get it from the library, to answer the new questions the ending of this raised, a resolution that spawned a cliffhanger that is just. so. good.

I’m staggered by the moral complexity of many of the primary characters. While it isn’t necessarily the main thrust of the plot, this story does explore the meaning of heroism, and I love that the “heroes,” both the one that came before and the one that emerges, don’t see themselves that way, for one reason or another. I love that, once again, Taylor explores the shifting boundary between gods and monsters and humanity, between right and wrong, between love and hate. There’s so much packed into this that I’m sure I didn’t unpack fully the first time around.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to get to this, because I loved it, but at least I won’t be sitting on my hands impatiently, waiting for the story to finish being told.

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#98 – Wait for Me, by Samantha Chase

  • Read: 7/23/19 – 7/24/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (64/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: Read a standalone or the first book in a series
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

There was a brief moment at the end of this story that almost pulled a surprise second star for this rating, but then, the very end undermined it. This was all-around dull and unpolished.

First, plot problems. The setup is more than a little ridiculous, but if it had been taken at all seriously, I might be able to forgive that. The boss of a company (which is the most unspecific and generic of companies, I haven’t the slightest idea what they do) plays matchmaker and sets up his assistant to have a “oops we’re stuck in the same place” encounter with his son (also an employee of his.)

I’m not saying old white men who think they know best won’t manipulate others, because they absolutely will. But he does it gleefully, and he does it poorly. Both in the sense that everyone around him is talking about how out of character his behavior is (when we the reader have barely been introduced to him, so that’s a red flag that he’s a plot device and not a person) and in the sense that his poor judgment puts his assistant in actual danger when she crashes her car due to bad road conditions on the errand he sent her on.

When it comes out, way down the line, that it was all a set-up, Emma the assistant gets a brilliant character moment I honestly didn’t expect from this narrative, when she quits her job without notice because of how wildly inappropriate her boss’ behavior was, and how he’s absolutely shattered her trust in him, and how she’d never feel comfortable working there again because of what he put her through. My heart was giving her a standing ovation, it was such a beautiful speech and I was so proud of her for sticking up for herself (even when I didn’t really care for her the rest of the time, but that issue I’ll get to in a minute.)

Then the ending ruined it. While she doesn’t go back to her old job (good) she basically forgives the guy for no reason. He hasn’t really apologized or done anything solid to make amends (his wife is actually the one trying to bridge the gap in their relationship) and Emma just folds and hugs them both and everything is okay again.

Now, I’ve been talking this whole time not about the romance, but about Emma’s relationship to her boss, who’s also her love interest’s father. Why am I not talking about the romance? Because it’s dull as bricks. Stubborn person A constantly fights with Stubborn Person B, but they’re also hot with lust, and after a while they fall into bed together despite both of them knowing it’s a terrible idea. I’ve seen this before, and I’m happy to read this standard plot if it’s made interesting by the characters sparking off each other.

They just don’t, here. The dialogue is so formal and awkward and in places, frankly ridiculous. Lucas, on the phone with his father/boss, at one point says “…I’m going to take a shower now, to ease the ache from my muscles.” He says that. Out loud. To his father. Who says that? Especially when Lucas is trying to hide from everyone how badly his injury is still bothering him, wouldn’t he want to constantly project strength, as he tries to elsewhere in the story?

While that’s my most memorable example of how people don’t talk in real life, there’s plenty more, and the constant awkwardness to how the dialogue sounds really diminishes any differences between characters. They can’t have characterization through dialogue, because they all sound the same, and faintly stupid to boot. Emma and Lucas really are just two incredibly stubborn people shouting at each other for most of the book, except when they’re having sex.

And the final nail in the coffin, which is minor, but telling: I don’t feel like the title fits the story. Who is waiting for whom? Is Emma waiting for Lucas to get his shit together? Meh, not really. She’s trying to move on with her life at the end, when he barges in and wins her back, but she wasn’t waiting for him to do that. She wasn’t expecting or even hoping for it. She was moving on. And if we make it about Lucas, was he waiting for someone to come into his life and call him a coward three times about how he was living his life, so that he’d get his shit together? I doubt it. Emma did that for him, and he changed, but was he waiting for her to do that? It doesn’t fit.

Bookish DIY: Painting My Book Pages

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I can’t take credit for this gorgeous idea, I found the tutorial on Tumblr. Rather, I saw the tutorial quite some time ago, wanted to try it but failed to save it in any way, and happened upon it again last week.

So I tried it. I was impatient to, so for the first book I didn’t have painter’s tape and used invisible tape, which I did have, to cover the edges of my first victim (Prodigal Summer) in scrap paper. Which worked, though it took longer to set up. Before I did the other four, we actually had a power outage and went to buy batteries, and I picked up painter’s tape too, since I was right there–and then we got home and the power was back on, despite the power company predicting it would be down for three days! (I’ll take that as a win, but if we’d known it was only going to be two hours instead, we never would have gone to the next town over to go shopping, we would have waited it out. C’est la vie.)

So my theory in choosing Prodigal Summer first was that, despite it being a first edition hardcover in excellent condition and one of my favorite reads of the last several years, it would be easy to replace. Since buying my copy, I’ve seen it pop up in used book stores and at book sales at least six or seven times–and once, I bought a second copy as a gift for my mother-in-law. So I figured, hey, if I ruin it, it won’t be long before I spot it again, probably.

But it turned out beautifully, and it didn’t take me nearly as long as I’d feared to separate all the pages.

Second victim: A Thousand Splendid Suns. Basically for the same reasons. It, too, turned out well, especially because taping the edges of the book went so much faster than covering them with scrap paper.

I moved on to a treat-for-myself project: the All Souls trilogy. Because when I read them, they were library books, and just recently I’ve managed to wrangle a set of my own copies, all hardcovers. They seemed like a perfect choice, because I’ve been meaning to reread them soon (before I read Time’s Convert, anyway) so instead of being painted and put back on the shelf, not knowing when I’ll ever read them again, I at least have a tentative plan to get to these in the next year or so, and experience the joy of reading a pretty painted book or three.

Once I finished them, I made myself clean up my craft area and put away all the supplies. I won’t be doing any more soon, because if I don’t stop now, I’ll do all my hardcovers. (Will this work with paperbacks if I’m careful? Possibly. But I’m in no rush to try, because if those covers get stuck it will be harder to separate them.)

I’ll wait until the mood strikes again, because I do have a lot of paint.