This Week, I Read… (2019 #54)

Yes, I know, it’s 2020 now, but these are the last books I read in 2019 and I haven’t finished my first 2020 read yet! It’s only been two days and it’s a big fantasy novel! More on that next week.

So, let’s wrap up last year.

Spellbinder

#168 – Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn

  • Read: 12/26/19 – 12/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (110/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 159. I’m bored.

The most fundamental problem is that none of the things I expect from a Melanie Rawn novel are present here. My teenage and college years were spent reading the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, and rereading them quite frequently. I loved the first two books of the Exiles series, and like many fans, became somewhat resentful when it was made clear that Rawn was never going to go back and write the third book, giving us both the ending it deserved and the closure we needed. I wasn’t involved in the boycott of her later work directly, because I didn’t even know about the fandom drama until years later when I looked up “is the Exiles series ever getting finished” after I saw my two lonely books sitting together on the shelf one day. But I did not know about Spellbinder until several years after it was published, and I was annoyed enough that I didn’t give it a try until now, when I found it at a used book sale and thought, “Rawn may have disappointed me with Exiles, but her other work is so good. What if I’m missing out by not reading this?”

Well, now I know I wasn’t. Her big fantasy series were a tangle of romance, magic, dragons, and most of all, family. You could boil down the central themes of all eight of those books I loved across all three of those series to family bonds are one of the most important things in the world, no matter what that world happens to be. And that’s simply not present here. It’s a gaping hole in my expectations, and maybe I could forgive that, because that’s on me and not Rawn, at least not directly.

But I just can’t get invested in these snarky, glib characters. Everyone is snapping at each other all the time, be they friends or lovers or found family. And it does seem like “found family” is supposed to be a trope here–Holly has her fellow witches and some of them are honorary uncles and such–but those bonds aren’t forged strongly enough to believe in them. And all that fighting is just irritating, not cute, when I don’t believe these characters care about each other.

And all that fighting is the entirety of the plot so far. I gave up at 40% and I have only faint clues what the central conflict of the book is going to be. The prologue introduces the villain first–at least I’m assuming she’s the big bad of the book, but if she is I’m already disappointed because she’s a flimsy construction of three evil witch tropes in a trench coat–and then, a handful of short and confusing, disjointed scenes introduces Holly and her entire coven and presumably sets up the core conflict. In the prologue. But…it’s that a bad witch is bad and pissed off at the main cast for being good and trying to put a limit on her power? If that’s the point, why have I read 40% of the book and it’s almost entirely about the romantic subplot between Holly and Evan? And it’s not even a good romance because they flip-flop constantly between being sickeningly cute with each other and being slammed-doors, storming-out pissed at each other? None of it reads as believable, and it’s tiresome because it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the main plot. Whatever that is.

I can predict at this point that Holly and Evan are going to break up, because they’re already engaged at 40%, so what else can even happen to keep them apart so that the climax involves their satisfying reunion and declaration of love? And then while they’re estranged, I guess the evil witch is going to a) try to seduce Evan; b) put him in direct physical/magical danger; or c), both of the above. Again, so if that’s the point, why hasn’t the story done anything to show me the evil witch is at all dangerous (she’s kind of ridiculous) or to make me care about Evan (he’s mostly a jerk) or to prove that he and Holly actually care about each other (they’re usually snapping at each other, then having sex, then throwing some sort of cultural pissing contest about which one of them is more Irish)–why should I care?

The only reason I can tell this is a Melanie Rawn novel is because her name is on the cover. This could have come from any two-bit “hop on the urban fantasy train” author who produces utterly dismissable work today, and I wouldn’t know the difference, because nothing about what makes the other Rawn books great is here. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen an author change (abandon?) their own signature style so completely as this.

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#169 – Music of the Heart, by Katie Ashley

  • Read: 12/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (111/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At one point, in one of her many proud, take-no-crap moments, the heroine of this story says she needs a chiropractor for the emotional whiplash the hero has been inflicting on her.

I’m right there with you, sister, but for the entire book, not just his behavior. Every time you stood up for yourself against a douchebag or a jerkwad, I was cheering for you, but then you just keep giving your emotionally crippled hero chance after chance after chance when he treats you like garbage.

Now, when I grabbed this romance ages ago, either free or deeply discounted because the blurb sounded vaguely interesting, I had not fully realized our heroine was a Christian virgin whose three older brothers comprised a Christian rock band. I am not Christian and through repeated exposure generally find Christian romances to be bland or bad or even intolerable. So color me surprised that Abby ended up being my favorite character in the book (though that’s not actually saying much because of all the flaws this story had) and the underlying message, that of forgiveness, was clearly a Christian one but not via Bible-thumping or excessive preachiness. Which I appreciate. In reality, her Christian background strikes me more as a all-in-one reason for her to be the angelic virgin counterpoint to the bad-boy rock star, more than this actually constituting a “Christian” romance as they usually are.

Jake is a needy mess and the underlying message of forgiveness translates effectively to “Don’t give up on this jackass no matter how bad he treats you, because forgiveness is good and yeah sure stand up for yourself but only so far.” I would have left Jake and stayed gone long before the end of the book. Also, his final try at pushing her away was one of the most fake things I’ve ever read in my life–very very few people are that bad and say such awful things, especially when it’s a 180 from their previous behavior. But when she storms off because he’s a horrible person and it’s the last straw, she forgives him when he changes his mind and chases after her. Because of course she does, and then they can live happily ever after.

So there are aspects of this that I like–mostly Abby when she sticks up for herself, and to a lesser extent, how AJ, one of the other band members, becomes her friend after he realizes he’s got no shot with her because of Jake and actually is a pretty decent friend. But the things I didn’t like far outweigh that–how the message nearly exonerates Jake from all of his bad behavior, how everyone follows all their assigned tropes and gender roles to perfection without a single interesting deviation, how poorly edited it is (missing or misplaced punctuation abounds, and quite a few times the author uses common phrases incorrectly, and there are some obvious typos a spellcheck would not catch.) I don’t like how fast Jake and Abby go from disgust/hate/annoyance to love. I don’t like how small children ended up being used as props in one scene to make Jake sexier to Abby, because “aww, look at the man with the baby, my ovaries just exploded.” Not cool.

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#170 – Vivian’s List, by Haleigh Lovell

  • Read: 12/30/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (112/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All sex and no plot. Very little conflict aside from the beginning, when the hero is trying to convince the heroine that her boyfriend is psychologically abusive. He is, but the hero spends literal pages talking down to the heroine about it like he’s lecturing her on the topic. I buy that he’s concerned and that it’s a tough issue for him because his mom was similarly abused by his dad, but it was like wading through the preachiest pamphlet ever: “Ten Signs Your Partner is an Abusive Jerk.”

Once that’s past, though, the pair falls into bed together on an accelerated schedule (he’s shipping back to Iraq in a week! Let’s shoehorn in some commentary on America’s perpetual state of war!) and it’s all sunshine and lollipops after that. The whole time I was like, “is the only conflict driving the rest of the story that this is supposed to be a fling and they’re clearly catching feelings?” Because that’s a good single source of conflict in a romance, but it’s awfully thin to base an entire book around without anything deeper to go with it.

I was still thinking that right up until the unexpected cliffhanger. Yeah, this is half a story, padded out to reasonable novel-length with truly excessive amounts of repetitive, cringey, cheesy sex scenes. If this is supposed to be a romance, it needs more story. If this is supposed to be straight-up erotica, it needs better sex. Splitting the difference to try to make this sail as an erotic romance leaves it stranded in the middle without the better aspects of either.

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#171 – When You Got a Good Thing, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 12/30/19 – 12/31/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (113/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is less of a romance than it is a story about personal growth and proving yourself to your family. This was the Kennedy Reynolds show, with everyone else–including her love interest Xander–getting very little development. Her sisters are all one-note supporting players (this one’s the angry one, this one’s more sympathetic, and so on) and the central conflict of the story is not “will the lovebirds get together,” it’s “can we save our house from the bank so our nearly-adopted sister doesn’t get kicked back into the system?”

Which is a fundamentally good story at its heart, don’t get me wrong. I’m still giving this three stars. But this is really more of a women’s-fiction-type tale, a story of a woman and her sisters and their family legacy, and there’s a flat, simple romance grafted on to it. Xander and Kennedy spend a fair bit of time shouting at each other about the ten years they missed in their second-chance romance, but not all that much time doing anything to convince the reader that they’re still in love. It’s chemistry, sure, you guys banged like bunnies as teenagers apparently, but is it love? Does it have time to develop into love around all these external obstacles? Because there are no internal conflicts worth mentioning. Neither of them really examines or questions if getting back together is a good idea for more than a few minutes, and they barely even acknowledge that they’re different people now than they were when she left (at least in the romance arc, Kennedy’s family arc is entirely about how she’s changed.)

So in the end, I did enjoy this story overall, but I feel like billing it as a romance is, to some degree, false advertising. The romance is less than half the plot and by far the weakest aspect of it.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #53)

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#166 – Ice Massacre, by Tiana Warner

  • Read: 12/18/19 – 12/20/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Read a book with a wintery word in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Another hugely hyped book that was a vast disappointment to me. The concept is cool, I’ll give it that, or I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. But the world-building is thin, the plot full of gaping holes, the characters mostly without personality, and the action is jaw-grindingly constant to the point where it leaves no room for character development or better world-building.

And calling this a sapphic love story is just laughable. Literally the last thing in the book is the main character realizing she’s in love with her childhood best friend who’s also a girl who’s also a mermaid–but they spend most of the books at odds with each other because of misunderstandings, because of the fact that they’re both supposed to want to kill each other, and because they can’t truly trust each other for most of the story. Eventually there’s a small measure of devotion, but there’s no romance to speak of. Everyone’s too busy fighting, and I do mean everyone.

But okay, if it’s setup for the future installments, I could give that a pass. What I can’t forgive is the insanely stupid logic of this thin, nonsensical world-building.

First, the simple idea of the merpeople’s “allure”–their hypnotizing magic–being effective against the opposite gender only is heteronormative in the extreme. My bisexual self is plenty attracted to women, so for most of the book I felt like it should work on me just fine. (And I can’t even address the issues of trans or nonbinary characters, because there aren’t any.) When it eventually became obvious that allure working on everyone would break the plot (the two friends can’t fall in love with each other if magic is involved because then it’s fake, also then the entire idea of sending girls out instead of boys to fight is a moot point and there’s no story) I threw my hands up in the air and said to myself, “I’ll accept it but I don’t think it’s good.”

Second, that leads to another problem; if the merpeople sent their women to fight because the human warriors had always been male before, when they discover the new ship of warriors are female, shouldn’t they send their men instead? Oh, wait, they’re all lampshaded to be fighting somewhere else entirely, in a different ocean. Except…are they all really gone? Because if they are, then who’s making babies? We know there are babies because the crazy girl kills an infant. Which, by the way, is a war crime if you consider the mermaid “people,” because clearly an infant is a noncombatant. So that’s fun. (Also she ends up murdering a crew mate, but that’s not tied to any of my complaints, actually, which almost surprises me. It was terrible but it actually sort of made sense at the time that it would happen the way it did.) But really, why keep sending the mermaids to kill the girls when mermen would have the advantage?

Third, the structure of the Massacre itself. Would you have me believe that a group of twenty girls who have been training together for five years can’t put aside petty high-school-style drama long enough to not get each other killed? Do you mean to tell me that the position of captain is assigned by their trainer, with a list of captains to follow in case of death or incapacitation, and it never once occurred to anyone organizing this thing that that’s a recipe for constant mutiny? Do you seriously expect me to believe no adults went with them for supervision? That no adult women could have been trained alongside them to sail the ship, if not to actually fight? That no adult woman on the entire island was capable or available to be their captain and keep all those little shits in line? Weren’t those people fishermen before the mermaids invaded, and that’s why they’re being starved out now? Sure, in modern military we train people about their age for combat, but we don’t send them out on their own without superior officers, older and more experienced and hopefully with a little more wisdom! And if the problem is that they can’t send the men who have survived their Massacres because now we send women because of the allure, then why were they ever sending men in the first place? Why did it take so long to decide to train girls instead? (The story’s answer: unquestioned patriarchy. Girls aren’t warriors. Because.)

Fourth: no one has much of a personality, they’re too busy getting killed. Of the twenty girls who set sail, I believe only seven or eight survive. They are mostly names on a page who die. Even some of the survivors, I couldn’t tell you anything about, be it their physical appearance or their demeanor. They are mermaid fodder, some are there to be Captain Crazypants’ cronies, they are faceless and interchangeable in death.

Back to the “romance” for a second: I don’t read Meela’s constant distaste for her compatriots talking about boys or their boyfriends as her actually being in love with her female mermaid childhood best friend. That early, it doesn’t even seem to allow for the possibility. It was far easier for me to read Meela as ace and/or aro–she seems completely uninterested in romance with the guy back home who’s in love with her, and she says outright at one point that she can’t imagine kissing him or having kids with him. Yes, it’s all coded, but to me that’s all code for aro-ace, possibly even to the point of sex-repulsed ace. The depth of her aceness would be open to interpretation, but nothing about her characterization for most of the book, such as it is, says to me, “no, she doesn’t like Tanuu or boys in general but she’s got confused feelings for girls she doesn’t understand.” She just doesn’t seem to think romantic love or sex is important. So throwing it out there at the very end that she thinks she’s in love with Lysi doesn’t ring true to me at all, even though I could see it coming from the structure.

Final problem: the plot takes a completely unexpected and illogical turn at the last second. The whole book has been about the Massacre, and then when it’s almost over, our main character sacrifices herself (kind of) and gets captured by the mer-king (sort of) who agrees to let her and the few remaining crew go home so she can find a MacGuffin that’s apparently a legend of their home island…that none of them have ever heard of. So if they don’t know their own legends, how does the mer-king? There’s no foreshadowing for this (or if there is it’s so subtle as to be invisible), it makes no sense with the rest of the book, narratively speaking it’s a deus ex machina to get them home when they’re basically doomed otherwise. And obviously it’s setting up the next book. But I don’t care. I don’t care because this one is so bad I don’t want to read any more.

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#167 – Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 12/20/19 – 12/26/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (109/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is the best that the Realms of the Elderlings has been since the very first book, our introduction to Fitz and his strange magics.

I was apprehensive about returning to his story line. His first trilogy started great and ended mediocre. Then came the Liveship Traders trilogy, which could hardly be more different in scope, in setting, in structure. I loved those books well, though they had issues too, of course. And then I put off returning to Fitz for some time.

But now, not only am I in love with his story again, I wish I remembered it better. The first 200 pages of this does so well at setting up the missing 15 years of Fitz’s adulthood that we pass over, and reminding us of the key points of the plot we left behind, but his friendship with the Fool in this is so vibrant, so meaningful, that I wish I remembered more of it from before. (Also: I’m not much of a shipper, but there were so many moments in this where I wondered if the Fool is actually in love with Fitz. On Fitz’s side I’m sure it’s a deep and abiding bromance, but I’m not convinced that the Fool feels the same limited way. I’m also not sure that’s going anywhere in the long term, even though this is the “Tawny Man” trilogy and I can tell the Fool is going to be a major player in the story. But those moments came often enough that I can’t tell if I’m seeing a pattern or somehow infected with wishful gay shipping vibes.)

So my biggest quibble with the book, even though I’m still giving it five stars, is the pacing, as long fantasy works do have a tendency to drag no matter how “good” they are. As I said, the first third of the book is set up; Fitz spends that whole time refusing his Hero’s Call while we the reader get filled in on the missing time in his life. Then the middle 200 pages wander for a bit in a quagmire of trying to figure out what the hell is going on: did the Prince run away or was he kidnapped? Who’s plotting against him? What can be done about it? It’s a lot of intrigue packed into a small space, but it gets bogged down in so much minutiae.

Of course, then after I make that complaint I go and read the final third of the book in a single day, because suddenly things are going down. The plot moves forward toward the climax at a breakneck pace and I was happy and sad and scared and angry and everything felt a little too real and heartbreaking. And I loved it.

Long gone is the stupidity of the boy/teenage Fitz that frustrated me to no end, his blindness, his willfulness, his lack of self-awareness despite the near constant introspection he subjected himself to. This new, haggard adult Fitz is constantly faced with situations that have no good solutions, but instead of whining about all his choices being bad, he gets on with things as best he can. He makes the hard choices, or uses his wits to change the game. I can accept that we had to have boy Fitz make those mistakes and whine those complaints to get him to be the tortured soul he is now, but that wasn’t always pleasant reading, and now, I love him and my heart bleeds for him.

Though that actually makes me nervous for him going forward, because this is just the end of book one of this trilogy, and in a three-book structure, usually the hero is at his lowest at the end of book two. So, like, things get worse than this? Because Fitz is in a pretty bad place right now, despite saving the day and all that. Good thing I’m planning to read Golden Fool as part of a readathon next month, so I don’t have to wait long!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #52)

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#164 – The Dark Half, by Stephen King

  • Read: 12/12/19 – 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (107/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Naughty or nice? Read a book with a good or evil main character
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There was a much shorter, tighter story that could have been great hiding inside this wordy and repetitive mess.

I’m on board with the idea that a psychological horror-thriller staged between two men who are halves of the same whole is going to have to have a lot of internal monologue. I wouldn’t have minded if only I hadn’t had to read it all twice or even three times over. Throughout the book, we get a scene from Thad’s perspective, but then we have to replay part or all of the same scene from his wife’s, or that of the police officer he just spoke to, or George’s. Or someone would be murdered and we would see it happen, then an agent of the law would describe it to Thad. The book is over 400 pages long but to me it felt that at least half of it was simply treading over the same ground covered five or ten pages before. The excessive use of “darlings” exacerbated this–how many times did I see “foxy George Stark?” It wasn’t even limited to the key phrases that were arc words, important to the story, so they were more forgivable. But the text is littered with similar phrases that stick out every single time.

It made what, in essence, could have been a brilliant story about personal darkness and grappling with what is usually the unknowable source of creativity into a slog of tired, unnecessarily repeated perspectives. The pace did pick up eventually–I managed to read the last 150 pages in one sitting–but I will admit to skimming some when a tidbit of a scene was just covering the minutiae of how someone was stealing a car or ditching the cops. I wanted the big confrontation at the end, and after committing myself to finishing this slog I did not want to get bogged down in the petty details of travel when it was clear where everyone was headed.

The plot was good. The presentation was lacking.

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#165 – A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, by Masaji Ishikawa

  • Read: 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (108/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A Secret Santa recommendation
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is a difficult book for me to rate. I did not enjoy it, at all, but it’s clearly not meant to be enjoyed.

The subject matter was grim and depressing, the tone that of unmitigated anger from beginning to end, but clearly, that’s the point.

I did not really learn anything about dictatorships, totalitarianism, or even specifically North Korea that I did not already know from less personal sources, so it was not educational for me, but I can see its value to others who are unaware of the dire state of things in that country.

I’m really only left with a feeling of helplessness, even powerlessness. We know this is a humanitarian crisis, we know these people need aid, but there’s nothing I can do about it on a personal level, no calling my congressman, because even the problematic policies of American interventionist behavior won’t solve this in the current scheme of world politics. I’ve been raised in a nation that has often interfered with foreign governments, which basically never works out well for anyone, ourselves included in the long-term; but even knowing all that, my heart is still screaming, “Why can’t we do something about this? A dictator is starving his people and we’re all letting him get away with it!”

And then I remember the consequences of trying to intervene: possible nuclear war.

Any complaints I have about the simple style or the glossing over of major events in the author’s life or the flat tone pale in comparison to the simple fact that I can see this tale’s value, but I did not come away from reading it with anything less than a bleak outlook for the future and no real hope of doing anything to stop this.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #51)

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#162 – The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Read: 12/3/19 – 12/8/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (106/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book that was gifted to me
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A four-star first half with a one-star ending stuck on the back end.

I went into this blind in terms of actual content, as this was a gift I received. I doubt I would have bought it on my own, despite loving both science and the history of science–I would not have trusted Gilbert to write that novel well, knowing what I do about her other works.

But it was a gift, and I finally read it. At first I was surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Henry was a fascinating character to set up Alma’s story, and she was still reasonably interesting, though I do see why some reviewers find her lacking in comparison. One of the strengths of this work is that the side characters are all given full, even lush, personalities and backstories–no one is glossed over as unimportant, and that does lead to the risk that side characters could catch a reader’s attention more than the heroine. I found her engaging enough that I was fine following her around the length of her life, but I do see the potential for other, better stories in many of the minor players.

However, that level of devotion to all characters does lead to a certain narrative ponderousness, a slow pace that drags further when one has to stop the main story to find out everything and anything we’ll ever need to know about this new character being introduced. I didn’t mind so much in the beginning, but by the time Alma goes to Tahiti and I had to sit through the entire life story of both the Reverend and “The Boy,” I was worn out on being introduced so thoroughly to each and every soul in the book.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is that it’s an incredibly long walk to get to a very short pier. I see how the pieces fit together. I see how every person in the story was necessary to Alma’s decades-long journey through the fields of science, and more literally, from her home all the way to Tahiti and then abruptly to Amsterdam. It’s a long chain of connect-the-dots across years and continents, and the scope is incredible. I know the how, but in the end, I’m unsatisfied by the why. I was quite bitterly disappointed to realize that this is, at its deepest core, literary fanfiction for The Origin of Species, and not a particularly good one, at that. All that work to put an OC into actual history and not have it go anywhere, not fulfill any purpose! If I’m going to read that style of reimagining, I’ll just pull Neal Stephenson off my shelves, he makes it far more entertaining.

The ending was just so bland, so unfulfilling, so purposeless. Why did I follow Alma for nine decades and five hundred pages only to discover she was happy with her life despite not really accomplishing much of anything?

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#163 – Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 12/8/19 – 12/12/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A slight dip in quality compared to the first three in the series, but still really engaging–in the second half, anyway.

Part of my problem was the slow start. It took me three days to read the first half and one to read the rest. There’s so much setup to the politicking on the newly settled/contested planet that it’s a slog at the beginning, despite what is supposed to be a big “boom” of an opening–literally.

Part of my problem was one of the new characters. I loved Havelock’s story–surprised to see he’s back, of course, but he was the perfect counterpoint to the villain, whose primary flaw was inflexibility, while Havelock weighed the relative benefits of company loyalty against morality and made the “right” choice. Basia’s story was okay, he’s got grief issues about his lost son and he’s emblematic of the sort of pioneer spirit of the settlers. But Elvi was by far the weakest female character this story has ever produced. It’s not that I don’t see how the choices she made about her love life made sense, from an introverted scientist’s perspective. She’s actually a reasonably complex character, so I can’t level the “two-dimensional” criticism at her. It’s just that her entire function is to be the science girl and tell Holden things. Yeah, she figures out how to stop the plague, she’s not entirely useless. But the story focuses so much on her crush on Holden, which is “solved” by banging someone else entirely so she stops throwing her sexual energy in a useless direction and can get back to doing science. Putting her in the climactic sequence with Miller and Holden at the end felt wrong, like she was sorely out of place, and it didn’t really finish her character arc in a satisfying way. I’m not even sure what her arc was supposed to be; she’s not completely without agency or heroism, but her purpose is murky, narratively speaking, unless she’s just the lens we view Holden’s actions through. And since Holden still has his own POV chapters, I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.

So that’s the bulk of why this was a four-star read instead of a five for me. I still enjoyed it a lot; I still think the series is moving in an interesting direction, giving us a bit more information on both the protomolecule civilization and whatever it was that destroyed them, while moving along humanity in what is obviously a reasonable direction: of course settlers are going to go squat on newly available worlds! Humans explore things! We colonize them! We get ourselves into trouble! Which is basically the thrust of this entire story.

What I really liked, though, was Avasarala’s epilogue, spelling out to Bobbie what the consequences of this new human migration would be. Things are going to get even more interesting from here, and I look forward to having both of those beloved ladies back in the future.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #50)

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#158 – Wrong to Need You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/27/19 – 11/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (47/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I connected with Sadia and Jackson so much more in this than I did with their romantic predecessors in the first book, and that was enough to bump this up to five stars easily. The things I did not like about this one were small and not really more than quibbles compared to how much I loved it.

First, though, I rarely listen to audiobooks out of personal preference, but that’s how I could get my hands on this through my library, so I did. I did not particularly enjoy the way Sadia’s POV narrator did male voices, so that meant a good deal of Jackson’s dialogue sounded forced and flat. But that’s not the fault of the story itself, so I learned to live with it. Oddly, I found Jackson’s narrator handled female voices a lot better overall, when I usually hate men imitating women. Chalk it up to professional ability, I guess.

If I liked how Rai handled Livvy’s depression in the first book, I love how she handled Sadia’s anxiety here. Anxiety didn’t prevent Sadia from being good at her job, or a good mother, or a good sister–except when it did. For a person who’s never suffered panic attacks, that contradiction might be hard to parse, but not only did Rai write about the panic Sadia suffered as a result of overwhelming circumstances, she also included the worry and stress a panic attack causes when it happens–the sense of failure to live up to expectations and meet obligations, the shame of someone else seeing you in such a state, the worry that others will view you differently once they know. I cried through some scenes, to be perfectly honest. They were that real to me.

As for the romance? The tone is wildly different from the first book, being just about the slowest of slow burns, whereas sex in the first book happened early and often. But I like slow burns just fine, and Jackson was worth waiting for, so to speak. When the heat was on, things got really hot, and in some unexpected ways I definitely appreciated. The emotional side was just as well developed. Jackson might have been distant and closed off at the start, but he was never cold or “robotic” (as he actually describes Nicholas to be) or as much of an asshole, either. He’s not good with words but his actions are generally pretty clear–he lives to support, and eventually love, Sadia.

With that motivation wound into the mystery of why what happened to him re: the arson charges and his complicated family history, I wasn’t nearly as annoyed by the drama-rama this time around, because I was getting resolution to the extensive setup laid out in the first book. Here, it didn’t detract from the story, it enhanced it. Yes, I realize that wouldn’t have been possible without laying the groundwork earlier, but it doesn’t really change my opinion about the first book, because there was just so much of it and it was so tedious keeping it all straight!

And finally, I haven’t read a lot of brother/brother’s widow romances, though I’m aware it and similar situations like it are a subgenre. I’m not weirded out by it personally, though I’m glad it’s acknowledged in a balanced way here. Jackson doesn’t really think it’s wrong for that reason, it’s more about his own relationship with his dead brother than Sadia’s status as a widow. Sadia is weirded out by it, because she’s handling it along the weirdness of the entire situation they’ve gotten themselves into, and I think that’s a perfectly understandable reaction for someone in her position. And Sadia’s sisters, in the big climax of personal acceptance that happens near the end, are all basically “So what?” which is the enlightened, consenting-adults attitude to take. Everyone else generally seems accepting as well, which is a better stance, I think, for the book to take than harping on the “forbidden” aspect and fetishizing it. Which this never did. Especially as Sadia’s son develops a strong relationship with his “uncle” long before it’s clear that Jackson might end up being his step-dad, too. Because making the kid’s relationship with Jackson creepy or complicated would have ruined this in a hurry, but they’re sweet and wholesome and so incredibly adorable.

What can I say, I have a thing for introverted men who don’t do crowds or attention and aren’t alpha-male jerks. I see a fair bit of myself in some parts of Sadia, and given the chance I probably would have fallen for Jackson if he were real and in my life. So what do I have to complain about here? Basically nothing.

159 - Hurts to Love You

#159 – Hurts to Love You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/20/19 – 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (48/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Such a disappointment after the first two books.

Eve is fine as a main character. Yes, she has some mild social anxiety issues stemming from her self-esteem issues stemming from her abuse. She’s a complex and well-developed character, even if I did find the level of self-affirmation she used to motivate herself irritating. It’s not that the first two books were entirely free of repetitious elements, but this installment was worse, either because there was more of it, or because I noticed it more. How many times can she make her turtle analogies or use the word “like” and “like” about her love interest? It came across as childish, and I know she’s young, but since one of her central struggles is to have her family, and her love interest, not regard her as a child, I think that could have been handled better.

But the real problem is Gabe. I wanted to like him. He’s very likable on the surface. But that’s it, that’s his mask. And he talks frequently about that being his mask. Underneath he’s all pain and brooding about his secret heritage and the complexities of his life because he can’t claim his half-siblings. (Oh, by the way, totally called his secret waaaay before it was revealed. I don’t know what specifically made it obvious to me but it was the only thing that made any sense.)

Eve spends a lot of her time hammering away at that mask, and that’s great, and their chemistry just based on that was fine. But main story ends with us just barely getting to peek at who Gabe could be without it, and without the pain of familial separation, and then BOOM EPILOGUE he’s spilled his secret and everyone knows who he is and it’s all fine.

Um, what? Who did he tell first? Did he get everyone together like an intervention and tell everyone at once? How did they react? Who was surprised and who wasn’t? WHY DID THE MOST INTERESTING PART OF THAT CHARACTER ARC HAPPEN IN A GAP YEAR BETWEEN THE END AND THE EPILOGUE SO I DON’T EVEN GET TO READ ABOUT IT?!?

Also, it’s great to have a large man as a main character who doesn’t come across as intimidating and doesn’t get angry all the time, but Gabe is so soft and forgiving he doesn’t even get mad about things he should very well have a right to get mad about, like Eve lying to him about being Ann the app-service driver. Like, that’s such a huge part of the beginning of the book, then it’s ignored for the entire middle, then at the end he confronts her when he figures it out and one conversation later, where he doesn’t get mad, it’s all totally fine. I thought that was rushed and not entirely believable.

To make their romance worse, a good chunk of the tail end of this book was used to wrap up story lines from the previous two and leave Eve and Gabe by the wayside. Jackson and Sadia get married quietly, sure, fine. Nicholas and Livvy spend a whole chapter hashing out last-minute pre-wedding jitters in a book that’s not focused on them: annoying, but whatever. Then they have a five-month old baby, though, in the epilogue? What? At the end of book two when they get engaged, they insist she’s not pregnant. They plan the wedding for a month after that. Then a year later, they have a five-month old. The math does not add up. Okay, so that “flu” she got that kept her at home right before the wedding was actually morning sickness, then? But her mother and aunt just happened to have the flu the week before providing her a convenient lie? Am I supposed to be reading between these lines or not? Because I was fooled, I honestly thought the “I’m not pregnant” meant “I’m not pregnant,” and it pisses me off on a personal level because myself and so many other women I’ve known get those looks from idiots who think every illness we get means a secret pregnancy we’re hiding and saying “I’m not pregnant” doesn’t mean anything to them because all women lie about that stuff, right?

Okay, that’s a tangent, I haven’t even talked about the age gap yet. I told myself I wasn’t going to because I had enough other issues with this book, but I shouldn’t ignore it. Gabe is 35 and Eve is 24. The math on that barely clears the “half your age plus seven years” rule, if we ignore Gabe’s extra half-year. And there is the argument that since he’s a commitment-phobe and never had a serious relationship, it brings his effective age/experience down a little. Gabe’s single and has a successful business, no kids; Eve is single, has plans to start what will probably be a successful business, no kids. Despite the numerical age difference, they are in similar stages of life, on the large scale. But booooy does Gabe constantly make cracks about how old he is as a defense mechanism against her, which reminds the reader constantly, which either makes it creepy when it didn’t need to be or exacerbates the base level of potential creepiness. [Sudden thought: is that why Eve was such a creeper early on, narratively speaking? To balance the creep factor out between them? Do I really even want to be asking this question? I shouldn’t need to.]

The first half had issues but showed potential, then the second half let me down and the epilogue made me angry.

160 - The Wednesday Letters

#160 – The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright

  • Read: 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (105/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book with red and white on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I picked this up at a used book sale, three dollars a bag, because it sounded interesting from the blurb and I was paying pennies to try things out.

I should not have bought this book, but sadly I couldn’t know that until I started to read it.

DNF @ page 30, just past my 10% personal minimum cutoff. I finished the chapter I was in the middle of. It was terrible. The chapters before it were terrible.

So we’re introduced to this about-to-die old couple for the first two pages, then immediately the author steers us off into a three-page tangent describing the life story and eccentricities of the only current guest at their bed-and-breakfast. She’s not interesting. She’s not who I was wanting to read about when I opened the book. Why am I reading three pages about her?

That’s the pattern throughout the first ten percent. Introduce a “main” character, talk about them for ten seconds, introduce a side or minor character for flavor and spend pages on them while ignoring the main character. I know less about one of the sons of that dead old couple than I do the Brazilian airport attendant he picked up for a date before his flight home. Their daughter is introduced while she’s phoning both her brothers in succession, and there’s a gun on her kitchen counter that she idly plays with while they talk, and they talk about people in their parents’ lives we don’t really know and probably wouldn’t care about. What I want to know is why their daughter has a gun sitting around on her kitchen counter, thank you very much!

It’s an endless series of diversions, and to make it worse, they’re draped in the most saccharine, pedestrian description. At one point the author spends half a page talking about a Hallmark card, just to make sure you understand that the dead old couple was Hallmark perfect, because this book is trying incredibly hard and incredibly transparently to be a Hallmark movie.

I’m sorry I let this book sit on my shelf for two years taking up valuable space in my TBR when it wasn’t worth the thirty or so cents I paid for it.

161 - His Christmas Wish.jpg

#161 – His Christmas Wish, by Melissa McClone

  • Read: 12/2/19 – 12/3/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A holiday book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Bleh. I had good luck with a different McClone Christmas romance as being good without being drenched in the “magic of Christmas” like it was a bad perfume, but this is terrible.

Jake and Carly are both incredibly hot-and-cold with each other about a possible romantic relationship for the entire book. They constantly flip back and forth about what they want, both out loud to each other and internally to themselves. Their friendship is obviously strong–the moments when they’re being “just friends” or working together to provide a good Christmas experience for their friends’ kids are the best parts of the book–but despite the occasional flashes of physical attraction the story kept telling us they were having, there was no chemistry. I simply did not believe these two were actually attracted to each other.

Without that, what’s the point of a romance novel?

Even the tension of Carly moving forward from the losses of her past is mellow and easily solved. She’s consumed by anti-Christmas spirit at the beginning but halfway through, she’s totally cool again, so the story turns to trying to shoehorn her and Jake into a relationship. Then he has to go up on the mountain for a rescue and she freaks out and breaks up with him…except they weren’t even really together yet. Then she leaves town for two weeks and turns around and goes right back when she sees on the news that there’s another rescue going on and Jake could be in danger.

Like I said, constantly flipping back and forth. It’s exhausting.

Oh, and then they get married two months after getting together. Because that’s a good idea. Why is a quickie marriage the epilogue of half the romances I read? I don’t care if they’ve known each other forever, they’ve got serious communication issues and differences in expectations for a romantic relationship, both have been apparent throughout this story, so why is throwing them at an altar supposed to be a happy ending? Even if I cared about them, I’d still think they were headed straight for a divorce because the story has not persuaded me that these two are actually in love with each other.

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #49)

155 - Abaddon's Gate.jpg

#155 – Abaddon’s Gate, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 11/20/19 – 11/24/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (102/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Welcome to the Expanse, where the science is hard, gravity is always a concern, and inertia is the biggest bitch in the universe who kills more people than guns ever could.

I loved it, though being a show-watcher first, this was the first book in the series to throw me a serious curve ball, when I was like, “Wait, who’s Bull? I don’t recognize this guy.” It didn’t take me too long to figure out that he was replaced on television with Drummer, who I know from reading a comparative timeline doesn’t actually show up for a while yet. And I like Drummer on the show just fine, but I like Bull too. He’s a pragmatist in all ways except his own personal safety, and I admired that.

I was also thrown by knowing right up front who Melba really was. Her first chapter is incredibly upfront about her dual identity and her purpose, and having her as a clear antagonist from the get-go was a different story experience, one that the show (to some degree) traded for much more screen time with Captain Ashford. (Which, don’t get me wrong, was a good call, because if you get an accomplished and veteran actor like David Straithearn to play your other bad guy, keep the camera on him, please.)

What continues to impress me about the Expanse is its excellent pacing and scope of escalation. First the protomolecule is a mystery, then it’s a threat because it was weaponized via human hands, now its true purpose turns out to be opening up a gate that needs to be investigated.

Then in this installment we get the plot bomb dropped that whatever civilization made the protomolecule was wiped out by something stronger. That may seem an obvious next step, but we spent two books establishing just how powerful, wacky, and alien the protomolecule was, and thus how powerful, wacky, and alien its creators are. Only now it’s how they must have been, once, because it looks like they’re gone.

I had the same sinking feeling in my gut then that I did after reading Lord of the Rings and finding out, after the fact, that Shelob wasn’t even close to the biggest and scariest spider monster in universe. As if that weren’t bad enough, Sauron wasn’t even the strongest Big Bad, a fact I learned only moments later. It was mind blowing, and I’m not exaggerating. I bought myself a copy of The Silmarillion not too long after to find out more, only to be horribly bored by the dry and factual approach to building a mythos. But that’s another review.

So this epiphany could have read like a poor bait-and-switch, but it doesn’t. And to further appreciate the pacing, it did not escape my notice that Holden’s awe-inspiring, come-to-God-and-the-Universe moment came at exactly halfway through the book. Midpoint climax, baby! That’s some good stuff.

Maaaaybe the big battle at the end for control of the Behemoth dragged on longer than truly necessary, but if that’s my only quibble, it’s a small one. It still brought everyone’s story lines together in a convincing and satisfying way.

156 - Proof by Seduction

#156 – Proof by Seduction, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 11/24/19 – 11/25/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (103/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Okay, but not nearly as good as I was hoping. Because of finding both this and its sequel and used book sales, but in the wrong order, I actually read the second book two years ago and quite enjoyed it, but going back to fill in the first half of Ned’s story wasn’t as worthwhile as I had hoped it would be.

And that’s only half of the “meh, it was okay” equation. Jenny and Gareth’s romance was more stereotypical than I’ve come to expect from Milan’s work, with a brooding alpha male and a secretive heroine falling in lust with each other while also seeming to hate each other’s guts. Technically it’s enemies-to-lovers, but it also kind of doesn’t feel that way, somehow? Maybe because the lust is instant, and in those types of stories I expect the enemies part to stand up for longer before they give in to the lust.

My point is, the pacing felt off. And the bit at the end when Gareth is confronted with how horrible a childhood Jenny had and that explains/excuses a lot of her behaviors…meh, I just didn’t care for it.

As for the major subplot of the novel, Ned and his mistakes, I loved Ned in his own story in the next book but he is an absolute buffoon here. I get it, he’s young and no one has expected much of him. But despite this not being “his” story overall, I saw very little of the protagonist in him that I know we get later, and if I *had* read the books in order, I honestly might not have liked the second one as much because I would have had trouble believing they were the same man. Even if, to some degree, that’s the point–Ned grows up–but still, they’re almost unrecognizable as the same character.

So reading them backwards is not recommended, but reading them correctly maybe not either? Just try one of Milan’s other series instead, honestly.

157 - Hate to Want You

#157 – Hate to Want You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/26/19 – 11/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (104/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A romance that is fantastic in almost every respect. Diversity, respect for mental illness, realistic flaws in both main characters, honest but confused attempts to move past their past.

The major problem I had was that their past was SUCH a big part of the story. Setting up inter-family history and dynamics this complicated, to set the stage for and justify such an unhealthy lovers-to-exes-to-yearly-hookups relationship, required a lot more page space than I think the back story actually deserved. Every time things might have been looking up for our lovebirds, their families intruded somehow and mucked things up.

Not that they didn’t do plenty of mucking up themselves, they’re both hot messes, but those internal conflicts felt much more real and developed, while the family/external conflicts often felt unnatural and forced.

The handling of Livvy’s depression, though, I really liked. Though her episodes manifest differently from mine, I still related to a lot of how she felt, and even if the experience isn’t the same it’s still amazing to me to see depression in a romance treated with gravity instead of a mere flavor to someone’s personality.

The Reading Frenzy December 2019 Challenge: the Holly Jolly Readathon

December 2019 TBR.jpg

After taking two months off (October because I needed a break, November because of NaNo) I’m back to participating in The Reading Frenzy’s small monthly challenges. Six specific books in a month? No problem for me!

My proposed TBR to meet the prompts:

  1. Read a holiday book. Last year, I actually got through all my Christmas-themed romances, and nothing on my TBR was jumping out at me as appropriate. I headed over to the free “bestsellers” on Amazon and found¬†His Christmas Wish (digital, not pictured) by Melissa McClone, who wrote one of my previous Christmas romance reads, and one of the best of them, at that. With a little research, an easy choice.
  2. Read a book with red and white on the cover. My first thought was Insomnia, but I’m saving that for two possible tasks from next year’s PopSugar challenge. A hunt through my shelves turned up The Wednesday Letters.
  3. Read a book that was gifted to you. Many books on my shelves are gifts, but most of those are things I picked out, because my mom will ask for a list of books to choose from. Those would count, but I felt like it was closer to the spirit of the task to choose an unprompted gift. My mother-in-law gave me The Signature of All Things.
  4. Read a book with a wintery word in the title. I had remarkably few to choose from on my TBR, and only one I already owned, Ice Massacre.
  5. Naughty or nice? You choose: read a book with a good or evil main character. I was honestly stumped by this for a while and browsed a few lists of evil main characters without much luck. So I read the blurbs for all my unread Stephen King novels, certain something would turn up. The Dark Half actually covers both choices, quite literally.
  6. Bonus — read a Secret Santa book. To participate in this, we volunteered for a mod to give us a book recommendation. Mine?¬†A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea (digital, not pictured).Which I actually had pegged for a PopSugar task next year, but a little hunting turned up an alternative, so I’ll read it now, no problem.

It feels good to be back to these small challenges, because I’m done with two of my year-longs (PopSugar 2019 and Mount TBR, though that hasn’t gotten it’s formal post yet) and I have two books to go for Virtual Mount TBR. So I have a little more freedom, and to be fair to me, four of these six count for Mount TBR anyway!