This Week, I Read… (2021 #32)

#90 – If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio

  • Mount TBR: 73/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

It was great, until it wasn’t, which unfortunately seemed to be the end of Act II (of five.)

Everything that charmed me in the beginning–and this did suck me in immediately–wore painfully thin by the end. Part of its ultimate lack of charm can be attributed to me not being the correct audience for this book–I did some musical theater once upon a time, but I’m not a theater nerd by any stretch of the imagination; I’ve read Shakespeare, but only a few things beyond what was required of me by school; I did go to a liberal arts college, but not one so dark, dramatic, or elitist as the fictional setting here. Also, I’m possibly just too old for this nonsense anymore, I’m finding that every time I try dark academia since I fell in love with The Secret History, it’s generally disappointing, even the other Donna Tartt novel I read, so keep in mind the personal bias of this unfavorable review.

I got tired of the endless Shakespeare monologues fairly quickly, even when it was clear that they were relevant to the narrative. I got tired of the over-the-top personalities of the main cast, though I will say I was impressed by how efficiently the seven of them were introduced and differentiated–wrangling that many characters is difficult and not often done well. But as the story wore on, I waited for them to get deeper than their stereotypes, and for the most part, they didn’t.

By the end, I was skimming past the Shakespeare and a good chunk of any given paragraph of normal text, just searching for keywords to tell me the plot was unfolding as I expected. This didn’t provide any surprises for me but one–I had figured out who committed the murder easily, but not who had assisted them in covering it up initially–and I saw the ending coming a mile away. But it felt predictable in a boring, “is it over yet” kind of way, not in the satisfying, “aha! I was right” kind of way.

Though most of the problems I found could have multiple solutions in theory, I think they stem from the same source–I think the story simply takes too long to get where its going. The murder happens too early, cutting off the high levels of tension too soon, as I never felt the post-murder story reached that same level of suspense. The melodramatic characters wear thin because they’re onstage too long without further development. The Shakespearean passages become a crutch to pad out the narrative with flavor but no extra meaning that hasn’t been conveyed by the plot.

There’s an argument to be made, certainly, for many genres of fiction being indulgent and melodramatic, and I’m not going to say dark academia shouldn’t be one of them. But I found this story to be too weak to support the level of indulgence and melodrama it was draped in, like heavy velvet curtains attached to a rod too delicate to carry their weight. The cracks in the wall where the supports are coming loose show clearly.

#91 – Puck Me Baby, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This series continues to be good, but to not quite live up to the OMG reaction I had to reading the first entry.

I think this could have actually been a little longer, as neither lead felt as developed as they could be. Amanda didn’t have much of a personality beyond the flaw she was labeled with–“too nice”–and the whining she did on the phone/in texts with Diana. Which is at least consistent, because when she was the other half of Diana’s conversations in the previous book, she was also pretty bland and whiny then.

Alexi fares a bit better, since he at least has the baby trauma that becomes his dark secret he “lies” about to Amanda, and he’s got the career/personal life dichotomy of being the Big Scary Guy on the ice but not at home. Only the story didn’t do much to deal with whether or not Amanda should be worried about what kind of guy Alexi really is, and we as readers know he’s pretty much a giant teddy bear who desperately wants to be a dad.

The pregnancy itself takes up so much space that it’s a third main character long before the actual child is born, and to an extent I get that, because it’s the reason they’re having a relationship at all, whether it’s the friend/co-parent one they strive for at the beginning, or the sexy/romantic one they end up with. But because the baby takes up all that room, and because the timeline jumps forward noticeably every so often so we can end the story with the HEA + birth, the actual development of the romance is short-changed, almost to the point of nonexistence. I believe these two are in lust with each other, but not really in love. I had hoped more would be done with that in the late game, like if Alexi had said something to the effect of “I want to stay with you even if we lose this baby”–which would have also done more to address his past trauma. (Which I did notice Amanda never invited him to talk about after their fight, a glaring omission.)

I feel like this story is almost there. It’s pretty close to achieving what it set out to do, it just falls short in a few places.

(And I think Hoopla has at least one more of the series available on audio, so I’ll keep going until I run out, but probably won’t buy any further entries. I’m no longer hoping they’ll be as good as Hot as Puck, but they are at least solidly entertaining.)

This Week, I Read… (2021 #31)

#87 – Pretty Face, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’m not sure where the magic, likability, or personality of the first book in the series went, because it certainly isn’t here anymore.

I’ll admit my personal biases up front–despite the fact that I’ve read quite a few of them, age-difference romance is not a trope I favor. Nor are coworker romances (though they can be tolerable sometimes, I often find the power dynamics gross) or a-hole heroes.

So I’m striking out on all the tropes this particular installment relies on–I didn’t know the a-hole hero in the first book was setting a pattern for the whole series (and it obviously was, looking at the blurbs for the future books.)

But a lot of my problems with this book don’t even stem from the tropes I don’t care for. This one felt far more “British” than the last one, by which I mean, I’m an American reader and even if I loosely understand how the peer system is set up, I’ll simply never understand fully its political and social implications, so having everyone in this book be related to someone hoity-toity and constantly referencing a family feud generations old that turns out to just be a shady business deal…I’m over it. I never cared. On top of that, I felt like the references to famous places were much more heavy-handed here, and while I have been to England, I haven’t been to London, so they didn’t mean much to me.

I buy the central conflict of “we can’t be in a relationship for these rock-solid social, personal, and professional reasons.” Because both our leads do have excellent reasons not to bang. But they throw all of those out a window really quickly when a Depressing Plot Twist leaves the hero vulnerable, and the nonsexual part of her supporting him through it was actually really sweet, but then of course they go home and bang. I’ve run into this behavior pattern before in romances, and I’m not even saying it’s not realistic, people seek comfort. But I generally don’t think it’s healthy, and these two have way more obstacles than most standing between them. And I definitely think these two got in the sack sooner than their previous dynamics warranted.

All of that felt rushed, like we have to have them together quickly, because the meat of the story is apparently how they a) fail to keep it secret and b) fail to manage any of the other consequences of their impulsive decision. Most of the middle of the book is a train wreck with a Snidely Whiplash-esque villain metaphorically tying our leads to the tracks via social media pressure, since he’s runs a sleazy tabloid.

The thing that’s ultimately saving this from being a one-star disappointment of a sequel is the final personal conflict between the leads, which involves a different Depressing Plot Twist, but does display how far the hero has come from being the a-hole he started as. (Unlike in the first novel, where I felt that Richard displayed no real change in self from getting together with Lainie, Luc definitely gets a full personal arc here as a result of his relationship.) I think it all played out in both a realistic and satisfying manner–even if I don’t think their romance was handled well in the beginning, as rushed and shaky as it was, it definitely gets a solid ending.

Going to give this series one chance to bounce back–let’s see if I can learn to like the next grumpy hero.

#88 – Making Up, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Better for me than the second book, barely, but definitely not as good as the first–more like a 2.5, but I’ll round up for the sake of Goodreads’ lack of half-stars.

Plot gripes: thin and rushed. When I went to record the page count (I keep track of my monthly totals) I was shocked, yet not really surprised in retrospect, that this book is over a hundred pages shorter than its predecessor. The chemistry between the leads is hand-waved with a “they used to be frenemies in school” backstory that’s eluded too frequently but not filled in until their climactic get-together moment. (I think ultimately that’s a good choice, but it does make the beginning feel a bit empty.) Their relationship jumps right to “we’re having sex but we don’t know about the rest of it” and stays there until the final conflict, both of them refusing to address their status in any meaningful way. And then when things look dire, hero makes a quick decision and they eventually get their HEA. That epilogue was terrible, though.

Character gripes: Trix is fairly solid and gets the most development. Leo’s is much shallower, and his final decision not to take the big opportunity he’s been granted in favor of fighting for their relationship feels a bit hackneyed, since we never really learn why he’s so passionate about his art/makeup artistry in the first place (in contrast to getting at least a cursory explanation of Trix’s childhood fascination with circus arts.) The subplot with Leo’s jealousy about the fake, reality-show narrative of Trix’s romance with Jono was fine with me–he acknowledged that it was his feelings and not reality that was the problem. The subplot with Jono’s actual romance with Cat was awful, and Cat was awful, and I get that she’s supposed to be a bona fide Mean Girl, but I don’t think she added anything to the story overall. I could see so clearly how she was only there to throw wrenches in the plot, and if she was supposed to be a foil for Trix (ie, “look at how badly Cat is coping with her trauma vs. Trix”) then it would have worked better if she weren’t an entirely unsympathetic shrew of a person who does nothing but be mean to everyone and make constant trouble.

Even though there were parts of this I did genuinely like, there were plenty I didn’t, and after three books by this author I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t vibe with her style. Shelving her under “glad she works for other readers but not so much for me.”

#89 – The Heart Principle, by Helen Hoang

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I was looking forward to this a great deal, having loved the first two books. And this book isn’t terrible, but it’s not what I expected based on its predecessors.

A lot of the same elements are there–a main character with autism and a narrative dealing with how it affects their life. A romantic partner who accepts them. Other people who don’t, necessarily. Communication issues. So the core structure is there.

But the problem with this story is that it’s actually two stories, and I don’t feel like those two stories mesh together well.

The first half of the book is solidly a romance and I was definitely on board to give this book the third five-star rating of the series. Then it shifts drastically away from the romance for the next 40-ish percent of the book–in fact, the hero barely appears at all. Quan’s POV chapters become shorter and fewer while the narrative focuses on Anna, and she barely mentions him, because her life becomes a hell of constant caregiving, family drama, emotional blackmail, gaslighting…I mean, I’m not against romances dealing with heavy, serious topics, but this is a plunge into such a severe emotional misery that Anna’s narrator really did sound like she was crying many times. (Listening to the audiobook may have exacerbated how miserable it felt, actually, because her performance was so good, by which I mean, dramatically heart-breaking. I might have been able to keep a little more distance between myself and the text if I’d been reading words on a page instead.)

The last ten percent is by far the worst part of the story, because while the main characters are back together in what appears to be a romance, it didn’t strike me as particularly romantic, because it’s a quick-and-dirty summary of Anna’s continued mental illness (autistic burnout) and slow recovery, again with very little actual presence of Quan, who is quietly being her caretaker in the background with absolutely no fanfare (story-wise) like she got when she was taking care of her dad. That, even more than Quan’s relative lack of screen time in Part II, really felt off and even angered me, because while he’s clearly more emotional capable of being a caretaker–he basically said so early on, though not in direction comparison to Anna–the breezy, “let’s wrap up literal months of story time in a few quick chapters” pace really does him a disservice by minimizing his role in Anna’s progress.

After building him up through the first half as a hero with some baggage to carry, but basically a really stand-up dude, the rest of the book gives the impression that Quan’s journey is secondary to Anna’s, that he’s not as worthy of development, not as important. And I think that’s crap. He deserved better.

Though the audiobook did not include the author’s note that people reviewing the print edition have been mentioning gave context to the story, I did skim an interview with the author that said much the same thing (apparently,) that this book is “half a memoir.” And while I recognize that writing about such personal topics may be liberating and cathartic, and I mean no disrespect or insult to her or anything she’s gone through…I expected a romance, and I only got that for half the book. This is being marketed as a romance following on the heels of two other wildly successful romances previous, and I don’t feel ultimately that this story is enough of a romance to meet my expectations. The first half of the book is what I wanted, most of the second half is still a good story but not a romance at all, and the final part is simply bad.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #30)

#85 – Luck in the Shadows, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Mount TBR: 71/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Let’s be honest: 5 stars for characters I fell in love with, 3 stars for plot and narrative style.

It’s been a long time since I read Flewelling’s The Tamir Triad and liked it just fine, but that was before I got into book reviewing, so I’m actually curious to see how “good” I think they are when I reread. Which, now, I’m probably going to do. I hadn’t realized that this series was set in the same universe, mostly because I picked this up on the strength of recommendations like “it’s fantasy that’s queer without the queerness being the main focus”–which is true–and “if you like lovable rogues, do I have a new main character for you to swoon over.” Which is also true, and a completely fair assessment of Seregil.

Maybe I wasn’t swooning, exactly, but I am in a sort of love with him, and Alec, and Nysander, and more of the minor characters than not.

The structure? While this never descends to the level of true head-hopping, the omniscient narrator and choppy scene breaks do make for a disjointed style that more recent fantasy mostly seems to eschew. (Not that I’m a great fan of alternating/multiple first-person narrators either, because authors so rarely manage to differentiate their voices properly, but that’s a separate complaint.) Sometimes I would find myself taken out of my reading by a scene break I felt came at a poorly chosen time, or the author’s tendency to try to end chapters on a quip that didn’t always land. And the ending is a giant, obvious, ominous, and possibly unearned cliffhanger.

But that’s getting into plot territory, so I’ll make my case for my complaints there as well–the first half (or maybe 60%) is clearly a sort of coming-of-age story for Alec, and also building the groundwork for the future romance. If I had been reading this when it was new, I would have classified that romance as “possible but I’m not sure it’s actually going to happen” and that’s definitely what the text supports. With the benefit of reading this more than twenty years after publication, even though I’ve been exposed to minimal spoilers, I do know that the romance does happen. And that part of the novel is slow-paced and filled with excellent character work.

But the back half is a complicated intrigue plot that introduces new characters to be villains, then discards them as their relevance declines, with surprising frequency. I don’t think the conspiracy itself is the problem, only that it seems mostly disconnected from the earlier parts of the book, not properly foreshadowed. And most of what I did feel was foreshadowed well was the stuff that didn’t get fully resolved–the “evil” nobleman and his necromancer accomplice, the magic object that made Seregil deathly ill, and Nysander’s role in/knowledge of those goings-on. I get that we have to leave something for future books, but since this was clearly The Important Thing, the conspiracy against the throne seemed almost like an afterthought, like it was just an elaborate exercise to show Alec had learned to handle himself. While that’s a valid resolution to his coming-of-age story, I think it needed to be more evident in the early plot, even when the other characters were hiding their purpose from Alec for his own protection. Did I need to be kept in the dark the same way he was, as a reader?

All that being said, I still love these characters and very much want to know what happens next. I was just lamenting with Shadowmarch not that long ago that I shouldn’t have collected the whole series before I started reading, on the strength of usually loving its author–I plan to donate the lot of them, without reading the other three. But here, I don’t own the next book already, and now I regret that, because I’d like to keep going immediately.

#86 – A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

  • Mount TBR: 72/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 23%. I really thought I was going to keep going on this one, because it did have a promising opening, but since I ended up reading this on my phone on-the-go while I read another physical book concurrently, that turned out to be a much better fantasy work, I don’t really want to go back to/on with this one.

Honestly, I’m just having terrible luck with the freebies I’ve gotten from Tor’s newsletter. I haven’t been picking them up lately, because I keep reading novellas I don’t end up liking, or first-in-series novels like this one that I either don’t finish, or if I do, that don’t make me want to pick up the next book. Which is, of course, the point of the publisher offering these freebies.

Anyway.

When the book started, I was like, “Yes! We’re doing monks with an alien philosophy for me to learn about! Cool!” So I put up with the lack of definition to several new fantasy words the text threw at me, thinking I’d figure them out when I had more context. And I grit my teeth through the declamatory silliness of every character having to strike an unexplained “pose” as a part of their speech. (Do I think the idea of explicitly codified body language as a required supplement to verbal communication is interesting? Absolutely. Do I think it’s executed well here? Absolutely not.) I actually thought that perhaps that was endemic to the monks, but then we veer sharply away from them in Chapter 2, when the story becomes about trading intrigue, but yeah, everybody still spends half their conversation taking poses to convey extra meaning that the author is just clearly dying to make sure we understand.

But the intrigue never actually intrigued me. Oh, sure, Seedless is vaguely interesting as a character, once I started to grok the concept of what “andat” were–one of those undefined terms from the opening that I was hoping to learn. And I think I did. But the rest of it was just tedious posturing (literally, as I’ve covered, but also figuratively in the sense of people jockeying for power over each other) over semi-mysterious happenings that I never felt invested in.

As this author is one half of the team that writes The Expanse, I genuinely thought it would be better than I found it to be, but a) no one hits a home run every time, and b) I shouldn’t expect it to be similar since it’s only one of them, and also c) as much as I love The Expanse, it’s also flawed, and this is flawed without the benefit of me already liking its characters from a television show. So I possibly went into this with unfair expectations. Even if I didn’t, however, I still wouldn’t think it’s very good.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #29)

#82 – Puck Aholic, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

“And they were roommates” isn’t my favorite trope, but I don’t hate it, either. I think this isn’t the best example, because they were already attracted to each other before they moved in together and they start sleeping together really quickly, so there’s no time to savor any unresolved sexual tension.

Diana is annoying, but in a way that feels too real and hits a little too close to home. Her pessimism regarding men in general and her love life in specific isn’t something I relate to, but her feelings of being a crazy messy burden on anyone who might care for her, I get. Deeply. So I do understand her resolve to swear off men and dating, though I think “until I feel better about myself” would be a more interesting conflict for the story than her deadline of “forever.”

Tanner is… well, as a boyfriend, he’s pretty much perfect, and that’s a bit of the problem. Sure, he and Diana fight like wildcats in the very beginning, but my brain read all those altercations as Diana deliberately provoking him until she got him to take the bait, so I’m not going to hold that against him. The rest of the problem is that his personal conflict arc–ADHD and his career–has very little to do with Diana at any point. Occasionally the narrative takes a stab at linking them, like “oh, I can’t handle a girlfriend on top of this, she’ll be a distraction,” but that’s undermined by two things: Diana’s clearly a distraction just as a roommate, even if she never did become Tanner’s girlfriend, and also once they do get together, Tanner starts skating better, to the point where his teammates notice and approve.

While I’m not disappointed with Tanner as book boyfriend material, I am unhappy with the way his neurodivergence is treated, because his ADHD gets ignored for large parts of the book. In the beginning, he sort of hedges around it in his POV chapters, sure, fine, we’re building up to the reveal. But once it’s revealed, he only displays any of his supposedly regular coping behaviors when the plot needs him to, not the rest of the time, and certainly none of them were foreshadowed with any significance. If he lives by the to-do list he keeps on his phone, why don’t we know about it until at least halfway through the book? Why does his summer hiatus seem completely unscheduled? Because whenever Diana pisses him off he just goes back to the gym at the drop of a hat. Were all those gym sessions on the list, or did he really not have anything else planned for that day? Why is he never obviously nervous about being late to something or deviating from his routine? Why is there not even much evidence that he even has a routine?

Don’t get me wrong, I want more romance heroes to be dealing with mental illness or neurodivergence as characters, because men’s mental health in the real world is something society tries really hard to sweep under the rug. But this just feels shallow. (Except for the scene where Diana helps Tanner with his phobia, because that is well established from the team’s prank wars, and also echoes a scene with Wanda the pig earlier in the book. So that was actually really good. But the ADHD rep, not so much. Also, Wanda was pretty cute, and I’ll grant that having the pet be a pig instead of something more ordinary has a certain charm to it, as does Chloe’s hedgehog at the end of the book. Hedgehogs are lovely.)

Okay, I’ve aired my grievances, but this was still funny to me, as the earlier novels were, I’m still going on with the series, though I’m hoping I get plots that are better-realized again soon, like the first book.

#83 – Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams

  • Mount TBR: 69/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Cover features your favorite color prominently
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that was a slog.

So I have a history with this piece of intellectual property. I was introduced to Williams as an author in college (1998) because several of the friends I made my first year were big fantasy nerds–no surprise there–and I was perfectly ready to move on from my high-school-era love of less sophisticated fantasy authors. I borrowed The Dragonbone Chair from one of those friends and off I went.

So in 2001 when news about Williams writing an online serial went around, and I saw the $15 price tag…well, I was a perpetually almost-broke college student still, and sure I spent money on books, but that was a high gateway, because a) I didn’t own my own computer yet, I was borrowing friends’ or using the computer lab to write papers and such; and b) sure, a chunky fantasy novel might be $7 or $8 in paperback, but it was portable, easy to reread whenever, and nobody had tablets or smartphones or e-readers yet, so an online serial publication was definitely not portable. Even fifteen dollars seemed like too much for the inconvenience of a book I could only read sitting at a computer, and couldn’t read all of at once.

I was genuinely angry about this shift away from the paradigm, and much like Williams vowing this serial was online only and would never be published traditionally (which I distinctly remember but don’t actually have a source for) I too vowed that I would never read it.

I held out much longer than he did, if my memory of that claim is even true. But I’m wishing now that I hadn’t bothered.

This is bad. Not even close to the level of quality I expect from Williams, based on the earlier Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, as well as War of the Flowers–which was weird but I enjoyed it–and the Otherland series, which was even weirder and not always good, but yeah, I still enjoyed that too, for the most part.

Who am I supposed to care about in this book? I’m no stranger to multiple protagonists, but there are simply too many here, meaning none of them get the development time they would need to be interesting. I’m trying to wean myself from the complaint that protagonists need to be “likable,” because a character can be a jerk and still be interesting, but few of these protagonists are particularly likable either!

1. Barrick is a whiny jerk who folds under pressure and abdicates responsibility to his sister, and then makes a spectacularly bad decision for no reason other than to set up some tension at the end, and his future arc. If it’s because he’s “mad,” bad plot reason, and if it’s because he’s affected by the more general shadow-madness, well, I guess he could be vulnerable to it like anyone else, but that’s pretty flimsy too.
2. Briony is a fairly standard “if only I weren’t a woman, people would take me seriously” princess who doesn’t fold as much under pressure but is dealt a really raw deal. I’ll give her credit, she does legitimately try her best to rule her lands, but she’s also kind of a whiny jerk like her brother, too.
3. Quinnitan is…pointless. Sure, I see how the end of her arc in this book echoes those of the Eddon twins, but there is no direct connection between her plot and anyone else’s. And I mean that literally, if there’s anything that ties her story to any other single part of the book, I simply do not see it, it’s buried in lore or foreshadowing that was lost on me amid the sheer weight of nearly 800 pages of plodding narrative. I read all of her scenes constantly wondering why I should care, and the fact that her arc is a very basic harem plot, “I don’t want to be a token wife but really what choice do I have?” sort of thing, doesn’t help, because on its own it’s incredibly unoriginal.
4. Chert is marginally likable, because he’s arguably got the most defined personality and most personal growth in the book, as a person of a “little” race who is distinctly not human–I get a mix of gnome and dwarf, with a faint whiff of Podling from The Dark Crystal–and who deals with an unexpected foundling by taking him into his family and trying to make it work, even when that foundling is really a big blank space in the story who still manages to get into trouble.
5. Captain Vansen gets points from me for being the guardsman deep in unrequited love, which is a trope I would absolutely eat up with a spoon. The problem is, the object of that love is a protagonist I don’t care for (Briony,) leading me to question what the eff he’s thinking that he can even admire her from a distance, let alone be in infatuation/love. And his plot arc is mostly “something goes wrong that’s not really has fault but everyone blames him anyway.” Which got dull.

Chert and Vansen are most of the reason this book gets a second star*, honestly. Chert’s scenes with the Rooftoppers are generally pretty excellent, even if they’re mostly tied to a plot arc that I don’t care for.

The other thing that’s getting me about this is that it feels like a deliberately grim-dark retread of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. You’ve got a castle that’s the seat of current government but used to belong to the enemy–the enemy that no one is sure even exists anymore, that lives in a land far enough away to feel distant but also somehow close enough to be threatening, once people believe in them again. That castle is perched upon magically important ruins/caverns, and that enemy has forms of magic/communication that affect humans and can cause or appear symptomatic of madness. There’s a race of small likable people who aren’t quite dwarves or any other “standard” fantasy race, but are still somehow cute/appealing. There’s a crippled prince who’s not really well-liked. One of the primary female protagonists is a young woman who laments the limitations of her womanhood under the patriarchal feudal system of the world.

And to someone who’s never read either of these series, that list of similarities could mostly read like fairly common fantasy tropes, and I forgive anyone who reads this review and thinks that. But I’ve read MSaT probably ten times all the way through in the twenty-plus years since I was introduced to it, and I feel like I’ve just been handed the same story again, with a thick coat of gray paint slathered on it and a few details changed–and those changes are basically always for the worse. No one in this story can be said to be a direct equivalent to Simon, who gets a very clear hero’s journey, but if I’m supposed to slot Barrick in as a Simon/Josua mashup (that crippled prince problem) then it takes the entire book to get Barrick out of his comfort zone and on his journey, where Simon got booted from the castle at the end of the first act of the first book.

And that gets at the underlying problem that is at least partially fueling all other problems–this book is clearly just the first act of the larger story, and yes i know! that is what first books do! but this also doesn’t have a lot of forward motion on its own, and it doesn’t resolve anything aside from the mystery of a single murder at that happens near the beginning. Seriously, all other plot threads get kicked down the road with the “and now they’re exiles” theme that the ending has assigned to most of the protagonists. Chert doesn’t suffer that fate, but the ending of his story line–also the end of the book itself–is the foundling reasserting that he doesn’t know who he is, which is not new information. We’ve literally not known who he is the whole time, except that we do find out who his mother is, but don’t find out how he was taken or why he apparently hasn’t aged as much as he should have or what the Qar intended by sending him back “home.” The identity of his mother is basically the least important question surrounding him.

I truly feel like I just read a 750-page prologue, and that is not a good feeling.

*Yeah, I told myself this was a two-star book, but by the time I wrote the whole review, it’s not and I can’t pretend I still believe that. This is a one-star book. This is so bad I don’t want to go on with the series, even though it almost has to get better, now that most of our protagonists are out on their journeys. And because it could hardly get worse, right? But this already took up so much of my time (I had to take a week-long break in the middle to binge some romances, as a relief from all this grimdark toil) and even though I’ve managed to collect secondhand copies of the rest of the series, and they’ve been sitting on my shelves for a few years waiting for me to invest my energy into them…I’m giving up. Not worth it.

#84 – The Glittering Court, by Richelle Mead

  • Mount TBR: 70/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What did I like about this? It was digestible. Having just come off a heavy, plodding, disappointing fantasy read, the easy YA tell-don’t-show narrative style went down smooth like a slushie on a hot day.

And that’s the best thing I can say about the whole book–it read fast and easy.

What didn’t I like?

1. The fact that this touts itself as fantasy when it’s not in the least bit fantastical. I don’t require my fantasy to have magic or creatures or zombies or anything, but if you’re going to call something “fantasy” it should at least be about fictional cultures that the author has invented. This is just England colonizing the Americas with the names changed. The only thing that could be said to be “fantasy” is that the population they’re displacing in the process isn’t an indigenous one, it was established by previous outcasts from their own country–though that wasn’t clear to me until the first time we met them and they were white, blond, and used woad as decoration. So they’re not supposed to be Native American analogues, they’re supposed to be displaced Picts?

2. Either way, it’s still racist and pro-colonization, because even if the Icori aren’t meant to represent an indigenous people, they’re still clearly Other, and constantly labeled as “savages” in order to justify taking their land, which all of our protagonists are participating in, in some form. Does it matter what color this fictional group of people is, if the narrative is parroting real history and real racism?

3. The second half of the plot feels, at best, tenuously related to the first half. The change in fortune for our protagonists that happens at the midpoint struck me as so flimsy and unbelievable that it was hard to take the rest of the book seriously, and that made it more obvious to me who the real villain was, despite whatever weak red herrings were planted along the way. Seriously–the first half of the story is The Bridgertons but the second turns into Little House on the Prairie. It’s too big a genre shift to make the transition seem natural.

4. There were times when I was approaching a reasonable level of sympathy for our heroine, despite her many flaws, but every time the story had a chance to explore those flaws and perhaps let the character do some work on them…well, she just kept being headstrong and selfish and whiny, right up until the LHotP section where after a single pep talk from the hero, she’s completely changed, resolved to her new station in life with a determination that seemed half-delusional and certainly out of character. She didn’t work for it, so it didn’t seem real.

5. I did not know, having picked up this book in isolation, that the rest of the “series” is actually the same time period from the perspective of one of the other girls, specifically the two best friends of the heroine. Now that I do know that, the giant blank spaces in this story where Mira and Tamsin constantly fall out of it without explanation–or with the pointedly obvious lampshade “it’s not my business so I’m not going to ask”–make sense structurally. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw, because these holes are constant and irritating. For a while in the middle of the book, it felt like every time I turned two pages, the heroine was asking out loud, “Where’s Mira?” And pretty quickly I knew that question wouldn’t be answered in this book, so why keep asking?

6. I never found Cedric compelling enough a hero to justify the constant sacrifices that Adelaide made for him. I don’t think he’s a terrible character, and I enjoyed some of their banter and their occasional fights, but I’m also not about to add him to my book-boyfriend list, so it was hard to imagine myself, or anyone for that matter, doing as much for him as Adelaide did.

7. Religion. Woooo boy. I guess this part is the “fantasy” I was lamenting the lack of earlier, because if the accepted and heretic forms of this fictional religion are supposed to correspond to real-world counterparts, I didn’t pick up on it with enough certainty to tell. But my problem is that it’s suddenly a Very Big Deal that one character is a heretic, when religion had played such a small part in the story leading up to that revelation that I was mostly operating on the assumption that the main religion was socially performative, and that no one in the story was especially devout. Adelaide certainly doesn’t seem to be. But since this heresy becomes central to the conflict later on, I wish it had been better established in the beginning, because (again) the second half of the book seems wildly different than the first, and this was another aspect that made it hard to take seriously.

8. Heteronormative AF. There’s one token queer person who has a minor role, showing up just long enough for Adelaide to realize other women/cultures don’t abide by her society’s rigid norms and to feel briefly uncomfortable about it. But there’s no follow-up, no depth, no opportunity for Adelaide to grow beyond what she’s been taught. To some extent, I’m okay with that–not every story has room for fighting LGBT+ battles, and even more simply put, stories are allowed to be about other things. But parading just that one wlw character out for a moment, and making her a foreigner to reinforce her otherness, strikes me as a really poor choice if the story didn’t actually want to fight that battle. Why bring it up at all? Especially as this is supposed to be fantasy, why couldn’t the Glittering Court be an institution that provides marriage candidates to both men and women? If the candidate pool was both male and female, and so was the clientele, then many forms of queerness would be covered by it without having to dig into specifics about each character. (It doesn’t directly address ace/aro people, but presumably they’d be less interested in a marriage mart anyway, on either side, and self-select out of it.) I mean, I know why, because that would mean that in the New World there would have to be women in positions of power who needed husbands (or wives, yes, but this wrinkle is about men.) And there’s no shortage of men in the colonies, so that doesn’t track logically the same way the actual setup does. But again, if this is supposed to be fantasy….

This Week, I Read… (2021 #27)

#73 – The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

  • Mount TBR: 68/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Based on non-Greek/Roman mythology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In many ways, mostly good ones, this reminded me strongly of Juliet Marillier’s work–basically, what if Marillier wrote about Russian mythology instead of Irish? Both authors are working in the same space, where the old clashes with the new, expressed through fantasy and fairy tale.

But however much I liked the setting and the little fae creatures and even Morozko himself, I disliked the extremely slow pacing, unnecessary history-tangents about characters who stop being important less than a third of the way through the book, and the lack of character development for anyone in the story besides Vasya.

There’s also this pervasive aura of dread throughout the entire story–though it’s for different reasons at different times–that I don’t feel like the ending fully paid off. I’m not all that satisfied by the climax of the story, the “battle” against the Bear–I think partially because he never felt like the primary antagonist, even though he was clearly supposed to be. He had to share the spotlight, though, with the priest, and also Morozko. The priest is the center of a lot of that dread, because he was just enough crazy to be slightly unpredictable and I was never sure when/if he was going to go mad, and what would happen if he did. And Morozko was sitting directly on top of the “is he a villain or is he a romantic hero” fence. He does a lot to aid Vasya, and the wispy bits of maybe-romance aren’t strong, and aren’t resolved, but the whole time he remains a dangerous, menacing figure as well. So the Bear almost struck me as incidental to the plot, which isn’t great when he’s half of the title.

The other half was one of the underdeveloped characters as well–Solovey is cool for what he is, a horse who is also somehow a nightingale, and I dig that! But he’s just there, and since I have no idea what his deal is because I don’t already know the story this is based on, I was waiting for an explanation I never got, or something more to him than “I am a really cool bird-horse who you just met but I will be instantly loyal and awesome for no obvious reason.” Which is a very, very fairy-tale trope to have, the amazing mythical beast companion, and I’m not knocking those in general. I just wish Solovey had any depth (or really that anyone other than Vasya had any depth, she’s surrounded by stereotypes.)

While in theory I’m all for the message of the very end of the book–screw the patriarchy, let’s have adventures–I’m finding myself not all that interested in finding out what those adventures actually are. Since I’m not on fire to read the next book after finishing this one, I probably won’t ever bother.

#74 – Act Like It, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’d had this book on my TBR for quite a while, but then recently a friend recommended the author to me, and I said, wait, that name sounds familiar. Since the audiobook turned up on Hoopla, and I’ve been knitting a lot lately and audiobooks are ideal for that, I took a break from my regularly scheduled reading and listened to all of this in a single day.

It’s not perfect–I have some plot issues–but it’s very, very good, and the narrator is lovely.

At first I wasn’t sure our dour, grumpy hero could be redeemed from his absolutely dickish behavior, and surprisingly by the end, he really hadn’t been–he was notably less of a jerk to the heroine, for obvious reasons, though they still bickered very charmingly. But he was still at least mostly a dour grumpy person to everyone else. I’m kind of mixed on this–it would be fake to have him do a 180 and be sunshine and roses all the time, and it’s good that being in love changed him, but not too much. On the other hand, he is still kind of an arrogant ass, and that’s not my favorite hero type. It’s a delicate balance, and it won’t necessarily be for everyone.

Our heroine is witty and not at all spineless, which I love about her. On one hand, I almost hate that my bar for good heroines is so low that I’m impressed when one isn’t a total pushover, but here we are, modern romance heroines are so often wishy-washy pushovers that it’s notable when one isn’t.

My sticking points are in the plot escalation. I have no problems with the early romance obstacles, or even the pace at which the two lovebirds realize that they don’t actually hate each other, that’s all fine. Even the “must protect girlfriend from lecherous but powerful old man” scene was foreshadowed properly. You know what wasn’t? An actually life-threatening situation which provides the final cathartic reunion between our two leads after their fight. I don’t think it was set up properly, and sure I was happy that everyone lived, but I don’t feel like the danger was earned because it felt so random. A seemingly throwaway line near the beginning about how their theater was old, and the presence of some construction crew immediately before the disaster, wasn’t really enough for me to believe this turn of events. And since the hero putting himself in danger deliberately was in service to the misunderstanding he had about how much “ex” the heroine’s ex was, it got tied into the jealousy subplot which was probably my least favorite aspect of the book.

All that being said, I still enjoyed it immensely, listened to it all in a single day, and look forward to going on with the series.

#75 – Sexy Motherpucker, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a letdown compared to my experience with the first book in the series. Call it 3.5 stars.

The humor is still there–I clearly jive with the style. And I’m totally down for a good single-parent romance, especially when the kid isn’t a perfect, unrealistic angel child that never causes a single plot disruption. Chloe sounds like a wonderful kid in most respects, but clearly isn’t perfect, and her presence does cause friction in some places.

Our hero, however, is not the greatest. He’s not a complete trash fire like I sometimes run into, when I seriously question how anyone could possibly find the sort of on-page behavior those heroes engage in acceptable, let alone attractive–but let’s face it, Brendan is a user. A user who is partially aware of it, and does have deep-down good intentions because it’s for his kid, but a user nonetheless. And he’s pretty terrible at respecting boundaries, which is certainly a flaw carried all the way through the story–the flashpoint at the climax is a natural extension of that.

He may be handsome, he may be the sexiest thing between two hotel sheets, he may even be sweet in some ways. But he’s a user, and it makes him harder to like than I prefer my romantic heroes to be. When he screws up and inevitably apologizes, those apologies are sincere, but only bring him back to square one in terms of reasonable behavior.

It doesn’t help that Laura, who seemed like such a firebrand as a supporting character in the first book, has devolved into an “I’m so in love with this apparently unattainable man that I’ll completely enable his user behavior while calling it friendship” pushover. As paired flawed characters, these two line up perfectly, and I see why the plot happened exactly the way it did–I’m not slamming the structure, just questioning what happened to turn Laura from wise and self-possessed older sister to simpering fool.

Okay, this is starting to sound like a less-than-three-star review. Yes, I’m less than happy about some aspects of the characters and that made some of the plot conflicts seem both predictable and frustrating. But I did still like the book overall! I was laughing my ass off at several scenes, because the banter is either adorable or hilarious or cheesy as the mood calls for. I was even laughing at the “naked mole rats” scene that I see other reviewers generally cringing over, because I, too, have said incredibly random/stupid things when under the influence of mind-altering substances, so I get that it’s weird and kind of gross, but that’s why it was so funny to me! (As always, humor is deeply personal and I’m not criticizing anyone who didn’t enjoy that bit–I see you, I get it. But I was cackling, myself.) And Chloe was cute, Diana was an excellent new supporting character, as were Brendan’s in-laws from his first marriage. Libby and Justin were great in their limited roles as former leads who are still friends/siblings with our current main characters. The sex scenes were still graphic, and the whole story was still full of swearing, and I am still totally okay with both of those things.

I’m willing to forgive a lot in a rom-com that I actually find funny, so while this didn’t live up to the five-star ticker tape parade of a review I gave the first book, it’s a stumble, not an unforgivable drop off a cliff into the pits of despair. Still moving forward with the series.

#76 – The Billionaire’s Wake-Up-Call Girl, by Annika Martin

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 76%. This book fell off such an amazingly steep cliff that I actually went back and read my review of the first book in the series to make sure I was remembering the right story, that yes, I did actually enjoy it and didn’t mistakenly continue a series I meant to abandon. But no, I gave the first book 4 stars then couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

First up, I didn’t care for the female narrator, who had this weird tendency to end the last sentence of a scene or chapter on a rising tone, which meant it always felt like there was more she was going to say, but then there wasn’t, just a pause and then “Chapter [whatever].” I noticed no such problems with the male narrator. Also, I didn’t care for her accent (which I peg as SoCal but could be wrong, it’s those hard, elongated R’s that stick out like speed bumps) and definitely did not care for her exaggerated “girly” delivery of the conversations held via text.

But whatever issues I have with the audio presentation, it’s only icing on the cake, after all. The underlying cake of the story is terrible.

I did have a problem with the premise of the first book, for the very beginning. I had a problem with the premise of this book the whole time, it never went away. I never felt the hero’s behavior was appropriate to the situation–the jump from “I’m angry at this wake-up-call operator” to “I’m actively going to seduce her until this is just phone sex” came very early and with very little buildup…and she just goes with it! I sat through that scene chanting in my head “she’s being harassed, when is she going to notice she’s being harassed, a real employee of this type of business would have hung up and terminated this client’s contract, she’s being harassed.” But no, she masturbates. And yes, she’s not really doing this for a job, but I would think that engaging in phone sex in this situation would be a dead giveaway that she’s a fake.

The premise continued to be unrealistic well beyond my ability/willingness to suspend my disbelief.

But the sham doesn’t last forever, and the parts where the hero was trying to figure out how to contact her weren’t terrible, in terms of solving a mystery. They were, however, terrible in that it’s awful creepy stalker behavior to want to track down a woman you only know over the phone, who is paid to provide a completely nonsexual service to you. Am I supposed to like Theo? Because I hate him. There’s no good side shown to his controlling personality, he’s just an a-hole the entire time.

I gave up because the story actually gets worse after they meet up in person. The tension is completely gone, the sex scenes are laughably cringe-worthy, and the new conflict is apparently supposed to be “hero must convince heroine not to move out of the city,” and I’m actually offended on her behalf, because given the financial trouble she’s in because of her backstory, her plan for getting back on her feet seems incredibly sensible to me. Like, let her concentrate on her business? Which she clearly cares about? But since the hero is Super Rich, I’m willing to bet he’s going to continue to solve her problems with his money, and that’s way less interesting. I’m not going to say the heroine has it easy–the whole book is about how she doesn’t–but the whole book is also about her hard work in solving her own problems, so him throwing money at her isn’t a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m inferring the wrong thing, well, then I’m wrong, but at the point I gave up he’s already paid off her immediate loan shark debt, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t keep paying (somehow) to keep her around, which does make the whole thing very Wake-Up Call Girl.

Yuck.

#77 – Sophie, by Abigail Barnette

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A happy and mostly triumphant ending to a series that I (and many others) feel has stumbled a bit along the way. We can’t seem to agree on what those stumbles are, specifically, because so much has happened over the course of several in-universe years and seven other books. And the major problem that causes is that this sometimes didn’t feel like a story, it felt like a to-do list of getting closure for the many, many plot threads.

Which, yes, is what endings are for. But in covering everything that’s ever happened in the story, that drags up a lot of the things that feel like dead weight. I wasn’t a fan of the idea to give Sophie a baby she didn’t birth by killing off its parents in a car accident; I felt it undermined Sophie’s determination not to be a mother. So now, in every book since, she’s had to do a mental dance of “I’m a caregiver, not a mother” even when she’s clearly performing parental duties and experiencing something at least adjacent to a maternal sort of love. And this book addresses that, actually in more depth (or at least more consistently) than I recall other books doing, by exploring her dynamic with El-Mudad’s children, who were long out of babyhood when they came into Sophie’s life. So I won’t say that cognitive dissonance isn’t recognized and discussed, only that I wish it had never had to happen in the first place.

But the list goes on. Some readers apparently dislike El-Mudad (not me, I adore him.) So they’re going to be unhappy he’s even around, let alone getting a happy ending with Neil and Sophie. Holli and Deja and Penny all have to show up–and man, even though I’d read the first two of Penny’s spin-off novels back when they came out, I’d managed to forget she was a character at all, it’s been so long. It’s been long enough that I’d also forgotten, when Sophie runs into Ian at a party, that she slept with him and his ex-wife back in their collective swinging days. As for me, I didn’t really like The Sister that much (relatively speaking to the other novels) so I was forced to sit through Molly half-heartedly being important to the plot again, and the only-sort-of-resolved issue of Sophie in denial about her diabetes. I don’t particularly feel like either plot thread enriches the story, and even the tiny subplot with Molly and Amal, cute in isolation, felt like a complication that we didn’t really need on top of everything else we already have to speed-run through.

If there can be said to be a “main” plot of this novel on its own, it’s certainly the Laurence/Valerie/Olivia family tangle, and that, I do feel was handled well. The issues were foreshadowed, the complications laid out and entangled with subplots in great detail, and the resolution satisfying. Given that Valerie has been a thorn in our main characters’ collective side for the entire run of the series, I would have been disappointed if she didn’t still have a major role to play at the end, and as far as that goes, I got what I wanted.

I just also had to wade through a lot of flotsam that I wish could have been left behind.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #26)

#71 – All Lined Up, by Cora Carmack

  • Mount TBR: 66/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This was another “it looked halfway decent at a bag sale so I bought it for almost nothing” romance, and when I grabbed it off my shelf quite literally to have something safe to read in the bath–I don’t bring my electronics in there!–I was like, “wait, I hate football, why did I get this?”

But it’s not about football, really. Sure, one lead is on the team and the other lead’s dad is the coach and late in the story there’s an actual game as part of the narrative (which was thankfully short on strategy and eminently skimmable) but it’s about sports and sports culture far more than it’s actually about football. So the sports parts of it felt a lot like I was watching a halfway-decent movie about team-building and personal achievement, and the rest of the book felt like a slightly cheesy romance.

About that romance. It’s rushed, pretty much everything about it is rushed except them banging in the most traditional sense, but they’re definitely performing other sexual acts for each other in short order. And this is set in college, so fine, I get it. But they drop the “L” word pretty fast too.

All that being said, I did actually like their chemistry together. On her own, Dallas is a bit of a whiny brat who has obvious anger issues, and in other stories I might not like her as much, but a) she’s clearly aware of at least some of her emotional shortcomings, and b) she grew up abandoned by her mom and raised by a goal-driven, emotionally distant dad, so you know, fair enough if she doesn’t have herself totally figured out as a college freshman. It does make her skew young, but since part of her arc is about her striving for self-determination, I’ll give her a pass on that. For Carson’s part, on his own he’s a bit of a boring workhorse, who has his nose to the grindstone as much as possible for both schoolwork and the football team (seriously, Dallas was right that if he kept working out so much he was going to injure himself!) and doesn’t have much going on otherwise. But when the two of them are in a room together, sparks really do fly, and suddenly they’re both fun people having fun.

The “forbidden” aspect of the romance plot felt a little weak. Bringing up Romeo and Juliet, even to reject its premise, is so obvious that I wish stories would stop doing it. The coach as an obstacle is somewhat believable, but making a big deal about Dallas’ ex being the star quarterback at the beginning, only to have him suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the story partway through, through no action of the main characters, strikes me as a minor deus ex machina. I mean, if nothing the hero or heroine did had anything to do with those events, why include him? And it has the double whammy of opening the QB spot for Carson, who certainly has been putting in the work, but also didn’t really “earn” the spot, it got emptied for other reasons and he was there. (Yes, there were presumably other people on their huge, 100+ team who could have been chosen, so in one sense he did earn that spot. But since we never met the others and Carson was only ever painted in competition with the ex, Carson’s elevation didn’t mean much to me.)

So overall, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would when I realized/remembered it was about football, but there were definite weaknesses in the story that kept it from being great. Not planning at the moment to go on with the series.

#72 – Nightmares & Dreamscapes, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 67/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 249, which is partway through “Dedication.”

I always try to resist DNFing short story or novella collections, because sure, maybe the ones at the beginning aren’t to my taste, but aren’t there more that might be better? Of course there are! (In this case, almost 600 pages’ worth of stories I might like.)

But because this was such a behemoth, and because I was planning to read it leisurely–a story or two a day, depending on their length, while I also read other things–I was taking notes about each story and giving it a star rating, to help me decide at the end what I thought of the collection as a whole. I finished seven stories and part of an eighth. One of those stories earned a 2, and all of the others either 1 or 0. Yes, I hated some of these stories and they got 0-star ratings.

So why on earth would I keep going, hoping other stories would be better? It wasn’t long before I dreaded picking this back up.

My overall complaints that apply, to some degree, to all of the stories I read: too long/wordy for the plot it covered, gross/gory/silly instead of scary, vaguely racist overtones to some, lack of satisfying endings to most. And in one case, putting “Popsy” right after “Night Flier” made it really freaking obvious that the second one was also about vampires, to the story’s detriment.

I’m beginning to wonder if I should just be done with Stephen King. I’m tired of playing “will I dearly love or absolutely despise this” every time I pick up a new title. Because he has, without a doubt, written some of my favorite books I’ve ever read, but it’s equally true that he’s written some of the worst books I’ve read, so I can’t help thinking it might be time to move on. (I say this with three unread King novels still sitting on my shelves, so I’m not entirely sure yet, because I could give those a try and then give up…?)

This Week, I Read… (2021 #25)

#68 – Something Like the Real Thing, by Hanna Dare

  • Mount TBR: 63/100
  • Beat the Backlist 2021: All about music
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Picked this up as a freebie a while back without realizing it was the fourth in a series. Looking at it now, knowing that this is the first book to follow a new lead character after the the first three books followed the same couple, the not-quite-standalone vibe makes a lot more sense. It is possible to read and enjoy this on its own, but at the beginning I definitely felt like I was missing things, or that the author was trying to reference major events without going on for pages, only I didn’t already know what those major events were.

Setting that aside, though, this was fine. Not amazing, and occasionally hard to take seriously as it tried to balance sweetness and light with the harsh realism of working in the entertainment industry. It didn’t help that Grayson was the star of an obvious Glee analogue, and I was briefly a fan before hating it passionately and kicking myself for ever liking it at all, then gradually getting some distance and nearly forgetting it existed. (Now I have “Defying Gravity” stuck in my head, unfortunately, except I’ve forgotten most of the words so it’s really just the chorus over and over again. Please, make it stop!)

But that’s a really personal quibble based on my specific history, and shouldn’t detract too much from the larger story for most other readers (I hope, for your sakes.) The best thing I can say about this book is that it features two bisexual men as leads, one who knows himself going into the story but isn’t out publicly, and one who discovers that aspect of his identity as the story goes on. Grayson’s journey maybe feels a little rushed–this is a pretty short book to handle both a romance and a coming-out arc–but it definitely feels genuine, and rep-wise it’s nice to see someone have an epiphany about themselves and not immediately be crippled by worry and self-doubt. Grayson takes his bisexuality in stride, and that’s honestly nice to see. Bi men don’t get a lot of rep in general, and the few times I’ve seen it, it’s often playing into common negative stereotypes. (I’m looking at you, Westworld. Someone please give me Ben Barnes playing a bisexual character who isn’t also a dissolute, hedonistic drug abuser who comes to a bad end.)

Grayson and Jesse are cute together, but there is a sort of over-reliance on a few very specific bonding moments and gestures–like, can we stop talking about Jesse’s hats? I don’t care about his hats. The vegetarian thing was a little better integrated, and most of the other stuff didn’t irritate me, but I felt like we could go a single chapter without finding out Jesse owned yet another style of hat.

It looks like book #5 is also about the same couple as #1-3, so if I want to go on with the series, I actually have to go back to the beginning–I really did manage to find the only semi-standalone somehow. But I’m not sure I will, I liked this, but I don’t love it.

#69 – Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan, translated by Heather Lloyd

  • Mount TBR: 64/100
  • Beat the Backlist 2021: Caused a major book hangover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Whatever charm the language held (this strikes me as a beautiful translation) I was as bored by the stories as their own protagonists were bored by their lives. Seriously, if their lives are so unendingly dull, why would I want to read about them?

This isn’t even about how I generally hate works primarily about infidelity. I do, but that’s not even the main issue here. If I’m supposed to be captivated by how young the author was when she managed to get this published, am I then supposed to ignore how petulant and wishy-washy both leading ladies are? If I’m supposed to be shocked by the sexual nature of the stories and how frank the author is about young women having sex…well, shouldn’t there be sex in them, then? The sex scenes are so short, infrequent, and elliptical I can’t even imagine what a censored version would read like, what’s even there to censor? And If I’m supposed to be enchanted by the Frenchness of it all, then shouldn’t the books be about something more enchanting than the stereotypical French ennui?

Bonjour Tristesse reads less like a complete novel and more like a Rorschach test for the reader’s moral compass–who is most at fault for (supposedly) shocking twist at the end of the tale? Who bares the blame for this (actually) utterly predictable and weak ending? And A Certain Smile is just, metaphorically speaking, “watch this young women put her hand in a fire and think she won’t get burnt,” oh, except of course she does because that’s how fire works. She doesn’t learn anything, and I as a reader didn’t learn anything, and it was just a waste of time for everyone involved.

#70 – The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

  • Mount TBR: 65/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Oh, so it’s a love triangle, a historical narrative, and sociopolitical boondoggle all at the same time? No wonder it needs nearly 500 pages to get through that tangle, and no wonder I was utterly bored by it to begin with.

DNF @ 16%. Early on, I thought it would be an accomplishment just to make it to my minimum 10% cutoff, but just when I was about to give up, we changed sections, time periods, and POV characters, and things actually got better for a while. In the first section, ancient Amba was somehow both a crone and also a sexually desirable woman, and that weirded me out, but jumping back in time to find out about her childhood held promise.

Then I got to be weirded about by her father’s unusual “love” for her, which by the time I stopped reading had not crossed over into obvious sexual interest, but the hints that it might were certainly there, and incest is something I’d really rather not read about. Since I already know from the beginning that Amba is the center of this mythic love triangle, does her father need to be inappropriately attached to her, too? Is this going to be a novel where every possible person who could “love” the main character is going to?

Am I reading the Indonesian literary equivalent of a harem anime?

While it did pick up in both pace and interest for a while when we turned to Amba’s childhood, most of my basic complaints about were still present, only slightly muted. The language alternates between beautiful description and strange metaphors that I can’t tell are idiomatic mistranslations, correct-but-inelegant translations, or just plain poor writing. The text itself is choppy, jumping between times, places, and topics with little obvious connection, and the sections that were mostly concerned with politics or history lived cheek-by-jowl with scenes where Amba’s father had unusual sexual fantasies about horses. No, I’m not kidding. Though I guess I would rather it be a horse than his daughter… (sigh)

Often when a book feels like a slog to read, as this one does to me, I’ll still manage to finish because there’s something going on that’s enough to keep my interest, but here, the framework of the myth retelling just lays out the bulk of the plot right at the beginning, and I don’t generally like love triangles anyway, so I just don’t see any point to me continuing to read.

Getting Serious About Series 2021: Update #2

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

Series Off My List in 2021

There are a lot of ongoing series I haven’t budged on, for one reason or another. But my big accomplishment since the last update is catching up on The Expanse–I’m all set to read the final book when it drops late this year. I’ve also finished Elemental Blessings, which had been hanging over my head for quite some time, as well as wrapping up one more romance series, Baldwin Village.

What most of this quarter has been about, though, has been trying out series that were in my backlog, and for the most part, discarding them. There are eleven “I’m not going to finish these” series added to the list, thanks to me working hard to clear out my 2018 backlog this year–many of those books were first-in-series romance, fantasy, or sci-fi novels. (I still have some to go, so expect that list to get even longer next quarter.) In contrast, only two new series got added to the in-progress list from that pile (and notably one is by an author I already knew I liked, who now has two series ongoing.)

Plans between now and mid-autumn: clear out more of that 2018 backlog, which will include testing out several more series (I haven’t counted) but also, one possible complete series — Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams. Who is a longtime favorite author, but I missed reading this series when it was published because it was an online serial publication, that I believe was said at the time “would never be in print.” I haven’t looked into the history of what happened and how that changed, but I did buy all four books secondhand in 2018, so yeah, it’s time to give them a try. As for what’s going to happen with other ongoing series, I need to either buy books or find them at the library to move most of those along, which isn’t out of the question of course, but doesn’t clear my backlog or contribute to Mount TBR, so those priorities need to be balanced. I’m doing a lot of knitting lately, so anything I can get as an audiobook has a good chance of me getting to it.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #23)

#63 – Lord of the Changing Winds, by Rachel Neumeier

  • Mount TBR: 60/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at the end of the first chapter, around 10%. Which, you know, is a loooong first chapter, and that’s part of the problem. (I counted pages for the next one, which turns out is half as long. I’m not a stickler for consistent chapter length, but that’s pretty variable already.)

Anyway.

I understand that not all stories start with a bang. Some of them barely even start with a simmer. This wasn’t even on the heat, it was so slow. A larger-than-I-wanted portion of that first long chapter was awkward exposition-dump tangents about the history of the town and how it was So Important because of where it was on the river, yet it was also a bit of a backwater, and oh this is the family that runs the inn, except the mother doesn’t really run the inn she makes pottery and arranges the flowers for the inn and isn’t that special, that the tables at the tavern at the inn always have this specially made pottery with fresh cut flowers that don’t wilt as fast as they should because everybody is just a little bit magic and that’s her thing, flowers and pottery?

In case you think I’m exaggerating…well, I’m not, that bit about the town and the inn takes two pages and I was bored the whole time. Whenever I thought the story was going somewhere, that the main character might actually do something, there was a tangent about somebody or something else to stop her. At least until she FINALLY abruptly nonsensically goes to the griffins. But I’ll get to that issue later.

The other thing I found distracting (and detracting) from what little plot there was, was a chain of editing mistakes, inconsistencies, and word repetition that added up to a feeling of amateurish writing. And I’ve got receipts: the first one concerns how old our protagonist Kes is. One of their farmhands both “hired on six years ago” and “has been on the farm half [Kes’] life.” So, taken literally, she’s twelve. Less literally–if we assume the farmhand has been around for half of the life she remembers (because she wouldn’t remember being a baby) she’s fourteen or fifteen handily, sixteen would be stretching it. But she also has a sister who’s starting to go gray (one of the inane character details in the exposition dump about her) and has been “quickly married and quickly widowed” twice. Well, how quickly? Did those unnamed unfortunate husbands die after a month of marriage or a year? How long between the marriages? Why were the siblings born so far apart as to make this possible? Or, alternately, just how young did the sister marry the first time around? And why is this aspect of her life brought up at all if it’s a one-sentence history that isn’t explored in any depth, despite it raising all these questions for me in order to have it make any sense? (I’m assuming, of course, that these past marriages aren’t important, but I don’t know. I do know that the book is about griffins and magic and the younger sister, not the older one.)

All of that, because the author wouldn’t just say how old the protagonist is, so I have to nitpick these not-necessarily consistent details to figure it out. And I’m still not sure. Her precise age isn’t important if we’re talking about a month on either side of sixteen, but the difference between twelve or fifteen or twenty sure is significant to how the character thinks and talks and acts, right?

Kes acts like…I don’t know, a spacey and exceptionally shy four-year-old? She can’t talk, even to people she knows, and especially not strangers. She has her head in the clouds about griffins and nature and not doing anything at all that her sister or society want her to do, but not in an actively rebellious way that implies she has a spine, just that she’s terrified of basically everything that might resemble normal life. And the “can’t talk” part of her personality gets really grating when she’s interacting with the mage and the griffins at the end of the chapter, because every time she’s upset or confused, she thinks something and “looks helplessly” at the mage, and he answers her just like he’s read her mind. Which apparently is a thing that griffins can do, but wow, does it not justify the protagonist not having the will to actually say what she thinks out loud, and wow, does it make for really awkward “dialogue” in the narrative. No, thank you, I know it’s only been one chapter, but if you can’t sell me on your protagonist in the first chapter, what are you even doing?

As for the other issue I mentioned under this umbrella, the worst offender for word repetition was “white” showing up five times across two consecutive sentences–four in the first, once again in the second. The passage was describing a griffin, and okay, I get it, the creature is the whitest white ever seen, but for pity’s sake, don’t say it so often!

The whole tone of this is inconsistent, hand-wavey nonsense that’s scattered in ten different directions by all the things it’s trying to accomplish at once. It’s got no focus, so I don’t have patience for it.

#64 – Skin Hunger, by Eli Lang

  • Mount TBR: 61/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A slow-paced, somewhat meandering piece of introspective fiction that isn’t really what it was marketed as–I was introduced to this title via a f/f romance rec list, and the blurb screams “romance” at the top of its lungs. But the romance is a subplot, and the main plot is…well, I’m not exactly sure, because there’s not a lot of structure, and there’s not a lot of closure. Things just happen, in an order that mostly makes sense chronologically and in real life, but don’t really fit neatly into a plot.

Is there a genre for “coming of age but they’re a confused adult rather than a confused teenager”?

I think this plot was trying to do too much, and thus accomplishing little of it well. Ava as a narrator was reasonably fleshed out as a successful musician who still somehow hasn’t got herself figured out, but also she has, because she’s bi and lives for her drum kit, but she doesn’t think anyone outside of her band (and not even all of them) “get” her, and she’s still chasing the approval of her parents, who don’t seem likely for most of the story to give it to her. If the story is about acceptance, well, the ending is pretty weak, because her parents end up saying they’re proud of her but I didn’t really believe them, Ava just blows up at them a few times and they fold over. It came off as them (her mother especially) trying to make her happy by saying the right thing, because they usually manage to justify the way they raised her, and the way they didn’t want her to be a musician because it was too hard a life, by saying “we just want you to be happy” while totally ignoring that being a musician makes her happy. It didn’t feel cathartic when they gave in, only placating.

And the reason that I could write that mini book report about the parents’ plot line is because that’s most of the story. This isn’t a romance. It has a romance in it. I’m trying hard to judge the book on its own merits and not the skewed expectations I went into it with–but I did want a romance, and I got a lackluster moody personal essay about how hard it is when people don’t understand you. Which, you know, valid, even if that’s a vibe we mostly attribute to teenagers–it’s not like being a misunderstood adult would be any easier. But on the other hand, Ava comes off for most of the book as a whining disaster who has no idea what she wants or how to go about getting it (despite her obvious success in her career) and blunders from mistake to mistake without a lot of intention, but with a lot of regret. And it’s just hard to feel a lot of sympathy for someone who’s still acting like a wishy-washy teenager when they’re, as Ava so often says about herself, “pushing thirty.”

I don’t think story knows what it wants to be, because Ava is trying to deal with a budding romance, an unrequited love for her best friend/bandmate, the lack of approval for her life from her parents, her grandmother’s impending move to assisted living and a revelation about a long-held secret, and also her cousin is always around for some reason, but he’s just a bland substitute for her actual best friend because her actual best friend is still across the country.

This story is so unfocused that I’m having a hard time wrangling my review of it into focus. There were parts of it I liked–the author did have a way of slowing down the pace and putting a lot of deep thoughts on the page, and sometimes those did resonate with me. But that just made it all the more jarring that in the rest of the book, all this craziness was going on in such a small space, and without a lot of direction.

#65 – Take a Hint, Dani Brown, by Talia Hibbert

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Recommended by a friend/trusted reviewer
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

If I were to host a personal awards show for the books I read, this novel would be nominated for:

Best use of the fake dating trope
Best anxiety representation
Best bisexual representation
Sweetest “grumpy” male lead
Most authentic academic/nerd female lead

And honestly, it might not win all of them if I really dig back into my romance history and say, “Well, is Dani better nerd rep than X or Y or Z from these other books?” for example. But I’m pretty confident it would still make a respectable showing and take home several trophies at least.

These two lovebirds were so convincingly perfect for each other (despite both having deep personal flaws on display basically at all times) that when things were still going swimmingly at 75%, I actually wondered, “Is whatever conflict we’re barrelling towards, that breaks them up before the ending where they get back together, actually going to seem natural and not horribly forced?” Because yes, they were that perfect together, with their banter and their nicknames and the small ways they showed each other they cared even when they really weren’t supposed to, per their fake dating/friends with benefits agreement.

Then it happened, and I wanted to smack myself on the forehead because OF COURSE it happened that way, I honestly can’t believe I didn’t predict exactly what went wrong. But they got their happy ending, and it was lovely, and though my taste doesn’t run to giant muscled ex-rugby players, Zafir is now just as much a treasured book boyfriend as his predecessor in the series was when I read the first book. (Bonus: though Chloe and Red only made brief appearances, they were still cute as buttons.) (Double bonus: as I’m bi, and so is Dani, I’m not at all opposed to the idea of starting a collection of book girlfriends, and she seems like an excellent first entry.)

What really hit me right in the feels, though, even more than the obvious-but-impossible romance between them, was how Zafir’s anxiety disorder was handled. Bad anxiety rep is one of the first things that will turn me off a book, because (with the caveat that no two people experience it exactly the same and no one story can cover the whole of it) it’s so often disastrously wrong to me that I can’t stomach it. Some characters have panic attacks at the drop of a hat and claim that it interferes with their life, but somehow recover instantly and never have any consequences. Others say they’re crippled by anxiety, except it only happens when the plot needs it to happen and the rest of the time they seem joyously neurotypical. But Zaf…well, in some ways, he seemed much more like me. And honestly it was so nice to see a character who had been living with their issues for years and was mostly handling it, but slipped up sometimes, because that’s where I am.

As far as that aspect of the book goes, the biggest compliment I can give it was that when I was done reading (and sniffling, I didn’t quite full-cry but I definitely sniffled) I sat with my knitting for a while to collect myself, then started looking up anxiety help apps and installed one on my phone. Because seeing Zaf slipping and recovering made me face the fact that I haven’t been caring for myself lately the way I should, and no matter what the reasons are or how valid they are, I need to change it, and this was a baby step I could do right away.

It is a romance and not a self-help book, but since romance-as-self-help is kind of a thing in the story anyway, I feel like I fit right in, that these characters would get me. It’s been a while since I’ve connected with the story like this, and I’m grateful for it.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #22)

#61 – Beauty and the Mustache, by Penny Reid

  • Mount TBR: 58/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 16%. You know how I always say humor is personal? I did not jive with this style of humor at all, I found the characters uniformly juvenile, crude, and irritating. Obviously tons of other readers think this is the bee’s knees, though, so just as obviously, this is a complaint only relevant to me.

There were plenty of problems I had that didn’t involve the humor at all, however.

First, I was not expecting the inciting incident for a rom-com to be the heroine’s mother dying. Way to bring the room down, and to make the humor (whether I liked it or not) seem wildly off tone.

Second, the narrative style is overwritten. Not every line has to be a joke or a snappy remark. Not every noun needs an adjective. Not every thought that passes through the heroine’s head needs to be put on the page. Not every character needs to be a stereotype.

Third, the characters–there are too many. While this is the fourth book in one romance series (of which I haven’t read the first three, this is my first and likely only Reid novel attempt) it’s also the 0.5 intro to the Winston Brothers series, and boy, does the story spend a lot of time on the six of them, to the point where I stopped at 16%, there’s no real hint of a romance starting between the leads aside from the heroine flip-flopping mentally between admiring his looks or voice, and hating him for being around as a part of the family when she wasn’t (essentially, as far as I can tell with what I read.) Because I found the brothers all irritating, I’m not interested in setting up their future romances or even getting to know them, and their constant invasive presence is getting in the way of the romance plot, which is the reason I wanted to read the book at all.

Fourth–yeah, we’re still going on the list of issues–what plot there is so far makes no sense. Heroine peaces out of her family for eight years. Why? Dunno. Comes back because her mom has a medical emergency and refuses to see anyone else in the family. Why? Dunno, and she doesn’t say when the heroine meets with her at the hospital. The hero is apparently dear momma’s go-to guy for everything, since it’s quickly revealed that he gets to make all the decisions because he’s got her power of attorney and is also the executor of her will. Why? Because they’re friends, apparently. But why are they friends? Dunno, and that’s a really big set of responsibilities to set on a non-family member’s shoulders, not to mention the potential for abusing that power. There are other, smaller things about the story that also don’t make sense–like the running gag about six grown men living in the same house having a schedule for using the bathroom for masturbation purposes: do they not have bedrooms? Because if had been established that there wasn’t enough space and they were sharing rooms, okay, maybe, but that’s simply never addressed.

Fifth, I don’t care for everything in the story combining to make the hero a mysterious weird loner whose place in the story relies on all the nonsensical things I just listed. Also, his first title, so to speak, in the story is actually nothing I’ve mentioned so far–he’s also the oldest brother’s boss! Because being Mom’s bestie and having all her decision-making power wasn’t enough. But instead of that defining him better, it just muddies the waters and keeps him hanging around in this situation of creepy enforced intimacy with the heroine. Not long before I stopped, he kisses her on the forehead for some not-obvious-to-me reason and I honestly shuddered, it made me so uncomfortable. And this is the hero! I’m supposed to swoon over him, not wish he’d leave the heroine alone!

Sixth, I put the book down where I did because one of the brothers made a racist joke. Last straw.

#62 – Dragon Rose, by Christine Pope

  • Mount TBR: 59/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

An okay start that eventually muddled its way along to a weak ending. I mean, this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so we knew the heroine was going to break the curse and get her happily ever after, of course we did.

But the twist in this one, if you can even call it that, is that the curse has farther-reaching effects than just having turned the hero into an immortal dragon. The heroine is affected by it too, after a time, as are the castle’s staff, too, under certain circumstances that we’re told about when everything is eventually revealed. The problem with this is, it’s not apparent until far too late in the story that that’s what’s happening, so Rhianne’s extended period of sickness in the middle doesn’t seem magical, mystical, or cursed–she just seems depressed, and given her situation, fair enough. But a lot of page space was devoted to it, and since it wasn’t obvious it was plot relevant, it felt like a lot of treading water without going anywhere, just when things should have been building to the climax of the story. Then at the end, hindsight and the hero’s knowledge explain everything and it’s all just so perfectly arranged.

I also think that we spend so much time with Rhianne alone–she is the sole POV narrator–that we don’t spend enough time with the hero in order for her to “see who he really is.” The magical plot workaround for that feels cheap, honestly, and gets in the way of actually developing the hero as a character.

It’s not a terrible reimagining–I’ve certainly read worse–but the new elements it tried to incorporate don’t really work for the story, so it’s certainly not good, either.