Down the TBR Hole #24

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

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

I’m late posting this month’s list due to NaNo, but such is life. Let’s get started.

#1 – The Warlord Wants Forever, by Kresley Cole

6388558I picked up book #10 in this series at a used book sale, so I looked it up and threw the first title on my TBR list so I wouldn’t forget about it. But I didn’t look too closely. First off, it’s a prequel novella, and those aren’t usually necessary for series continuity. Second, all the top reviews are bad and mention lack of consent and other rape-y behaviors. No, thank you, this can go. I’ll still give the book I already bought a try–maybe things have changed that late in the series, or maybe the novella was an aberration. But I’m not going to bother with this.

 

#2 – Luck on the Line, by Zoraida Cordova

22560542I’ve heard a lot of great things about this author, mostly in connection with her YA title Labyrinth Lost, which I own but haven’t gotten to yet. So when I saw somewhere that she had some adult contemporary romance, I said, sure why not, and put it on the list. The blurb still sounds interesting and the ebook is available on Hoopla, so there’s no reason not to keep this, for now at least–if I don’t like Labyrinth I’ll reassess. It stays.

 

 

#3 – Taking the Heat, by Victoria Dahl

24338317._SY475_I have no idea how all these Dahl books end up on my TBR in droves when I still haven’t read any of them. I think I may have even cut some in earlier TBR Hole posts? I’d have to check. So this one’s got a hot, bearded librarian dude, and while I don’t remember specifically the circumstances that led me to adding this book, I’m betting that was the hook. And my library system has copies available, so it can stay, with a similar caveat as above–if I get to one of her other books first and I don’t enjoy it, the rest are going to get the boot.

 

 

#4 – School Ties, by Tamsen Parker

30196041._SY475_I’m nail-biting this decision. Parker is one of my favorite BDSM-romance authors, and almost all of her books have been hits with me. The one novella that was a flop was so bad I’m trying to forget it exists, but the books are all just fine. I was temporarily squicky about the student-teacher aspect, but several reviewers point out that it’s all above-board until the student comes back into the teacher’s life as an adult. (A youngish one, sure, but definitely not a student or teenager anymore.) So that’s okay, probably. But the bad reviews are pretty damning. On the other hand, yeah, any author can have a flop, but my trust in Parker is pretty high. I think this can stay.

#5 – The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman

25938481Nonfiction is an occasional read for me these days, I have to really be interested in the subject, but a book about how birbs are smart and precious and wonderful and SMART they are? Totally still on board. This stays.

Seriously, though, nonfiction about science and nature is probably going to be a hit with me, unless it’s terribly written, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

 

 

#6 – The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

89717._SY475_I recently got around to reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and while it wasn’t perfect by any means, I did enjoy it and I’d be curious to see more of Jackson’s work. I don’t have much interest in watching the Netflix adaptation, I tend to prefer to read my horror rather than watch it, so it’s not a high priority, but this can absolutely stay on the list.

 

 

 

#7 – The Life She Was Given, by Ellen Marie Wiseman

32926258I think this came off a circus-themed recommendation list, and it sounded interesting enough at the time. But as usual when I’m on the fence about a book I know little about, I skimmed some spoiler-free or at least spoiler-lite negative reviews, looking for personal red flags, and I found a few here. Animal cruelty, poor research, a perfect-magical heroine marked by a physical difference from “normal”…I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this. It goes.

 

 

#8 – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

9591398This might be a case of the marketing that’s meant to entice me actually warning me away. I should be, in theory, entirely on board with a middle-grade fairies-and-dragons fantasy that has fun with words and wordplay. That could definitely be my thing. But then at the end of the blurb, this happens: “For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.” I didn’t think highly of the His Dark Materials trilogy when I read it last year, and I’m so, so, so incredibly worn out on works referencing Alice, whether or not they’re trying to be dark and edgy. So that reference pitch is prompting me to pitch the book. It goes.

#9 – 12 – A bunch of Neil Gaiman stuff

Ironically enough, there’s a special sale at Thriftbooks that I got an email about just this morning, and I’ve been good lately and haven’t bought much, so I splurged and got a few things from my wish list. One of those was the next book on my master TBR, Coraline. Normally I skip books I own, because I decided quite a while back that it makes much more sense to concentrate cutting books I don’t own before I buy them. So, technically I own it now. But then the next three things on the TBR after that are all Gaiman works too–his short fiction collections: Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. Of course they’re all staying, he’s one of my favorite authors of all time. But it seemed silly to handle them all separately, especially because that would push two of them onto next month’s chopping block.


I only cut 3/12 this time out, but that’s going to happen sometimes. I ditched a few books this past weekend, unrelated to any meme, because of the Sarah Dessen debacle on Twitter. She wasn’t on my TBR, since I read one or maybe two of her books several years back and they were not in my wheelhouse. But several of the authors who showed their asses in supporting her were on my TBR, and now, they’re not, because I try not to support authors who engage in public bad behavior.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #47)

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#150 – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

  • Read: 11/8/19 – 11/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (98/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book recommended by a celebrity you admire
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

After being engrossed with this book for several days, I read the last hundred pages this morning and feel oddly disappointed.

I’m left with the feeling that despite the 500+ pages of plot points I could outline for you, the things that clearly happened over the course of the novel, in the end, none of it actually mattered. That this was a story where nothing was accomplished, bad things happened to good and bad people alike, and nothing at all is resolved in the end.

It’s not that I expected a happy ending for Werner, with or without Marie-Laure. I’m a romantic, but I’m not an idiot. I wasn’t surprised by Werner’s death, though I was surprised it was so anti-climactic. That set the tone for the entire denouement–unsatisfying.

What the ending drove home to me was how shallow the engagement was at any given point with a character, how quickly their trauma could be unfolded and repackaged, how atmospheric the prose aimed to be at the cost of character development. Because the language is beautiful, I can’t argue with that common bit of praise for this work. It’s gorgeous and tactile and evocative. But if you look beneath that, the story is conveyed in incredibly short bursts, constantly switching between points of view, never allowing us to settle too long with one character and really get to know them before we’re jerked into someone else’s story.

And nothing really happens that matters. Marie keeps the jewel safe only to Titanic it at the last minute, and she never finds her father. Werner does find the source of the mysterious broadcast and eventually saves Marie’s life (which is just about the only thing worth justifying this amount of time spent on the two of them getting to this point, fair enough, that plot point matters) but wanders off to die after that. The minor characters as a whole don’t fare much better–Volkheimer survives the war and serves as the messenger-carrier for Werner’s belongings, to wrap things up neatly. Von Rumpel fails to achieve his goal, which is arguably okay because he’s the closest thing this work has to a villian, but it still doesn’t feel satisfying when he’s foiled. We check in with Frederick and he’s still mostly a vegetable. Strangely enough, it’s one of the other minor characters that gets the most growth, since circumstances force Etienne to overcome his agoraphobia, and he actually gets one of the happiest endings, where he travels the world.

Most damning/upsetting/disappointing to me, and perhaps most emblematic of just how shallowly we engage with the actual characters, was the brief scene post-war that is included to show Jutta learning of her brother’s death, that also includes her rape at the hands of Russian soldiers, for some reason. Why? Yes, rape is a horrible thing that goes along with basically every war, but did we have to see it? Did it have to happen to her specifically? Does it have any meaning or reveal anything about her character? No, it’s there because rape happens in war so it has to happen to someone, right, and Jutta hasn’t been important for half the book so it’s okay to do it to her. It doesn’t have any bearing on her epilogue scenes, it doesn’t have any bearing on the main plot of the novel, it’s just a footnote of suffering that is completely unnecessary. Jutta’s story doesn’t lose anything if that scene was just her and the other women she lived with going hungry and working at pointless jobs and feeling directionless as their country collapsed post-war. That gets the point across just fine, but oh, no, let’s have them raped too.

I’m angry about that, because not only was it unnecessary, it also completely blindsided me. Rape as a vague threat, as dread and fear, was used early in the book when some bullies are teasing Marie about her blindness, saying that when the Germans come they’ll take her first because of her infirmity, and horrible things will happen to her. That was fine, in context. That’s a thing exceptionally cruel bullies would bring up, and that’s an understandable fear for a young woman. And then… rape literally never comes up again until it happens to Jutta. Ninety-nine percent of the book is free of the specter of sexual violence, and honestly, from a white male author writing about war that’s kind of amazing.

But then Jutta is raped, right at the end, and I thought, “Really? Now? You did so good up to here. Why?”

So it would be easy to say the ending ruined the book for me, but this isn’t a case where everything was wonderful until the wheels fell of the wagon at the last second. Rather, the ending made me realize what had been wrong with the book the entire time, only I hadn’t seen it because I was trundling along hoping for some amazing ending to justify the four hundred pages of tense setup. All that anticipation had to lead to something, right? Only it didn’t.

If anything, I’ve come away from this book thinking that maybe the Sea of Flames jewel actually was cursed, because Marie had it for a long time and she lived while awful things happened around her, just like the curse said. And that gives this historical fiction a taste of magical realism that I don’t think suits the tone at all. Especially because the Sea of Flames got its own scene in the epilogue section, and I was like, “Really? Why?”

The language is beautiful, I can still say that unequivocally, but the story is just pointless in the end, and I read books primarily for the plot and characters, not for the prose.

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#151 – A Garden in the Rain, by Lynn Kurland

  • Read: 11/12/19 – 11/14/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (99/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This romance couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Is it time-travel? Is it paranormal? Is it a vacation getaway romance? Why not try all three at once, and throw in the most cartoonish ex-fiance bad guy ever?

There weren’t a lot of good things about this novel, but by far, by absolute farthest, the worst part is Bentley, the heroine’s recent ex. Their backstory is a jumble that focuses on how they ended, but as I got to know Bentley and discovered that he wasn’t a person, he was a stack of evil tropes in a trench coat, I wondered more and more how they got together in the first place, because he’s just the worst from the very first moment we meet him. There’s no tale of their wooing, there’s no fond reminiscences of before the breakup, there’s no sign he was ever a good person or a decent boyfriend/fiance at all. He is unrelentingly horrible, immoral, narcissistic, hypocritical, and cruel, and the backstory gives me no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.

And because of that, it makes me question just how stupid the heroine is. Not that she acts particularly stupid during the course of the novel itself, she’s not suffering from Too Stupid to Live Syndrome, though she does rely on the hero to rescue her a lot from Bentley’s horrible attempts at manipulation, the constant stealing of her hotel reservations and later her possessions, and eventually, a 14th-century dungeon, because time travel. But by painting the ex as a totally irredeemable ass, you have to wonder why they were together in the first place, and what’s changed since that makes the heroine capable of making better choices this time around.

As for the hero, he’s… okay? He’s tall dark and deadly, and his backstory is similarly sketchy for most of the book, and his occupation (expensive bodyguard) is never really explained, but seems more an excuse for the travel he does (with or without the heroine, as the plot demands) even though we never see him actually working, just going away or coming back.

The time-travel stuff and all the stuff about the hero’s family would probably have made a lot more sense if I hadn’t jumped into the middle of the series. I’m willing to give that a pass, because by book 4 the author shouldn’t be over-explaining it, so I’m not complaining that the world-building wasn’t there.

And I could have accepted the time travel just fine as the central thrust of the novel’s oddities, but then we got ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Lots of pushy and irritating ghosts. Ghosts who apparently have been hanging around the hero’s castle for ages but only decided to appear and harass him into moving the plot forward after the heroine walks into his life.

Can you hear that? The sound of me rolling my eyes so hard? I hated the ghosts almost as much as I hated Bentley.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

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#144 – What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

  • Read: 10/30/19 – 11/1/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (94/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with a question in the title
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

There’s nothing wrong with this book except maybe there’s too much of it.

I love xkcd, I’ve been a fan for years. As my daily/weekly webcomic reading levels dropped because one once-beloved comic or another started getting weird/bad/wordy/unfunny/overly existential, I kept reading xkcd and still do catch up when I remember to.

The humor isn’t the problem, nor is the science (which is broken down to the point where I mostly understood everything, Munroe does have a gift for explaining complex topics to laypeople) nor is the structure. The nature of the book is that it comes in bite-size bits as he answers one absurd question after another.

But by the end, I was getting worn out on the concept itself. I’m used to getting my doses of this highly specific brand of science/math humor spaced out over time. I’m not used to getting punched in the face with it in one book-sized fist. Which is really a problem with my perception of the book and not the book itself.

It’s fantastic and funny and absurd in all the best ways, but maybe, just maybe, it suffers from relying heavily on its one conceptual trick for too long.

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#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

  • Read: 11/2/19 – 11/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (95/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A ghost story
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My first Oscar Wilde, and it won’t be my last. This was hilarious and quick and charmingly snarky. In fact, it was so quick, and I was enjoying it so much, I wish there were more of it! I didn’t know what to expect going in, as I picked this up entirely for the “ghost story” task of this year’s PopSugar Reading Challenge, and it was free, being a public domain work. I didn’t know I was going to laugh so hard at a ghost failing to frighten the new owners of its residence, at the pomposity of old-tradition Brits and new-money Americans, at the trappings of Gothic Horror that get so easily brushed aside by cheerful and stubborn practicality. This might be one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever read.

146 - They Both Die at the End

#146 – They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera

  • Read: 11/4/19 – 11/5/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (44/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book that takes place in a single day
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I cried a lot and the best parts of this story really got to me, but there was also a lot I was yawning through.

If the point of this book was to capture the intensity of emotion and experience that two young men were facing on their last day alive, to develop their strangers-to-friends-to-“we’d be lovers if there was only more time” romance, then why did we spend so much of the book pulled away into the POV chapters of side characters?

Some of those chapters are arguably necessary for plot setup (mostly the antagonist’s) but most were throwaways from extremely minor characters that were world-building at best, but didn’t actually give me that much more insight into the world.

So that’s the bad part. And, of course, if the “point” of the book isn’t what I felt it was, if we want to explore authorial intent vs. the author is dead and the potential for infinite reader interpretations, then of course some readers won’t think my criticism is a criticism at all.

The good parts. I loved Mateo instantly and had a great deal of trouble connecting to Rufus at first, but as time went by it got easier, and I got the feeling that I the reader am supposed to have trouble because so does Mateo at first. Cool. When the first hints of attraction start popping up, I was completely on board the “JUST KISS ALREADY” train. While I can understand the frustration of the insta-love vibe that was going on near the end, I’m more okay with it here than I usually am, as a trope, because they were have a serious roller-coaster of a day and intense experiences do have a quicker bonding effect on people than drawn-out courtships. I very much liked the “I think I could have fallen in love with you” aspect of their relationship, and don’t have a problem with them both dropping L-bombs early because of the day they’re having and the knowledge of what’s coming.

I think the core of this book is strong, the deliberately heart-wrenching story of two people finding each other nearly too late. But I also think there’s a lot of extraneous stuff that could have been cut, and some that was necessary but could have been presented in a way more organic to the rest of the story than constantly cutting away to the POV chapters of characters we aren’t invested in.

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#147 – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

  • Read: 11/5/19 – 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (45/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book published posthumously
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I started out thinking this book was okay, and liked it progressively less and less as it went on.

I don’t think this story works as an epistolary novel, or at least, it needs more attention and care to make it work. The letter writers throughout are wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and educations, and there’s a sameness of tone to the entire book that diminishes the variety of character voice. I do think in the first half, Juliet, Sidney, and Dawsey sound reasonably distinct, but most of the rest of the Islanders are basically the same, made to sound backwards with a few dashes of poor grammar, and in the second half everyone becomes a muddle.

The second problem with the structure is that it made it absurdly easy to skip sections that didn’t interest me as I grew less enchanted with the story, because if the letter was to or from Juliet or Dawsey, I mostly stopped caring. I did skim some of the later letters, and I feel like I have a decent handle on the plot without reading every detail of Isola’s sudden obsession with phrenology or the ridiculously late and short subplot about Sidney’s secretary trying to steal Oscar Wilde’s letters.

Even once I strip the plot down to its core, there are things I didn’t like. The main love triangle was completely without tension, because of course Juliet is going to come to her senses and not marry Mark, he’s an ass. Trying to infuse extra tension by creating a second, weaker love triangle around Dawsey was just stupid, it was killing time so that Juliet still had an obstacle after she realized her feelings for Dawsey, and I didn’t buy it for a second.

I do have a thing for the strong, silent type of hero, so I found Dawsey appealing as an archetype but rather lackluster as an actual character. He seems so vibrant in the first half of the book when we get to read his correspondence, but as soon as he’s in the same zip code, so to speak, as Juliet, we barely see his POV again and he becomes a footnote in everyone else’s letters, which is nuts, since he’s the romantic hero. He doesn’t end up with enough actual page time to properly display his affection for Juliet, so their love story is a rushed but foregone conclusion that the book expects me to be happy about simply because it happens, but not because it did the work making it happen. I felt I was expected to fill in far too many of the blanks myself.

I have not seen the movie yet, but despite my disappointment with the novel, I do still plan on watching it, because a) I’m interested to see how an epistolary novel like this gets adapted, and b) I think if done well, a movie version would solve a lot of the issues I have with the novel’s structure. I haven’t looked into any reviews or discussions of the movie, so I have no idea if general consensus on it is good or terrible, but I can probably spare two hours to find out myself.

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#148 – Death by Chocolate, by Sally Berneathy

  • Read: 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (96/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book featuring an amateur detective
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%. I was bored.

Things happened that should have engaged my interest–a little boy mysteriously disappearing only to be found soon after with no explanation of who took him or how he got out of the house; a stake-out spot discovered in the fenced-in yard of an empty house in the neighborhood; one of the protagonist’s neighbors possessing an unusual and useful skill set to go along with her amateur investigating.

But whatever interest I might have mustered for those hooks was swamped by how stupid and irritating the protagonist herself is. Every three sentences it was chocolate this, Coke that, more chocolate, “I shouldn’t be sleeping with my ex but his smile is so gorgeous,” then berating the investigating officer with her “I know what I’m talking about, I saw this on a crime drama” attitude.

She is the worst. And I’ve gathered that she’s got a romance subplot with that officer? If I were him, I would run for the hills.

I simply could not overcome my intense dislike for the protagonist to keep reading, especially coupled with an all-telling, no-showing writing style. I’m not a “cozy mystery” genre fan, so I’m not aware of the general conventions, but this seemed simplistic and dull.

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#149 – The House on the Beach, by Linda Barrett

  • Read: 11/6/19 – 11/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (97/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Plodding and predictable, without enough conflict, with too much emphasis on the townspeople and not enough on the romance.

Seriously, there’s an entire chapter devoted to a scene in the local diner where seven different old men who eat breakfast together regularly are introduced to the leading lady. One of them is the hero’s father, and one of them she already knows because he rented her “the house on the beach,” but why did we have to bother with the other five? What purpose do they serve in the story? None.

So that was an annoyance, but the larger problem is the slow pace and lack of conflict. The first hurdle to the relationship is the weak and quickly ignored “but I’m not looking for a relationship right now for reasons.” It’s on both sides, but they keep spending time together because they’re attracted to each other anyway, and yeah, they both get over that with very little introspection or discussion.

Once they’re finally together in a bed-sharing kind of way, she finally drops the bomb that leads to the only external conflict; she’s a recent breast cancer survivor with a good prognosis. But of course he freaks out because his wife died a few years back of ovarian cancer and he can’t go through that again.

If that had been properly developed, I might have been more sympathetic. But pains are taken throughout the story, whenever either character thinks about their half of that equation, to demonstrate to the reader that the two situations could hardly be more different: early detection and successful treatment vs. “it’s far too late.” So I’m less inclined to buy Matt’s total freakout, based on the fact that for the rest of the book he’s basically perfect. He’s a great father, a hard-working man, a thoughtful guy, sweet as hell, and never does anything else wrong, so to focus all of his negative emotion and action into this one serious-yet-somehow-also-flimsy breakdown is just unsatisfying.

Really, the only reason this gets two stars from me instead of one is that his kids are cute. Casey and his stuttering, which leads him to bond with the heroine who’s a voice actress, was actually a really good subplot and gave the leads extra reason to spend time together.

A Possible First Personal Reading “Challenge” for 2020: No Books About War

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how tired I am of reading about war.

It’s not an inescapable subject matter, whether I’m reading fiction or nonfiction, but lately, I’ve been feeling a sense of dread whenever I see the “big” books of the last few years. I’ve read The Nightingale and The Alice Network, for example, and enjoyed both quite a lot. Reaching a little farther back and dipping into YA, I loved Between Shades of Gray.

But All the Light We Cannot See is sitting there on my “soon” TBR pile, and I just can’t bring myself to pick it up yet. I’ve heard it’s amazing. I’ll probably like it. I bought it used at a book sale a while ago, and actually I accidentally picked it up twice at separate sales because I forgot I had the first copy. I hung on to both, so that if I like it, I’ll be able to give the second copy to someone in my family to read as well.

But it’s about war, and I kind of don’t want to read it anymore.

It’s not that books about war are inherently bad. It’s that I’m tired of reading them.

My specific fatigue seems to be centered around the (seemingly) recent boom of WWII-era fiction, though I’m sure this is a perception bias on my part, because I’m well aware that WWII has been fictionalized consistently pretty much since it was over. But my dread of war-based fiction has spread to other genres, because war isn’t exclusive to historical fiction. Fantasy has a ton of it as well, and even aside from my other problems with The Poppy War, I was thinking, “War again? Does anyone write about anything else anymore?”

I know they do. I know I have tons of stuff sitting on my shelves already that doesn’t have a single thing to do with war. I could be reading romances, those rarely do unless they’re specifically in the military subgenre or occasionally historical, depending on the time period. But those are few and far between on my TBR. I could be reading some of my piled up sci-fi…no, wait, The Expanse doesn’t have a war going on it in yet (where I am) but all the precursors are there and a later book in the series is titled Babylon’s War. I could still read fantasy if I was careful about screening them beforehand; some fantasy works are heavily war-based while others have nothing to do with it. And there’s plenty of contemporary works, especially in YA, that don’t even seem to exist in the same world as wars do.

But All the Light isn’t even the only immediate-TBR book I’m struggling with. I picked up The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from the library yesterday. I need a “book published posthumously” for the PopSugar Reading Challenge, and while I have one sitting on my shelves (I had intended to read one of the many posthumous Tolkien books) I also want to watch the Netflix movie adaptation of Guernsey which means, much like To All the Boys I Loved Before earlier this year, it was time to hit the library for the book first. Two birds one stone, et cetera.

I want to read it. It’s a romance. I love romances.

It’s also set in wartime, and I’m burnt out on wartime. It’s a dilemma.

I’m aware that I’m whining, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this lately. I’ve considered making 2020 the year of No Books About War. But I also desperately want to clear my bookshelves of the overwhelming physical collection I’ve amassed from used book sales, and I’m sure plenty of those books involve war. You know, like War and Peace? Probably about war. I could read around them, sure, I bet I truly do have enough books to go for an entire year not reading about war.

But then they’ll all be sitting there at the beginning of 2021, waiting for me in a giant clump. I’m not sure that’s a better solution.

After I finish writing this rant-whine-post I’m going to grab a bookmark from my collection, pick up Guernsey from the TBR pile, and get started. I’ve already marked it as “currently-reading” on Goodreads–I’m committed now. I’ll do it.

But I’m far more conscious lately about how much war I’m imbibing through books, and at the very least, I might do more to screen it out of my TBR and space the books I do choose to read out with plenty of non-war material. After I finish Guernsey and All the Light–which I intend to do this month, if not necessarily back-to-back–then I’ll revisit whether 2020 is going to see a ban on war books.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #45)

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#140 – Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 10/20/19 – 10/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (91/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Weaker by far than both the first and the second books, this was a slog to keep reading at times. I can admire how skillfully interwoven the disparate story lines became over the course of the novel while still strongly disliking some of those plot threads.

Serilla’s was the worst for me. Watching a foreigner become embroiled in and increasingly bewildered by Bingtown politics was just not entertaining, even though I did care about what happened to Bingtown itself. The Trader that tried to use her in his schemes had never been important before and didn’t get enough development here to be a convincing antagonist, even a minor one. I also felt like Serilla’s complex and ever-changing relationship to Ronica didn’t follow any logical or understandable progression.

The Satrap and Malta’s plot line comes in a close second for least appealing. Malta shows her smarts, sure, and I’m all for women overcoming adversity, but the Satrap is so useless and whining and irritating for 95% of his subplot, then at the end, miraculously grows a spine and makes his first attempts to actually rule? I don’t buy it.

Even the story lines I mostly enjoyed ended up in weird places. The romantic in me loves that Brashen and Althea have a mostly-happy ending, but I don’t like that it came at the cost of Althea regaining Vivacia, which was the central driving thrust of not only her own plot, but half the wider story itself. Wintrow succeeds Kennit as the captain of Vivacia instead, but also sort of ends up with Etta, too, even though she’s pregnant with Kennit’s child? I didn’t peg Wintrow as a surrogate father figure.

The only ending I might be completely satisfied with, strangely, is Paragon’s. Watching him go from a splintered soul to a whole person (for lack of a better term) was an incredible journey, and as the secrets of his past were teased out slowly, I was pleased to see I’d gotten some of my guesses right while being wholly surprised by a few things.

The dragons were fascinating, as well they should be, and I’m intrigued by the return of the long-vanished Elderlings, especially coming about how it did.

I’m going to keep reading, of course. The next trilogy, from what I’ve been told, is supposed to be amazing, and after six books I’m solidly invested in this setting. But after how stunning The Mad Ship was, I can’t help being disappointed some by this relatively weak wrap-up.

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#141 – Beloved, by Corinne Michaels

  • Read: 10/27/19 – 10/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (92/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 15%. I could feel myself getting more annoyed with every page. Buckle up, I’m going into detail on this one.

First problem, the prologue: girl’s got daddy issues and has no problem laying them out there for everyone to see, but they’re not interesting. Leading with backstory is rarely interesting. Don’t just tell me she’s got abandonment issues, show me somehow with the plot instead of dumping it on me up front!

Second problem, the first chapter: By the end of the first page, I already knew the fiance was a cheater, not because I’d met him yet, not because he’d said a single word, but because there’s no other reason for the narrator to text him “surprise! I’m coming over” as the very first plot point. Duh, of course she’s going to find him banging another woman. Yawn, not invested.

Third problem, meeting the hero: This could have been a good meet-cute, except that the narrator has no personality yet and everything about the scene is rushed. Here’s the first time I noticed the serious lack of flow to the text itself–in one paragraph, while the narrator is eating dinner with her friends, she summarizes their conversation as catching up on old times and talking about people they all know, but after a paragraph break, she interrupts them while they’re talking about movies. But they weren’t talking about movies? You just said they were talking about mutual acquaintances? If that’s supposed to show time passing as the conversation moves on, then find a better solution, because it just reads as abrupt. Anyway, the hero himself is so perfect and so handsome and so pushes all of her buttons. She describes that brief encounter like she’s waking up from a ten-year coma and not a three-month break from dating after she and her fiance split.

Fourth problem, her job: Here’s where the inconsistent tone in narration really takes off, because the narrator spends most of a page psyching herself up for a meeting by reminding herself what a badass bitch she is and how amazing she is at her job. Fine, great, not original but at least it seems genuine and reads as empowering. But then, next paragraph, she’s gushing about her assistant and how lost she’d be without the help and support and thank GOD the assistant doesn’t realize she could be doing the narrator’s job. So…are you a badass bitch who’s great at her job, or is your assistant doing it all for you? Both of these things can’t be true at the same time, not as we’ve been presented with them. PLUS she smells the hero’s cologne just before she goes into the meeting, hinting that he’s going to be there, but then he’s not and it’s her ex instead. Total letdown.

Fifth and final problem that I got to before giving up: The train ride. The narrator lives in New Jersey and commutes into New York City, fine. So she’s on her way home after the disastrous meeting where her ex stole her presentation because she never changed her passwords after they broke up. It’s the middle of the day, and randomly, the hero is on the same train with her and sits down beside her so they can pick back up on their flirting. I spent most of the scene irritated that the author was failing to address the extraordinary coincidence of the hero being there without being a stalker. Then, at the very end of the scene, the narrator wakes up. Because she fell asleep on the train, you see. She dreamt the whole thing.

WHAT?

At 15% in, the narrator still has no real personality except that her life keeps taking a shit on her, and then the second interaction she has with the hero, whom eventually I presume she’s supposed to fall in love with, is actually a dream sequence and he was never there at all? When are they supposed to get to know each other? When are they supposed to develop feelings for each other? When is this romance going to get around to actually starting?

142 - The Way You Look Tonight

#142 – The Way You Look Tonight, by Bella Andre

  • Read: 10/28/19 – 10/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (93/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I finished it. I liked a lot about it. But there were issues.

The chemistry our leads and the bedroom antics they got up to were by far the strongest part of the story, while character development was pretty one-note. Yes, Brooke uses her relationship with Rafe to grow sexually, and Rafe learns through her that even a “cynical bastard” like himself is capable of love. But that’s the only internal conflict to sustain them through the entire book, and the only external one keeping them from hopping into bed together (briefly) was two of his siblings showing up for a surprise visit.

There’s just not a lot else going on, except sex. And while the sex scenes are reasonably good, maybe a shade too “everything gets more intense every time” but generally good, I wanted more about the characters.

They’re childhood friends, except they’re kind of not? She had a crush on him as a kid, but their six-year age difference was insurmountable then. I feel that–I had crushes on older boys myself–but then Brooke doesn’t see him for eighteen years and they’re still friends? Nuh-uh, I don’t buy it. I don’t care how close you were as kids (and the narrative implies it was like sibling closeness, like she was family) if you don’t see someone for eighteen years, you’ve got to spend a little narrative time reestablishing that friendship before I’m going to believe it, especially when there was a significant age gap as kids. You’re acquaintances, sure, who were close once, but you’re not friends as adults, now. But they breeze right past it in just a few days to start sleeping together, and they treat each other with an emotional intimacy that I just don’t accept that they could forge so quickly, no matter how sweet and innocent and open-hearted Brooke is.

The bones of the story are there, and they’re solid. But it all moves too fast and comes together too neatly. There needed to be more conflict and more history and more time spent on them as adults rather than relying on holdover feelings from a long-gone past.

143 - We Have Always Lived in the Castle

#143 – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

  • Read: 10/29/19 – 10/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (43/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t read any Shirley Jackson since seventh grade English class, when The Lottery was in the book of short stories we studied. I enjoyed it but thought it was weird and maybe not as good as my teacher thought it was.

All these years later, I feel much the same way about We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I enjoyed it, but it’s really weird and maybe not as good as the general consensus would have had me believe before I read it.

Some writerly qualities of the book are astounding. Merricat has a distinctive and engaging narrative voice that conveys a blend of childhood innocence, sinister intent, and superstition. At times I forgot how old she was supposed to be, because she could be so child-like, but I don’t see that as a flaw in the work, because given her upbringing it’s understandable she would be stalled in her emotional growth. I caught some hints of mental illness as well, though that’s of course up to reader interpretation, but Merricat’s narration reminded me of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which spoke to me strongly as someone battling an anxiety disorder, though I don’t have OCD. Merricat could, though.

The atmosphere is also masterfully handled, with simple but evocative descriptions, careful word choice and even more carefully chosen repetition. I could see this house clearly in my head, but more importantly, I felt this house and its dread in my bones.

The “mystery” is weaker. I never really thought Constance had done it, and from there it wasn’t a long leap to (correctly) assume the identity of the real culprit and the reasons behind Constance’s suspicious actions the night of the poisoning. The reveal is touching, in a way, but wasn’t at all a surprise to me.

The overall plot is thin and wandering. Framing this story as the origin of a haunted house certainly gives it atmosphere, but not a lot of forward motion. I had no trouble reading this in a few hours because of its length and simple language, but I wouldn’t call it a gripping page turner.

So I liked it, and there’s a lot to learn from it as a writer, even if horror isn’t my genre. But it wasn’t the amazing classic I had been led to believe it was.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #44)

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#138 – Feels Like Home, by Evelyn Adams

  • Read: 10/18/19 – 10/19/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (89/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I said in a review of a book I read just a few days ago that I dislike family-based romances that introduce a million siblings right away to establish future protagonists, and I do. But that book wasn’t nearly as bad about it as this one turned out to be. The opening chapter introduces the heroine, her sister, and her niece, all of whom end up being important to the plot, fair enough. It also talks about several other siblings, the issues with her parents, her dead grandmother, and half the town that’s shown up to the house after the funeral. Way too many names, way too soon, especially when most of them aren’t important at all. I was overwhelmed, almost to the point where I gave up then, because it was such a mess.

But I stuck it out, and honestly, I regret that decision. Meeting the hero didn’t help much–he’s so perfectly flawless he might as well have been set on a shelf for everyone to admire. Small-town doctor, doesn’t care about the heroine’s unstable family life or what his family/the town will think of them being together. Also, basically he loves her for no reason. There’s physical attraction instantly, and that becomes interest in dating at a reasonable pace, but I don’t understand why, from anything I read, he falls in love with her and goes to such great lengths to convince her to get over her self-imposed mentality of not being good enough.

The subplot about the heroine trying to “save” her sister and niece from a bad relationship/bad home life got old quickly. The niece was reasonably cute but the sister was a sad sack who had no personality and no character agency, just a walking plot device for the heroine to be worried about and shuffle from place to place as the plot demanded.

If I hadn’t gotten this for free, I’d want my money back, and as it is, I want my time spent reading back.

139 - If I Didn't Care

#139 – If I Didn’t Care, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 10/19/19 – 10/20/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (90/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I thought I had caught up with all the Wishful novels I owned, I missed this one, so here I go.

It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.

As far as the romance is concerned, I feel the emotion, I feel the weight of the history between our lovebirds, but I’m thoroughly pissed off that everything about them is based on assumptions, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. Autumn opens the book by deciding to confess her feelings despite Judd being in a relationship, but backs down when she realizes (mistakenly) that he’s about to propose to his girlfriend. She lies about what she meant to say (twice! when the first excuse doesn’t hold up anymore she makes up a new lie!) and decides to leave town even though she doesn’t actually want to, because it’s better for both of them that way. Judd, on the other hand, has been hiding his feelings as well, telling himself it’s for Autumn’s good all these years, yet doesn’t even tell her when his girlfriend (rightly) dumps him, just letting her assume he’s still in a relationship.

So they’re both stubborn idiots who would rather martyr themselves for the other than actually talk about anything until events force them to. Which means they’re awful people in some ways, yet oddly perfect for each other.

As for the suspense plot, it starts out easy enough to follow, though it was obvious to me from the very beginning that Autumn’s ex-con father was a red herring. I didn’t catch on to the real culprit until he’d shown up a few times, but it wasn’t because there were clues I saw to help me figure it out, it was simply because the cast of characters wasn’t large enough to support multiple possible villains. Once I was sure it wasn’t daddy dearest, there was only one other character it could be who didn’t have a clear role to play elsewhere in the story–especially because a lot of the minor characters we already know from other Wishful books and are clearly not going to be sacrificed on the altar of being a villain in this one.

What bothered me, though, was just how little sense the ending made. It’s easy to write off a stalker’s behavior as delusional, and it’s not always wrong, but his delusions didn’t really gel with his demeanor earlier in the story, and basing those delusions on the plot of a novel the heroine has written, that we the readers don’t have full access to and have to figure out via explanation by the heroine and third-party interpretation from other characters–honestly, it’s a giant mess I couldn’t untangle.

And the very, very ending, the “will you marry me?” that becomes “well let’s get married literally right now because I organized the whole thing behind your back and everyone’s already here”–way too rushed for me. A proposal would have been enough, thanks.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #42)

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#135 – The Dark Mirror, by Juliet Marillier

  • Read: 10/9/19 – 10/14/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (42/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This is too long, too unfocused, and some of the characters are far too similar to those in Marillier’s other works.

Physically, Tuala is basically a copy of Sorcha from Daughter of the Forest, except that she actually is of the Fair Folk, whereas Sorcha merely seemed to be with her wildness. All the descriptors are actually the same, small, slim, barely eats enough to stay alive, constant comparisons to birds, big-eyed, dark hair, otherworldly. I’d be more willing to forgive this if Tuala had any personality to speak of, but she doesn’t. She’s young and lonely (also like Sorcha, though for different reasons) and that’s about it.

Bridei is slightly better off, being serious and studious and in the end, incredibly stubborn, but for good reason. He’s not quite as clearly matched to another Marillier character as Tuala is, but in some ways he does remind me strongly of Johnny, the golden child of the original Sevenwaters trilogy. But even if he’s more his own man, he’s still not really interesting enough to carry the story on his shoulders, because the major failing of the story is that our nominal protagonists are explicitly pawns in someone else’s grand scheme of kingship. Everything about Bridei’s life is bent toward making him the perfect candidate for king in the next election, and none of it by his own design, but by that of his foster father. That still might have had the potential to be an interesting story, if Bridei did more to test the limits of the constraints placed on him, but for most of the book he does exactly as he’s told, only breaking out of that narrow role at the very, very end. (And even that was unsatisfying, as romances go, which are always the backbone of this author’s work–this has an incredibly weak conclusion, more of a “to be continued,” because there are two more books about these idiots.)

The worst part, though, is the constant scene cuts to the schemers. Whether it’s the five “wise” men and women who formed the secret pact to make Bridei king, or the two Fair Folk who are meddling with Tuala and trying to tempt her away from the human world, every time the story is gaining some momentum, we have to stop and check in with the people in charge, and most of the time they aren’t even saying anything we don’t already know. Yes, Bridei is still mostly doing great. Yes, Tuala isn’t a part of the plan and we need to get her out of the way. Yes, time is running out because the old king is dying. STOP MAKING ME READ SCENES OF NOTHING BUT TALKING ABOUT INFORMATION I’VE ALREADY BEEN GIVEN FIVE TIMES.

This book could have been at least fifty pages shorter, just cutting repeated information, and probably more like a hundred pages shorter if all of the unnecessary scheming scenes were cut. I would have liked that book better, because it wouldn’t have dragged, though I still would have wanted a more engaging story that wasn’t two bland characters doing what they’re told for eighty percent of the book.

136 - Dare to Love

#136 – Dare to Love, by Carly Phillips

  • Read: 10/16/19 – 10/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (87/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with “love” in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

You can tell this is the start to a new family-based romance series, because there are a million siblings introduced as quickly as possible to establish the protagonists of future books in the series. I’m not opposed to this style of series at all, but I prefer the setups to be far less blatant, and also not to come at the cost of a good story at the outset. Most of these names being thrown around had very little to do with the plot, which focused on the hero’s jealousy of and competition with his half-brother, who was the love interest’s best friend.

There’s a compelling story in there somewhere, or at least the potential for one. But I didn’t read it here. The hero elevates “controlling” to its own art form and constantly put me off. (I’m not into the controlling type of man IRL, but I can often set that aside when I read, if there’s redeeming qualities or underlying issues. If the dude’s just a jerk, I won’t like him.) The heroine was the typical “I’m strong and independent unless I’m in the same room as the hero then I’m overcome with lust” type. The half-brother/best friend is not interesting on his own, not a very good friend to the heroine in most cases, and generally just as much of a jerk as the hero.

I will give credit where it’s due, despite this being centered around the themes of competition and jealousy, it’s immediately clear that the love triangle only exists in the hero’s head, not the heroine’s or the best friend’s. Which I do appreciate from a meta standpoint, though it led to the hero beating the dead horse of “But I don’t believe neither of you has romantic feelings for the other.” Because men and women can’t be friends, obviously, a viewpoint which lowers the hero even further in my estimation, a feat I didn’t realize was possible until it happened. I do not recommend this book to anyone, even if you like the controlling type of man, because there are much better examples to be found elsewhere.

137 - Silver-Tongued Devil

#137 – Silver-Tongued Devil, by Rosalind James

  • Read: 10/17/19 – 10/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (88/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of James’ other novels, and I have to say, in terms of plotting this one stands out to me as well-crafted. There’s a lot of conflict, both external and internal, ranging from tragic family history and old injuries and teenage sexual trauma to criminal activity of several varieties and the hero quite literally saving the heroine’s life–but that event doesn’t come across as melodramatic or unnecessary to the story. None of it does, and considering the scope, that’s remarkable.

The chemistry between the leads is tangible, unforced, and satisfying to watch unfold. By the time these two got into bed together, I was on board with their relationship, even if they weren’t quite in it for the long haul yet.

Where this book falls down, really, is a sort of sameness of tone to nearly everyone’s dialogue, and that’s something I’ve seen in James’ other novels as well. After a while, Dakota and Blake and even Russ all sound alike, with that tendency to quip, to drop the subject of a sentence, to be sly when they think they can get away with it or stubborn a good deal of the rest of the time. The hero and heroine should sound more different from each other, and neither of them should speak like her dad! The only major character who stood out was Evan, because he was by far the most taciturn and emotionally shut-down, at least until he let loose a torrent of “I know better than you” at Dakota the one time.

It’s not enough to make me hate the novel or anything, but when I see how good the rest of it is, the dialogue issue is a pretty major distraction.


So, yeah, this is late because I got really sick this week. I gave up for a while on my planned TBR to switch to romance novels on my Kindle, because that’s physically easier to hold than a huge hardcover while I’m exhausted, and mentally easier to read than super-dense epic fantasy–I had just started Ship of Destiny and couldn’t face it while my brain was so fogged. I’m finally feeling better enough to write book reviews (I did four today, you’ll see the other two next week) and start getting my ducks back in their rows.