This Week, I Read… (2021 #8)

#25 – Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood

  • Mount TBR: 24/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Standalone
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I finished this out of half out of stubbornness, and half out of a desire to see if Atwood would manage some kind of ending that elevated this beyond the standard infidelity plot I’m so used to seeing from male authors. She’s altered it slightly by focusing on an open marriage, though the sense is that it’s open somewhat involuntarily. Elizabeth’s attitude is “we’re both going to end up cheating and we both know it, so why not be adults about it?” I had hope that would lead to something more complex and interesting that “old man cheats with younger woman” or any other basic construction that passes for literature if enough other old men like it.

Atwood’s prose hasn’t yet developed the beauty I’m used to from her later works, but I can see the groundwork being laid, and an early exploration of some of the themes about nature and climate change that inform those works. But it’s all set dressing for a plot that doesn’t deserve it.

I think my reaction to this book was summed up in the scene, late in the story, when Nate is once again making excuses for his wife, Elizabeth, to his lover, Lesje. She had a bad childhood, he says. Didn’t everyone? Lesje snaps back. Lesje understands that it’s no excuse for being a terrible person, and I agree; but this story is just a series of terrible people being terrible to each other in ways that aren’t particularly interesting, and what’s more, it doesn’t really have any stakes. I don’t require that the characters I read be composed of sunshine and lollipops, possessed of unerring moral compasses and spotless reputations. Reading about flawed people is more interesting, when the story gives me a reason to care. But this book never did. So what if Elizabeth continues to torment Nate or delay the divorce proceedings? So what if Nate never fully cuts his wife out of his life in favor of moving on with his lover? So what if Lesje always feels inadequate compared to the women who came before her in Nate’s life? The only characters I ever felt the barest sliver of sympathy for were the children, but most of the time the story treats them like props because most of the time, so do their parents. As a result, they weren’t strongly developed themselves, because their existence was enough to keep Elizabeth and Nate together for so long, because Divorce is Bad for Children.

Now, a female author I respect has also failed to get me invested in a story about infidelity, so I think it’s safe for me to say that I despise that topic in fiction, the same way I had to try eggplant in a number of different dishes before I could be absolutely sure I hated the food itself and not the way it was prepared. But I hate eggplant, and I hate infidelity lit no matter who writes it.

#26 – Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

  • Mount TBR: 25/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Five stars, or six, or seventeen, or a hundred, for the importance of the true story contained within these pages.

Negative five, or ten, or fifty, for the presentation. This is a well-researched but poorly written book.

1. The writing style is a bad match for the subject matter. The overly sentimental tone is better suited to cheap human-interest pieces in pandering women’s magazines than a nonfiction title, and I was bewildered by the inclusion of scenes written with such detailed stage direction that the people who enacted them–real people who actually existed–felt like characters in a novel, which is not what I want from my nonfiction reads.

2. There’s no organizing principle. From page to page or even paragraph to paragraph, the narrative might jump wildly around in time and between people, and rarely could I see any reason why that was a logical step to take. Often a new person would be introduced mid-chapter and their story told for anywhere from half a page to several pages before it was explained why they were important to the main “character” of that chapter; not everything has to be a big reveal! Just tell me why this teacher or that supervisor or whatever authority figure is relevant to the story, don’t make that suspenseful! What purpose does it serve to hide that information for so long?

3. When it’s not overly sentimental, it’s incredibly dry. Big chunky paragraphs stuffed with abbreviations that I’m not always sure where previously introduced in full, lots of time spent on describing buildings that I don’t really feel like warranted description, lots of dropping names that never appeared again and whose relevance wasn’t obvious.

4. While I understand that the three women featured by this story are both real people, and different people, their narratives are so similar, and written to be overlapping in the confusing and muddled structure of the book, that it essentially felt like I was reading about one woman three times over, and that sort of meta-repetition is not doing this story any favors.

I don’t want to in any way diminish the importance of the real events, or even how crucial it is that this story gets told; I can applaud the determination of the author to see it done, while also thinking the end product is lackluster and could have been so much better.

#27 – The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 26/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 60, just past 10%. It was a struggle to get that far, as this book dives right into some of King’s stylistic quirks I like the least. In particular, the main character has a sarcastic voice in her head that both won’t shut up in terms of frequency, and also tends to say the same thing over and over again.

Other poor reviews have quoted King on how this was his last/worst book before he sobered up, and yes, I think his altered state of mind probably had a lot to do with the quality, though I have to wonder if he was already too big in 1987 for anyone to bother editing him with the strictness this book might have benefited from.

But about the actual story, at least as far as I got? I’m tired of reading King writing about writer protagonists. I don’t like the way he spoke about Bobbi handling her unexpected/unexplained menstrual issues, I can’t quite put my finger on why but it seemed off to me, and that complaint comes up often enough in 60 pages that it’s an issue. I don’t particularly care if the buried object she found in the forest is a UFO or not–if it is, well, I’m way past my X-Files phase, and if it’s not (which I judge more likely) then I don’t have any idea what it is and I’m already tired of Bobbi believing it’s a UFO.

The whole thing was just so tiresome and repetitive. I have other, hopefully better, King novels still unread on my shelf, so I’m not going to bother any longer with this one.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #7)

#21 – By Your Side, by Kasie West

  • Mount TBR: 20/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: WTF plot twist
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Bland and easily digestible, but lacking substance. I read it in a single morning and the pages flew by, but by the end, I was definitely left wondering where the meat of the story was.

I was sold on the book originally by the premise–romance that starts from being locked in a library over the weekend–but once the lock-in actually happened, I was really left wondering how plausible it was. Public buildings have emergency exits that always open from the inside, yes? Am I just imagining that? Because most of the obstacles Autumn encountered trying to get out are at least somewhat reasonable–the library phones are in locked offices, the computers need an employee log-in to access them and Autumn’s no hacker–but public buildings have emergency exits, otherwise they wouldn’t pass fire safety inspections. So they would have been able to get out. Spending so much time making sure we believed they couldn’t rings hollow and was honestly kind of frustrating when I knew what an omission the book was making in order to let the story function as the author desired.

And that “library” hook doesn’t even pay off in a pandering way, because neither main character is a bookworm and books or book appreciation does not in any way play a part in the story. A copy of Hamlet is a prop for a while, but that’s about it.

Once I accepted that I just had to accept this premise as-is, I was disappointed that no one had much of a personality. Autumn was anxious and that solely defined her character. Dax was the loner she had to bring around. Jeff was the prankster. Autumn’s and Jeff’s friend group was populated by boring, forgettable people, with the exception of Dallin, who I think was supposed to be Jeff’s protective best friend (which would put his actions in a good light) but really just came off like a total jerk and by far the worst person in the entire story. Not everyone is a good person in high school, certainly, but I don’t think a side character should be the best-developed of everyone simply by virtue of constantly acting in the way that would most piss Autumn off. I don’t think this story is meant to have a true villain, but if it can be said there is one, it’s Dallin, and I hate him.

Not even the library itself has any personality, because despite the author’s note at the end saying it was inspired by a real place, I never got much of a sense of what it looked like, because every environment in the book was as painfully generic as the characters. Autumn lives in a house, and goes to a school, and sometimes runs away and hides from her friends in a greenhouse. The library is big and has a bell tower, but that’s all I can tell you about those places, because they have no memorable features and never created an impression on me.

While I give points to the story for Autumn having an incredibly supportive family, especially her mother who encourages her to take time off school for her mental health, I did not jive with the anxiety representation in this at all. Autumn’s panic attacks seem to end almost instantly, no matter how often she said to herself or others that “her brain and her body don’t listen to each other.” She longed to be able to control herself better, but from where I’m standing, she couldn’t prevent her flare-ups but she definitely could send them packing with frankly amazing speed, and the fact that she had them never seemed to alter her behavior in any way. Once it was over, she was fine, there were no lingering effects, which is not my experience at all, and comes off as “I have anxiety and it’s my entire personality but it doesn’t actually disrupt my life very much.” (The exception being “the big one” at the library, but that was in response to a shock, and clearly necessary for the plot to happen correctly. The rest of the time her panic attacks were nearly a non-issue.)

Everyone’s experience with mental health disorders is different in some ways and I’m never going to find a character in a book that perfectly matches mine. I know that. But this representation felt minimizing and shallow.

#22 – The Leopard King, by Ann Aguirre

  • Mount TBR: 21/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Black and white
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I liked some things, but not everything, about the romance plot, and was basically bewildered about everything else.

There’s a great deal of effort here in the world-building to get us to believe there’s a whole series of factions, of types of shifters, of inter-species conflicts. But there’s very little to ground them in reality, to give them a setting that feels approachable and believable. I wanted to know less about the politics and more about the people, because there were minor characters that were pointless to include, except to try to convince me the pride had enough members to truly exist. What was the point of the reclusive artist guy whose existence added nothing to the story? Why did Pru have such a large family if half of them were only names on a page? I’m not sure why I should care about this pride and its war, if the only members who seem to actually exist are the three involved in the romance’s weird love triangle?

Which was the weakest aspect of the romance, because there’s no doubt in my mind that Dom is a better man/lover/mate/husband/whatever than Slay (also, dumb name, btw,) and I was annoyed with Pru for being hung up on him. More compelling is the other shadowy “love” triangle of Pru competing with Dom’s deceased wife for his affection–which is properly angsty and not gross because it’s really only happening in her mind, not his. Dom is never a jerk about it. In fact, I like Dom best out of everything in this book, because I’m a total goner for heroes who are allowed to be in touch with their emotions, who show vulnerability, who admit their mistakes. It shouldn’t be such a low bar to clear in the genre, but Dom hurdles over it with plenty of air space, and compared with the lack of depth to nearly everything else about this story, he’s easily the best character present.

But whatever squishy feelings he and the romance might inspire in me, I developed no investment in this world and don’t really care which side characters get their own books later in the series. I have no intention of reading more.

#23 – Be My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai

  • Mount TBR: 22/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Free space
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

How on earth did so much backstory and character development fit into a 105-page novella? I’ve read several of Rai’s full-length novels and this seems just as strong as any of those (maybe stronger than a few) in that department.

The smut is properly smutty, but the sex scenes pull double duty as chances to peek into the character’s heads and get to know them better (as I firmly believe all romance works should do, because sex without characterization is just wasted page space, from a story perspective.)

Because I’m reading this long after its publication, I didn’t have to wait at the cliffhanger to go on with the story, but if I had been stuck there waiting for the second novella, I would have been making grabby hands for it the second it dropped. Luca is a charmer, and Elizabeth is wonderfully complex, given how little time we have to get to know her.

#24 – Stay My Fantasy, by Alisha Rai

  • Mount TBR: 23/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Good book, bad cover [there is a matching cover to the first novella on my Kindle edition, but Goodreads doesn’t list it, and that’s where I source my cover images for my digital reads; but neither cover is great, honestly.]
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A satisfying payoff to the first novella, though I was surprised how much longer and meatier this one was. If you view the two of them together as a single work, it’s about 300 pages, of which the first hundred is the first novella and the rest the second. So Be My Fantasy was effectively Act I of the story, giving us a good point to stick the “will they or won’t they work out” cliffhanger.

One aspect I think was stronger here was the fact that this is a second-chance romance, which I feel was skated over in the first novella. It’s maybe not as strong a use of the trope as I’ve seen elsewhere–these aren’t childhood or high-school sweethearts reuniting, merely two people who dated briefly (and chastely) as adults trying again under different circumstances. But that’s addressed as a corollary to the conflict of Luca and Elizabeth dating the first time as, essentially, a business merger, and how she is no longer willing to settle for that. Luca’s aim now has to be to convince her he no longer wants that, and I think that’s a powerful and appropriate motivation for his actions.

He continues to be a charmer, and I may have fallen a little in love with him myself. The dinner scene with his parents blindsided me with their charm as well, so I see why it was an effective tactic on Elizabeth.

I think I still prefer Rai’s more recent works, as Girl Gone Viral was one of my best books of 2020, but her back catalog is proving to be worth the time to investigate, and there’s still more I have to get to while I’m waiting for the next Modern Love book.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #6)

#18 – Not His Dragon, by Annie Nicholas

  • Mount TBR: 17/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Dragons or lizards
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

To keep myself from writing a 2,000-word essay about how bad this book is, I’m going to do bullet points instead.

The Good Things:

  • Cute concepts despite their disappointingly unfulfilled potential
  • Whatever other issues I have with the heroine, she is not a pushover to be bullied by the many, many “alphas” in this book

The Bad Things:

  • World-building so thin and scattershot that for a while I assumed I’d mistakenly picked a book in the middle of the series, not the first one, and earlier books would have explained the concepts better
  • A startling lack of realism, not in the world-building (which is obviously fantastical) but in simple, mundane character moments, where no one acts like a real person with even the slightest hint of common sense
  • Rampant examples of poor grammar, typos, and Random Things Being Capitalized Sometimes For No Obvious Reason (eg, “First Aid kit.” Really? Why is that capitalized?)
  • Shallow, underdeveloped characters with explicitly stated motivations (repeatedly, ugh) but no depth
  • Choppy narrative that details some things I didn’t feel were necessary to explain while hopping straight past stuff I might have been interested in. Notably, tell me more about Eoin’s artistic process if his art career is his central personal conflict, rather than hand-waving “he got angry and set a bunch of metal on fire and OOPS now it’s a sculpture.”
  • Insta-love based on mating attraction, which okay, fine, is common to this subgenre and for some readers might even be part of the specific appeal, but I didn’t feel they had any real chemistry, so even this trope fell flat
  • Characters who appear for ten seconds and are never important again (related sub-complaint: why is the only witch in the story named Sabrina? A little on the nose, don’t you think?)
  • Poorly integrated subplots that don’t really further the romance
  • Underwhelming sex scenes

Basically, the only reason I finished it was that it was on the short side for a full novel, and a fast read because the writing style was amateur. Part of me did want to know how the curse was broken, and that took the whole book, so I had to keep going. But I wasn’t all that invested, and about halfway through I did consider dropping it because I was not impressed by anything about it. I still like the idea of it, but it was badly executed.

#19 – In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

  • Mount TBR: 18/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book about bones or has “bones” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My favorite since the first entry in the series, definitely, though it’s hard to decide if I like it better or not; being introduced to this world was such a revelation for me that I don’t know if any later part of the story could truly topple it from its pedestal. If this hasn’t, it certainly came closest.

Several aspects of this work felt improved to me over the middle books, in that we spent far more time with actual dragons than with politics; there was more adventure (or the adventure felt more dramatic and palpable, because objectively I can’t deny #2 and #3 both had plenty of escapades); and happily for me, a certain setup I was quite hopeful about at the end of #3 was paid off beautifully.

It was refreshingly light on Isabella’s internal grumblings and ruminations on social matters–sure, there’s some acknowledgment of the misogyny of her treatment as a scholar, still, but there’s not much else for her to complain about for most of the book, and I found the late-story issues of cultural compatibility more interesting than tiring. I suppose I was more worn out than I realized by the emphasis placed in #3 on how to balance being a mother and a scholar-adventurer, and I was actually pleased by the absence of Jake, who was relegated to a boarding school for most of the narrative and was only present in Akhia when events where in summary at the end. His absence does raise one sort of uncomfortable question, about whether he should have been consulted before a certain (very spoilery) major event late in the book, but that lack does speak to how ancillary being a mother is to Isabella as a character, so I don’t think it’s a flaw in the work, but a result of her own flaws at being what her society expects of a woman.

The whole thing is really just tighter, faster, and more concentrated on what I find most interesting in this series–the characters and the dragons–rather than the politics, which are still present, but mostly in the background. Isabella even comments several times that other people are mostly dealing with the politicians, better capable than her, and I think that’s the best choice all around!

#20 – The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

  • Mount TBR: 19/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This might be the most interesting book that I have no interest in finishing.

I gave up at the end of chapter 2, page 49, barely making my personal cutoff of 10% to count a book as “read.” In those first two chapters, I was treated to a fairly deep character study of a dissolute man suffering a horrible fate, a man who showed no desire to hide the dark aspects of his life and made no apologies for his flaws. I learned more about burns and burn treatment than I knew (assuming it’s accurate, which for the moment, I am) and also, somewhat randomly, about the establishment of a German monastery.

I also endured several pages of that same character envisioning his future suicide in excruciating detail.

Am I supposed to be taking this book seriously? I honestly can’t tell.

While I was reading, I was reminded of a high school friend. He was an interesting mix of dark and cheerful, a sort of proto-goth who was one of the kindest people I ever met. But he also managed to write an essay on a state standardized test that got him referred to the authorities; I never knew what he wrote (if he told anyone, I was not among them) and don’t know the details of who he had to speak to (police, psychologists?) because he, understandably, didn’t want to talk about it. This was the mid-90s, and Columbine hadn’t happened yet, so this was worrying but not the same kind of alarming it would have been ten years later.

That’s what this book reminds me of. A smart, well-educated person with a dark bent who nonetheless doesn’t seem nearly as threatening as they perhaps want to be perceived, so you’re honestly not sure if you should take that threat seriously. (My friend did not go on to commit any crimes that I know of, eventually shedding that teenage affectation of darkness and last I heard, was both gainfully employed and happily married, living what’s generally considered a “normal” life.)

In skimming other middling or poor reviews of this book, I see that I didn’t even reach the parts that others find more objectionable, and many more positive reviews speak of a strong start followed by a gradual weakening. So I’ve read that “strong” start and find myself bewildered–at this point, if you told me this was parody, I would believe you. (I’d also ask, a parody of what, exactly? Gothic fiction? Too early to say.)

I’m stopping now because a) apparently this gets worse, and b) apparently it’s genuine and I should be taking it seriously. But I can’t.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel2, #1

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

It may have started as last year’s NaNo project, but I never finish a full novel draft in that narrow time frame. Now, in early February, it’s finally done.

…with the caveat that I didn’t actually write a proper ending, because my impulse decision to write this novel as my NaNo project left me little time to plan. I talked about that in my post about headlight outlining: a plan-as-you-go method that was working well for me, until suddenly it wasn’t. I stand by the optimism of that post despite my issues finishing this draft; it’s not the method’s fault directly that I managed to bungle the pacing of the three major plot lines so that they didn’t intersect neatly near the end, providing a platform to stand on while I wrapped everything up. My romance is moving too slow, and my overarching plot too fast, so it’s basically done before I can tie up the loose ends of the minor characters’ arcs as well as the romance itself.

I “finished” the draft by writing well over a thousand words’ worth of notes about what I already saw as the major problems to fix and where I stood with the various elements of the story. After over a month of chipping away at this project, trying to complete it, I finally admitted that there is no satisfying single ending to the story as it stands, and writing one for the sake of calling the draft done was simply wasting time.

I am still a staunch proponent of “finish the draft” advice, as it relates to having a million incomplete WIPs versus a handful of complete ones; also, I’ve gone through the trenches of trying to write a book through multiple incomplete drafts, and I don’t think it’s beneficial to scrap a draft and start over every time something goes wrong.

But even with that outlook, there can come a point where attempting to complete a draft is a futile exercise. I’ll write an ending for the new, more tightly revised story I’ll shape from what I’ve got so far. I’ll make sure my plot lines cross where they’re supposed to. I’ll establish the main plot line better, earlier on, so there’s a clearer non-romance goal for the characters to work toward.

But I’ll do it all later, because it’s time for me to take a break. I’ve got a major Real Life event coming up in March, and between now and then, I’m going to get ahead on blog posts, write my book reviews, and beyond that, write for fun and explore some new ideas I have. I did Sunday Romance this past week, though the scene is so rough I posted it to Tumblr but not here on the blog–I think I actually want to edit it a little before I do, or possibly not post it at all, because it’s the basis of a fairly complex fantasy idea I’ve had kicking around for a while now, and I’m considering trying to develop it beyond the loose serial format. (Also, this scene is clearly not the beginning of the story, it’s just where my brain was with the concept. I do write from the middle outwards sometimes!)

Literary Pet Peeves #3: The Constant Fashion Show

Photo by Armen Aydinyan on Unsplash

Let’s get the important caveat out of the way: how much description of clothing (or anything) is present in a story should be a balance between genre expectations, necessity, and authorial preference. How readers respond to what level of description they’re given is also a matter of personal preference. I say this because the first review I got of Fifty-Five Days had good things to say about the story, but dinged me on not describing stuff enough aside from one particular chapter where I was introducing an entirely new setting in detail for story purposes. The reviewer would have preferred more of that throughout the novel, and you know what? Totally fair. I accept that I could have done better on that.

But in recent months, as a reader I’ve been subjected to a few books that I found heavy-handed when it came to including clothing description–I even called one book “a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.”

Knowing what characters are wearing is important, certainly. It says a lot about someone if they show up on a first date wearing a tuxedo versus jeans and a flannel–either could easily be the wrong thing to wear, for different reasons, and that will tell you something about the character. But do I need to know the color, cut, and detailing of every piece of clothing a character is wearing in every scene? Absolutely not.

So how does this happen? I’ve discerned a few possible reasons, based on where I’ve encountered these literary fashion shows.

Teenage characters/YA fiction: I often see an emphasis on clothing in contemporary American high school settings, where the author uses the dress style to establish what kind of character they are in shorthand. Quirky character? Mismatched or atypical clothes. Nerd? Glasses, sweaters, etc. Geek? Superhero t-shirts. Jock? Letter jackets. And to some degree, that’s all fine. But as with anything, it can be overdone; I don’t need to get an update on every outfit a character wear with every scene change, just give me an idea of their style and let my imagination take care of the rest, unless the new outfit is important to the story somehow (like formal wear for a dance, or a costume, or anything else out of the ordinary.) Most recently seen in: Labyrinth Lost.

A focus on clothing for fantasy world-building: Attire is a key aspect of any culture, and going on at length about food and customs and whatever else about a created fantasy culture without ever mentioning their clothing would be odd. But if it’s the most important thing, or even the only thing that’s focused on, then you get the fashion show taking over the story, when it’s more important that I know the villain is now wearing her purple robes instead of her green ones, when I’d rather get more insights into her motivations. Most recently seen in: The Bone Witch. Also I seem to remember this being constant in Sarah J. Maas’ work, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of them.

Clothing as routine mundanity: Yes, I still need to know what characters wear even if it’s not special and they’re living normal, boring lives, but don’t harp on it to make a point about how dreary their existence is, and don’t focus repeatedly on any unusual details to try to make one character stand out. Yes, The Bridges of Madison County, I’m calling you out, you and your freaking suspenders. But other “literary” works I’ve read over the years are just as guilty.

Undoubtedly there are more I haven’t thought of, that may become clear to me in time as I read other books that stop every few pages to tell me all about what a character is wearing. Rant over, for the time being, while I bundle my complaints internally into a lesson on how I do not want to write about clothing.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #5)

#14 – The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 13/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Historical with a twist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A+ to all the banter, but I was mildly disappointed by pretty much everything else, in comparison with the earlier books in the series. The unexpected f/f romantic subplot was nice to see from a representation standpoint, but I never actually clicked with either character involved. The villain of this book was comical and I’m not sure he was supposed to be? And while the plot was definitely “rahhh girl power” with the newspaper and the protests and all, it’s emphasized several times how often Edward saves Free from one disaster or another. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have helped her press not burn down–of course he should–but it felt a little undermining to the tone of the piece that the man had to keep saving the woman.

I get that it’s building up to his big personal sacrifice at the end, but that was also kind of a let down, because it muddles the Happily Ever After. I think it’s interesting in its own right to set up the gaining of rank and privilege as a hurdle to be overcome rather than the goal–Cinderella this certainly isn’t–but everything that came with it, the lies and the timing and the rushed marriage, it all sat wrong with me. I didn’t care for it.

That being said, there’s enough good about this book that I still liked it overall, but when I come back to this series as comfort reading later, I bet I won’t bother with this one over the earlier works. As much as I like Free the indomitable firecracker for women’s rights, the rest of the story around her is not my favorite.

#15 – Talk Sweetly to Me, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 14/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A novella
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Giving Stephen his own novella, the Actual Man himself from The Suffragette Scandal, was a cute idea in theory and lackluster in execution. For one, we spend much more time with Rose–now that I’m thinking back on it, did Stephen actually have POV scenes or was everything from Rose’s perspective? If he did have any, it was only when Rose was present, because I can’t remember a single thing he did otherwise, whereas she had to deal with her pregnant sister and the racist doctor and all that.

I often don’t like novellas as much as novels because they tend to be rushed in pace or lacking character development, but Milan usually bucks that trend for me. I *adored* The Governess Affair, for example. But this did feel rushed, with no real buildup from interest to like to love, with no time to spare between the first kiss and the first orgasm, and definitely with no chance for Stephen to grapple with the racial issues he’d face marrying a black woman in that time period.

It’s just too short to do what it sets out to do. I think I would very much like a full novel that explored this same relationship, but that’s not what we got, and I think the novella size is a poor fit for the story.

#16 – Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova

  • Mount TBR: 15/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book you’re giving a second chance [I read the first 50 pages or so last year and set it aside]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Frustrating and disappointing compared to the hype.

First of all, and I’m much more used to leveling this criticism at indie novels, it was full of typos and grammatical mistakes. Way, way more than I’m used to seeing in a traditionally published work, and frequent enough to annoy me. Given the way publishing works, at this point it’s the editor’s fault much more than the author’s, but presentation matters, and the state of this work makes me feel like it was rushed to print (though I have no idea if that’s true or not.)

However, better presentation would not have saved this lackluster story. This sounded so cool and flopped so hard.

I found so many consistency issues and total WTF moments as the plot progressed that I started a note file to save for this review, but honestly there’s so much, and it’s picking nits when I should be summarizing. Does it matter that I was irritated that Alex was changing into her gym uniform on page 22, but then on her way to gym class on page 24 she meets up with Rishi and is wearing jeans, but then on page 26 when they’re actually in gym class Alex wipes her sweaty palms on her gym shorts, which she was supposed to have been wearing the whole time? (This obviously feeds into what I suggest is poor editing, because somebody should have caught that before it went to print, so that I didn’t catch that as a reader.)

But in summary, there’s a total lack of flow in this story. The action is choppy, hard to visualize, and often introduces elements in the same sentence that Alex vanquishes them. (I didn’t know there were evil bats in one of the final magical fight scenes until she blasts them away with her awesome power. So…was I supposed to be scared of these bats, if I didn’t know about them in the first place, and they were so easily destroyed? Why were they there at all?) Scenes jump willy-nilly between “real” events and stuff that’s only happening in Alex’s head, sometimes with little indication that she’s dreaming/having visions/whatever, which makes the already-choppy scenes even more confusing. I rarely felt like the characters had physical presence in the setting, because I could be told they were standing some distance apart (for example) and then suddenly they’d be pushing at each other with no obvious stage direction to set it up. Too much stage direction is obviously a problem, but too little is also bad!

Part of why this was so disappointing was that I wanted to like this story for its setting/worldbuilding, and I feel nothing else about the book lives up to that potential. The concepts are still interesting to me, but the characters are shallow and difficult to invest in, the “love” triangle is laughable because the choice is between a too-pure-cinnamon-roll girl whose dialogue was often so cheesy I cringed, and a semi-mysterious bad boy who couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted Alex or just wanted to royally piss her off at every opportunity. (The eventual reveal of Nova’s motivations and tragic past explain his dynamic with Alex to some degree, but I didn’t find myself sympathizing with him once I knew.) Yes, having love interests of different genders makes Alex bisexual (I use that term rather than pansexual or any other multi-gender-attraction label because the author has stated it herself outside of the novel.) And I’ll forgive the missing b-word because part of this story is Alex struggling to figure out her own attractions, it’s right there in the text, so fine, she doesn’t identify that way (yet) but she’s committed to exploring what it means. But whether it’s bi or not, as a love triangle it’s even worse that usual for me, because I didn’t even like the obvious “right” choice. Rishi is a paper-thin quirky stock character, only slightly different from every other quirky teenage girl love interest in that she’s not white, and the half of her dialogue that’s not the cheesy cringe is her reminding the reader with a total lack of subtlety that she’s brown, she’s Guyanese, she’s Hindu. I don’t have a problem with any of those things, but I feel like they’re substituting for a personality instead of informing it. What does she like to do for fun? Do I know anything about her aside from that she’s quirky (look at all those weird clothes she wears!) and non-white and unreasonably devoted to Alex for no known reason?

Just give me something more to grab onto. For the characters, for the plot–I haven’t even mentioned how once Alex accepts her magic, she magically conquers every problem in sight with minimal trouble, meaning the fantastical journey has almost no stakes in the moment, only the looming “must save family” goal at the end.

I wanted substance, and all I got was a thin veneer of a story laid over the promise of a really cool concept that never quite materialized.

#17 – You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson

  • Mount TBR: 16/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A purple cover
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In many ways, this is exactly the cute, fluffy, nerdy-girl prom-makeover story I expected it to be, except that it’s not old and tired like that trope is, because this time it’s not happening to some mousy straight white girl, it’s happening to a queer black girl.

Representation matters, and LGBT+ youth, especially those of color, need these happy stories and have every right to get them. I love this book for that.

What keeps this from being outstanding for me as a reader is basically that I’m too old. I graduated from high school more than twenty years ago, before social media was a thing. I got my first email address (Hotmail! Remember Hotmail?) when I was a senior. The Internet was only just becoming a thing that touched my life.

I literally cannot imagine a high school having their own social media platform. It boggles me. I know firsthand how obsessive a high school can be, collectively, about their “thing”–at my high school it was girls’ volleyball, we were state champions forever and the players dominated social standing in the way most media depicts the cheerleaders and/or football team usually doing. But an expensive scholarship for prom? A highly involved, rigorous, time-consuming point-based system to run for court? My prom didn’t even have kings and queens, let alone a court. It was just a big party. (Heck, we didn’t even have Homecoming royalty, because we didn’t have a formal Homecoming dance, which I know is weird because every other school in the area did. I went one year in jeans and flannel, because the dance started immediately after the game, and it was unseasonably cold that year, and I didn’t want to go home to change. Very unglamorous.) So even though I understand this is “realistic” in the sense that nothing that happens in it is physically impossible, it’s so far removed from my experience, even for fiction, that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief, and prom is the entire premise and major conflict.

I fully recognize that’s a “me” problem. Other people, especially those in high school now or more recently attended, probably won’t have that disbelief gap. And I like the rest of the elements of the story fine–Liz is cute, Amanda is pretty funny, the music aspect of the book kind of didn’t go anywhere for a while but it made for a great promposal near the end–but I was fighting my own brain the whole time trying to reconcile this high school with anything familiar to me, and only making it about halfway.

Down the TBR Hole #39

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

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

My owned-and-unread book total is down to exactly 150, which means I can possibly (but not definitely) clear it this year, and definitely in 2022. But my overall TBR is 464 books (down only slightly from last month, because I added a handful.) Let’s see if I can prune that some today.

#1 – 3: A bunch of Stephen King novels

My literary relationship with Stephen King is that he is one of my favorite authors because he has produced some of my favorite books, but he has also written absolute stinkers that I hated, and a few I couldn’t even finish. Here’s the thing: there’s basically no way to know ahead of time which it’s going to be for any given book, which makes me hesitant to cut any King novel from the TBR once I was interested enough to put it on there in the first place.

I got these three specifically from a rec list made by a more devoted King fan than I am. These were three of her favorites, and notable in that I hadn’t already read them, or even found secondhand copies that are still waiting on my shelf for me to get to them. (Currently, that honor goes to The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, Cell, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes.)

While it’s possible that eventually I will catch up with King’s backlog, it’s not a high priority, and I should consider the possibility that I don’t need to read everything he’s ever written just in case one of them becomes a favorite.

That being said, rereading the blurbs for these three specifically? Bag of Bones has the red flag of the protagonist being a novelist, again. I am kind of tired of how King writes about writers constantly. That one can go. If it happens that I stumble across a copy at the library book sale, once I’m allowed to go in the building again, then I’ll reevaluate.

Duma Key and Revival both get to stay. One has mad-painter vibes, and I often like the way King writes about creativity when it’s not attached to yet another writer protagonist. The other looks like it tackles big-tent religion in a cool and creepy way, and that could be fun, interesting, terrifying, or hopefully all three.

#4 – Vox, by Christina Dalcher

I’m pretty sure I’ve entered at least four or five giveaways for this book on Goodreads, and failed to win any of them, of course. I know that’s how I found out about this title, and it seemed interesting enough at the time to justify adding it to my TBR in exchange for a chance to win a free book with an intriguing premise.

In the time since I have failed to win this book four or five times, I’ve lost a significant amount of interest in dystopian fiction for its own sake, and the reviews for this are polarized from best-book-ever hype to “this is just The Handmaid’s Tale but worse, don’t waste your time.”

I’m just not into you anymore, Vox. You can go.

#5 + 6: Two more entries in the Camp Firefly Falls series

This huge multi-author series tempted me with a few free or on-sale books back in 2018 when it was released, and several of them were by authors I already knew and trusted. Tamsen Parker was one of them, and I did read In Her Court, the book just ahead of these two (#18, these are #19 + 20.)

I scanned the rest of the offerings to see what else looked like it had potential, and apparently it was just these. So how do I feel now?

Love, All is a full-length novel by one of my favorite romance authors, but I’m not heavily invested in the setting, and the blurb isn’t grabbing me, and the reviews are fairly lackluster. There are other Parker novels I’d rather read, so this can go.

Must Have Been Love has a slightly more complicated story. It’s a novella, which I often but not always find unsatisfying. The premise still sounded good, though, so I clicked through the Goodreads page to see how much it cost, because I could through 99 cents at a 45-page novella, no problem, if it sounded good. But it doesn’t appear to be available any longer, anywhere, from what I can tell. And it’s not just this one–only one title by this author is available on Amazon, compared to the six titles that Goodreads lists. So this also goes, not because I wouldn’t read it, but because I’m not holding out hope that it’s ever going to be available again.

#7 – The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne

I see this on the same rec lists where I see romances I’ve loved like The Kiss Quotient and Get a Life, Chloe Brown and even, sometimes, Red, White, & Royal Blue. So obviously if people think this is similar, that’s a strong point in its favor, as is the fact that nearly all of my Goodreads friends who’ve read it, adore it. Lots and lots of five-star ratings.

I suppose the only reason I’m hesitant is that I’m often leery of enemies-to-lovers arcs and workplace romances, and this is both. When these tropes go wrong, they can be disastrously bad, so I was never going to jump on this with both feet. I was, and am, cautiously interested.

Of course, I see that my library has it available as both an ebook and audiobook, so the only cost I would pay if I don’t like it is my time (and possibly one of my Hoopla borrows, which I never use all of anyway.)

This can stay, and I’ll even put it on my “audiobooks to listen to while crafting” list that I’m compiling, so that when I need to give looking-at-words reading a break, I can switch things up.

#8 – Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant

Oh, I have complicated feelings about this.

On the one hand, I still feel slightly betrayed by Grant for the disappointment that was Blackout after how much I loved Feed and how invested I was in it. But this is a different property, and it’s just a first book, and I can get it from the library.

On the other hand, this was hyped to me because “murder mermaids” and “weird science.” My problems with the declining of the Feed trilogy were not science-based, I liked the science there. So I probably shouldn’t hold the problems it did have against this book.

On a third hypothetical hand, I was severely disappointed by the last hyped mermaid book I read, and I have to accept that book-based social media might be so hard up for mermaid representation that this maybe isn’t as good as they say it is.

And finally on a fourth extraneous hand, I already have an entire series of this author’s work I own and have yet to read, the Wayward Children series, because Mira Grant is also Seanan McGuire. So maybe I should get to those first and then decide? This can stay, for now, but I’ll have no problem purging it later if further reading disappoints me again.

#9 – My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel, by Kitty Curran & Larissa Zageris

I’m definitely still intrigued by the concept, because I think at least half of the books I read in second and third grade were the Choose Your Own Adventure novels so popular in the ’80s. Once, in high school when I felt nostalgic for them, I even designed a game around the concept with hand drawn maps and a whole series of traps and challenges and the like. (Now that I’m older and know far more about tabletop gaming, I was actually synthesizing CYOA books with the experience of dungeon-mastering a tabletop RPG, I just didn’t know it at the time.)

So I want to like this book based on my love of both genres that it’s synthesizing.

However, based on the reviews, it doesn’t seem like people can agree on whether or not this is a parody, and whichever side of the argument an individual reviewer comes down on, they still might love it or hate it. How can I assess the consensus when some people think it’s a real romance and adore it, while other people think it’s a parody and enjoy it, and still others think it’s terrible whether it’s playing the romance genre straight or not?

That spread of opinions alarms me. This is getting the axe.

#10 – Acting on Impulse, by Mia Sosa

When I saw this on the list, I said to myself, “well, this probably came from a rec list, but have I read this author before?” The name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it until I looked up her other works to check, and she has a much more recent and popular work out, The Worst Best Man, which I’ve seen floating around everyone in the romance booksphere.

But no, I haven’t read her work yet, and there must have been a reason this made it onto my TBR, right?

Rereading the blurb, it still sounds good, a mix of vacation romance, a celebrity who doesn’t get recognized, and a working relationship that becomes a romantic one. I’m still on board with that.

Throw in the fact that I get to try a new-to-me author of color, and the book’s available on Hoopla? No risk. This definitely can stay.

Okay, this month I cut 5 and kept 5. That’s fine with me. As always, if you’ve read any of these books and have an opinion, I’d like to hear it in the comments. You can agree with my assessment or make a case to keep a book I’ve cut, whatever you like. Until next month, keep reading, and keep decluttering your TBRs!

End of the Month Wrap-Up: January 2021!

Reading: Sixteen books this month, including the six from my TBR. Only one DNF. While I stopped including dates read as part of my reviews, in order to free myself up to mood-read or read multiple books at once, I have started tracking pages read; January’s total is 4,724. Which feels like a lot, but since I’ve never tracked pages before, and since my Goodreads page yearly page count is inaccurate because I mark DNFs as “read,” I have no real idea how many pages I read in an average month. This is roughly 150/day, which feels right, at least.

Crafting: Above is my current embroidery project, which I began on December 28th last year. (I made sure to write it down in my journal because I have a terrible history of not recording project start dates.) So this represents just over a month of daily work. Some days I did as little as one length of the kit’s precut floss; some days I worked on it for hours. Because I don’t have a grid marked on this like I do the big neglected bird cross-stitch (and because I’m not working according to that grid) it’s difficult to accurately say how much I have done, but if I imagine this as divided into a 3×3 plot of squares, I have 2 of those 9 squares mostly done. Which means I have another 3.5 months to go at this pace.

In addition I also sewed a few things while I was doing the January Cure over at Apartment Therapy: a patchwork bath mat and a hanging plastic bag dispenser. I also worked more on Project Pajamas 2021, in which I mend or alter existing pajamas and also sew myself new ones out of various sheets, blankets, and random fabric I have lying around.

Writing: I have written something every day, and most days that was even a few hundred words on the current novel WIP. I missed a few blog posts, which I’m not thrilled about, but on the grand scale of things it’s not a big deal. And once I do get to the end of this draft, I have a rough idea of what project to tackle while I let that one sit in its metaphorical box and stew for a while.

As for my journals, I didn’t write as consistently as I was hoping, but I’ve gotten back into it. I’m having fun with my art as well, though I’m not stressing myself out by trying to do it every day, if I don’t have time.

Health: I used to make exercise goals, and then I consistently failed at them, so I stopped talking about it because I was tired of making a fool of myself in public. However, I did join a 50K challenge for January that included walking or running, so I walked 50K this month! That’s a little more than a mile a day, though I didn’t actually manage to walk daily; I fell slightly behind, did longer walks, caught up, then fell slightly behind again, in a wobbly curve that hovered near the goal pace all month. But I did it! (Still not going to talk about my goals for February, I’ll keep those to myself and you’ll hear about them if it goes well.)

I haven’t sat down yet to make a goal list for next month, so here goes:

  1. Read my planned TBR, and at least four more books; ideally some of those will continue or finish ongoing series.
  2. Not miss any blog posts. (Sunday Romance doesn’t count; I don’t participate every week if the prompt doesn’t inspire me, or I have too much else to do that day.)
  3. Keep working on the needlepoint every day.
  4. Sew at least two more sets of pajamas. I’m a writes-in-pajamas kind of person; I should have nice ones.
  5. [secret health goals]
  6. The big one: finish the damn novel draft. I’m tired of it. It’s tiring. I would like to get it done and move on for a while.

I hope everyone’s new year is going at least a little better than last year. So far, mine is. I’m doing whatever I can think of to make sure it stays that way.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #4)

#12 – Babylon’s Ashes, by James S.A. Corey

  • Mount TBR: 11/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Multiple points of view
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I think it’s a brave, interesting, and ultimately wise choice for this series to take an entire book to step back, broaden the scope of the narrative, and say, “This is where we are. This is how bad things have gotten. And this is how we got that way.” After several years, several seasons of slightly different story in the television adaptation, and five big chunky books, I was grateful for the returning characters and their contextually important reminders of what went before. I never felt like the story was deliberately summarizing past events to fill word count; there was always a reason, always a goal. But sweet baby Jesus, how long has it been since Anderson Dawes was important to the story? Thank you, authors, for gently reminding me how what he had done before still matters, and for doing the same with other characters we haven’t seen in some time.

After the literal explosion of Nemesis Games, this much more contemplative tone has obviously rubbed some people the wrong way, given what I’m seeing in other reviews. And this definitely did take me longer to read than previous installments in the series, the pacing was a bit plodding. But it takes a lot of ground–or space, if you’d rather–to cover the demise of one societal system to make way for something almost entirely new. To wrap up a war that I actually thought was going to consume the rest of the series (I haven’t read the teaser for the next book and probably won’t, as I don’t own a copy yet and don’t want to hype myself up too soon.)

But a fast-paced action-fest couldn’t spread itself over the 19 different POV characters (across 50 chapters, the prologue, and the epilogue) to give as grand a picture of every moving piece of the puzzle. That is by far the most of any book I’ve ever read, and conventional writing wisdom says it’s a huge no-no, yet here I love it, and it’s not actually as complex as it seems. Three “main” characters still carry most of the story (Holden, Michio Pa, and Filip, basically representing the three important ships or sets of ships.) The rest of the Roci’s crew gets a chapter or two where it will do the story the most good, otherwise they simply do their thing in Holden’s chapters. A few key figures from the past appear to give the perspectives of those outside the Roci–Namono/Anna for the consequences for Earth, Avasarala/Dawes/Fred for political maneuvering, the four entirely new characters who each get exactly one chapter but cover the goings-on on Medina station for us. Prax turns up a little bit to do his science, and that was nice to see, I quite liked him back in the day. Even Marco has his say, which I wasn’t expecting but am definitely glad was included.

While the umbrella of hard sci-fi still encompasses this entire series, it’s interesting to look at how each individual book tackles a different flavor of secondary genre, and in this case, it strikes me as going for the truly epic: this was trying, and quite nearly succeeding, at being as broad and far-reaching and complex as your Victor Hugo or your Tolstoy. Concerned with the big picture, always, but also always digging into the small things, the hearts and minds that make these decisions and mistakes that drive history.

#13 – The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan

  • Mount TBR: 12/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Brings out the geek in you (yay botany! yay science!)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is a case of “I see some flaws in this book but I love it to pieces anyway.”

I usually don’t like miscommunication as a plot point, but here, it’s executed at such a high level, baked into both the characters and the premise, so I can’t begrudge it. Violet and Sebastien have based a scientific career on a simple lie that grows progressively less simple as time goes on. Violet and her sister have a near-and-dear type of relationship that is entirely based upon lies. And Violet’s relationship with her mother as an adult is founded on a misunderstanding so vast it fundamentally alters them both when they realize they’ve been talking past each other all that time.

This isn’t your garden variety “I overheard my boyfriend say something mean and now our relationship is over because I won’t confront him about how what I heard was obviously actually about something else or missing crucial context.” Which I’ve seen so often in romances that I’ve gotten to the point where I usually DNF books if they pull that nonsense.

This is something much grander, much more complex, and much more dire.

The flaws? All that lying, all that miscommunication, does mean the actual characters are a bit hard to get to know in the beginning, coupled with the feeling I always had that I was missing something. I was–I was supposed to be–but I’ve never liked that feeling much, because I hate people/books that deliberately want to make me feel dumb. (That’s usually the province of “I’m smarter than you and I’ll prove it” Old White Man Literature, and not something I believe Milan was actively trying to evoke, based on the numerous other works of hers I’ve read. Assuming authorial intent is a tricky beast on a slippery slope, but I feel safe in believing she wasn’t setting out to put her own readers down.)

I also found Violet inconsistent as a character in ways that her character premise didn’t cover. Did I expect her to be one person went out in polite society and another while she was at work as a scientist, doing what she loved? Absolutely, and she is. But she waffles even beyond that, in her hot-and-cold dynamic with Sebastien as friends-colleagues-maybe-someday-lovers.

Also parallel plot threads where both of them sort of inherit a child from elsewhere in their families doesn’t really feel like it was paid off in the ending. I see why it was there, I see how it was supposed to work, but it didn’t come to anything substantial or satisfying.

But I do like how well-established their years-long friendship is through small details, through anecdotes the characters share with others. And I love Sebastien himself, as a nuanced take on the rake with a heart of gold. When he has the conversation with Violet about how he’s been showing his love for her this whole time… *chef’s kiss.*

This series, man. I’ve cried more than I expected to!

Next Month’s TBR: February 2021

The simple goal structure I set for myself last month worked well enough that I don’t feel the need to make any changes yet. This month’s list:

  1. Something from my 2018 backlog: Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood
  2. Continues an ongoing series: In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan
  3. By a new-to-me author: The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson
  4. Nonfiction: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
  5. A book I’m excited about: You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson
  6. A physical book from my backlog I suspect I won’t want to keep: The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King

Book #6 from January ended up being a keeper–Dolores Claiborne–so I’m attempting to knock another King novel off my TBR and out of my collection. I didn’t keep any of the other five, which all turned out to be lackluster in some way that doesn’t invite rereading.

Now I just need to finish another book or two between now and the start of the month!