This Week, I Read… (2020 #42)

#155 – Sell Out, by Tammy L. Gray

  • Read: 10/29/20 – 10/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 133/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 44%. Partly because I didn’t realize this was a Christian romance when I purchased it many moons ago, and when it started getting preachy, I felt relieved to have a solid reason to set it aside when I wasn’t enjoying it.

Writing style gripes: Overuse of similes made all the characters sound dramatic, which is not something this narrative needed–it’s already melodramatic enough because of its subject matter. The “chapters”–if you can even call them that–were short and choppy, switching between POVs sometimes as quickly as every two pages, to the point some “chapters” didn’t even feel like a complete scene.

Character gripes: I never got invested because these are all flat people with little personality. And in Cody and Skylar’s case, specifically, what little personality they were given was “pretentious jerk about music.” How dare somebody like anything that’s ever been played on the radio? My name is Cody and I can only listen to music I feel is properly “obscure” and underappreciated because I value obscurity for its own sake and think that makes me cool. Sure, people like that exist in real life, and in real life, I don’t like them either because they judge me for having a Savage Garden phase or listening to the Foo Fighters. I love music. I adore music. And this book was projecting judgment of me for loving music in the “wrong” way, every time one of the characters talked about it.

Plot gripes: ….what plot? Whatever narrative through-line there was supposed to be was not particularly obvious to me when I gave up just short of halfway through. Since I found this marketed as a romance, I assume Cody and Skylar eventually triumph over Evil High School Drama and get together, but at 44% their “romance” is barely started, and most of the events that have happened are typical Evil High School Drama, making sure we know precisely how Evil everyone is, and how awful bullying is (but also making sure to point out that adults are useless and won’t help you so I guess you better handle all your life issues on your own, and/or pray about it, because teachers? the principal? no help there.) But it all felt mostly formless, directionless.

I didn’t find anything to like about this book.

#156 – Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 10/30/20 – 11/2/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by the same author who wrote one of your best reads in 2019 or 2018
  • Mount TBR: 134/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I had no idea the stakes would be raised so high in this installment of the series. I got to the midpoint climax and was so shocked, so anxious, that I had to set the book down before I gave myself a panic attack. I washed a sinkful of dishes and played around with my art journal for a while to calm down.

I know I gave the first three books five stars, but this is a bonkers six-star book. I honestly thought, when the early chapters were splitting up the crew on seemingly unimportant personal errands, that this was going to be a disappointing story, and I could not have been more wrong. Everything quickly goes tense, then it gets worse, then we have four different stories of survival against insane odds while trying to reunite our scattered crew.

And all the while, the mystery of what the protomolecule is quietly doing offscreen ticks along in the background as more human-focused events take their toll on the solar system. The epilogue only ratchets up that mystery.

I usually don’t care about spoilers in my reviews, but with the TV adaptation of this chunk of the story dropping in just over a month, I don’t want to reveal anything more than the vague upheaval I’ve already mentioned, so instead I want to talk about Amos. In previous reviews I’ve said Avasarala is my favorite character, and for large values of “favorite” that’s still true. (And she’s only got a minor role here but is still in top form.) But I’ve always loved Amos, first because he gets all the best one-liners, and as a show-watcher first, I was impressed with the actor’s performance. But this chunk of the series manages to reveal some, but not all, of his backstory on Earth while also pitting him against unlikely odds mostly on his own–he doesn’t have Naomi or Holden there to be his moral compass. Because we’ve known that all along, that Amos is staunchly amoral and deliberately chooses someone to serve as his external conscience. But here we really explore that, and his (relative) solitude creates a different version of himself, one that we’ve only seen glimpses of, a version that I found both incredibly compelling and downright fascinating.

So now Amos is my “favorite” character, as much as I can say I only have one. I was also glad/surprised to see some familiar faces reappearing, as well as finally meeting Drummer in the books, where she’s been in the show much longer. Her role here was so minor I’m wondering why it was expanded to the point where she replaced Havelock; maybe book six will tell me more about her, because I do like her in the show just fine.

I’m excited enough to want to soldier right on, but a) I think watching the upcoming season of the show will help me better understand the gravity of everything that’s just changed (even with any changes/omissions the show makes) and b) I’ve got a reading list to finish by the end of the year, and more Expanse sadly isn’t on it. Maybe if I finish early. Maybe as a Christmas present to myself. We’ll see.

#157 – Forever Buckhorn, by Lori Foster

  • Read: 11/2/20 – 11/3/20
  • Mount TBR: 135/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

So here’s the deal. I picked this (and like, four or five other Lori Foster paperbacks) up at a used book sale. I saw the author name, I’d heard her recommended, I said “sure why not these are like ten cents each because it’s a bag sale.”

Which means I did not realize several of them, including this one, were reprints and doublings-up of shorter, older novels. Gabe and Jordan were both originally published in 2000.

And boy, does it show. I would argue that the noun “female” was never a good way to refer to an adult woman, but this was before the incels (and others) had truly corrupted it, so I was basically cringing at the heroes (Gabe more than Jordan) constantly referring to this “female” and that “female.” Not the author’s fault (not mostly, anyway) but it made this more unpleasant than it perhaps needed to be.

My criticisms of both novels are basically the same. Too short to be well-developed in either plot or character, and to provide a believable build up from meeting to happily ever after. Too focused on making sure we know the heroine is “barely pretty” until the hero realizes “wait actually I love her so she’s beautiful.” Too weird a mashup of wholesome small-town/brother/family romance tropes, right alongside both men instantly becoming raging horndogs the second they see womanly flesh on display. They both read as half-crazed and get physical with their love interests way earlier in the plot than I was comfortable with (especially Jordan, who kisses Georgia in the back of a sherriff’s cruiser the night they met when she clearly doesn’t like or trust him yet, and also one or both of them might or might not be about to get arrested. Nothing says romance like criminal charges!)

In the end, I’d give Gabe two stars and Jordan only one, because I did. not. like. the way Georgia’s sex work was handled both as a plot point and in Jordan’s reaction to it early on. He was a sleazeball who had no problem condescending to her about her dancing ten minutes after he’d spent an entire song drooling over her, so I was definitely not into his towering hypocrisy and did not believe they could ever be a believable couple. Eventually they were a couple at least, but I don’t think it was that believable…

Also, based on how bad these are, I’m purging the rest of this author’s work from my TBR. Maybe her style has improved or changed with the times and her stuff is better now, but everything I bought is older and likely to be more of the same thing I got here.

#158 – Dreams of a Dark Warrior, by Kresley Cole

  • Read: 11/3/20 – 11/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 136/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Considering I haven’t read the first nine books in the series, this was surprisingly readable. There was a brief explanation of the major types of immortals at the beginning, so that I could get my bearings, though obviously I would have understood more and been more invested if I hadn’t randomly jumped into an established universe so late.

That’s what happens when you spot a book by an author you’ve heard about at a book sale, and it just happens to be #10 instead of #1.

Setting aside the stuff I didn’t know but was clearly my fault for not knowing, I followed this pretty well. I do question why this plot needed to be just over five hundred pages, because a lot of the action seemed to take up too much space, but then so did the constant angst involved in the romance.

Declan is too angsty for my personal taste, but his history more than justifies his personality, and I guess we needed five hundred pages to spread out his arc from “insane hatred of immortals” to “some types of them aren’t entirely evil and I LOVE THIS PARTICULAR ONE.” The hurt/comfort dynamic layered on top of immortal/reincarnated mortal lovers was *chef’s kiss* to me, even if I didn’t fully get everything surrounding it. Which made up a great deal for me not always liking Declan, and not always liking Regin either–sometimes her crude sass was hilarious, and sometimes it fell entirely flat for me, with no real way to predict which jokes would land and which wouldn’t.

So, for a random book by an author I hadn’t tried yet, this was a reasonable success. I’m not sure whether that means I’ll go back to the beginning of this series and find out what’s going on, or if I’ll simply try another series altogether, but I would read more either way.

Down the TBR Hole #36

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 didn’t make as much progress whittling down my list since I posted last month, but I did unhaul a handful of books from my physical collection based on not enjoying another book by that author, plus of course, I read. The master TBR is down from 529 last month to 512 as I write this.

Let’s get started, shall we?

#1 – Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

This book was everywhere for a while, and I want to read more by indigenous authors from around the world. (Slowly, I am making progress on that goal.) So this would probably stay regardless, but I’m optimistic about this title in particular because my friends’ reviews are generally good, and one of the top reviews overall specifically calls this out as perfect for fans of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, which I adore. This stays, and I should make it a priority early next year when I have more reading freedom–the rest of this year is solidly booked.

#2 – Seared, by Suleikha Snyder

This went on the list before I had read Tikka Chance on Me, which I believe I got as a freebie in a bundle afterward and then read for a challenge task. I liked it a fair bit and would definitely read more by this author. But is this my best choice in her catalog?

BDSM, check. Forbidden step-sibling romance? Not usually my thing, but it’s not a deal breaker. Chefs? Absolutely into that. So this can stay.

#3 – Some Sort of Crazy, by Melanie Harlow

I’m struggling to remember how this made it on to my list. It’s the second book in a series, but I haven’t read the first. I have read one of Harlow’s other works in a different series, and when I checked the review, I gave it three stars but said, “…Overall, I was entertained, but I’m not itching to read it again or particularly inclined to check out the author’s other work.”

And upon reading the blurb to remind myself what it was about, it doesn’t sound as appealing now as it apparently must have when I added it. This can safely get the axe.

#4 – Leah on the Offbeat, by Becky Albertalli

I loved, loved, loved, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. So obviously when I discovered there was a sequel I put it on the list.

But then I heard some squicky things about it re: bi rep and racism, though I still saw plenty of hype and good reviews. I never absorbed enough condemnation to make me scrub it from the list outright, but it was enough to diminish my excitement.

Now the moment of truth has come: which way am I leaning now? Well, due to the issues surrounding the author’s semi-forced coming out as bi, I’m inclined to support her, by at least checking this out from the library and forming my own opinion, rather than dismissing the work due on hearsay. This stays.

#5 – How to Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway

Japanese-American author, Japanese-American historical fiction, female-written, female-character-centered. I eat this up. I consistently enjoy (if not love) East Asian inspired/authored/influenced historical fiction, even when other parts of the world sometimes fail me. (I’m not having good luck with Mexico in that regard, I’m sure I just haven’t found the right subset of authors.) And this is available as an audiobook through Hoopla, so there’s no risk keeping it on my list.

#6 – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

Though it looks like I didn’t add this to the TBR until a year after I read Rebecca, I’m sure that’s the reason why I did it. Rebecca was such a lovely and surprising read, of course I would want to try more by that author, even if it’s less well-known or less highly regarded.

The reviews are mixed in terms of whether or not it’s better than its more famous counterpart, but even if it’s just good by comparison, I think it’s likely I’d still enjoy it. This one can stay.

#7 – The Secret History of Us, by Jessi Kirby

Whoooo boy. I honestly do not know how this made it on to my list when the blurb is throwing up so many red flags with story elements I don’t enjoy. YA contemporary romance, sure, I read that, but amnesia with an implied love triangle? That’s not a train I get on board voluntarily.

I’m legitimately mystified by my past self wanting to read this book. I guess I must have seen it recommended somewhere and not dug into it before I added it, because I feel no qualms about cutting this.

#8 – His Sapphire, by Maggie Chase

I didn’t remember this until I did a little digging and stumbled across the phrase “BDSM historical western,” which instantly reminded me why it got added, because that’s just Not A Thing I’d seen before. But as often happens with impulse adds, I managed to snag a late book in the series, so I investigated the first, His Topaz, instead. Pros: it’s free, either for purchase or through Hoopla. Cons: it’s a novella, which I tend to dislike for lack of character development time, it’s only got a few reviews and half of them are quite poor. I’m not so lacking for romances to read already that I want to bother with so-so novellas. This can go.

#9 – Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business, by Josh Noel

Okay, this would look interesting even if me, my husband, and a good chunk of my extended family weren’t craft beer nerds. We are, in a big way. So a recent-history look at the growth and direction of the craft beer industry? I’m sold. Especially because I can get it from the library!

My interest in this particular subject more than outweighs my slowly diminishing interest in reading nonfiction in general. This stays. I may even have to make it a point to read more nonfiction again next year.

#10 – Guarding His Body, by A.C. Arthur

Reasonably sure this came from a “read more black romance authors” list, and rereading the blurb, I can see why this book sounded interesting. Bodyguard romances are a subgenre I generally enjoy, and this one flips the usual dynamic by making the guard the woman, rather than the man. So I’m on board with that. It’s generally well-reviewed, and while I’m not as much of a fan of romantic suspense as I used to be, that’s sort of an unavoidable partner to the story having a bodyguard in it–doesn’t there need to be some danger? So this can stay, I’ll give it a try.

Wow, I did not cut much this month (3/10) but sometimes, that’s going to happen. I always have to balance my desire for literary housecleaning with the knowledge that I could be passing up on a book I’d love, and decide accordingly. As always, if you’ve read any of these and have an opinion to offer, let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

End of the Month Wrap-Up: October 2020!

Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Like last month, let’s take a look at the concrete goals I set myself and see how I did:

  1. Complete the text-to-speech listening edit of Fifty-Five Days. Done. I procrastinated for a fair bit of the month, concentrating on other things, but for the final week, I crunched the numbers, figured out how much I had to do every day, then did it.
  2. Read my posted monthly TBR, plus more books-in-series and 2017 backlog books. I barely finished my official TBR and only just started any reading beyond it, but I did sort out my plan for the rest of the year.
  3. DRAW EVERYDAY FOR REAL AND ALSO START WORK ON THE 55D COVER ART. I did my Planttober nearly every day, and caught up on the prompts I did miss after the fact. As for the cover work, I already explained in my #rockstarnovel check-in, that I was premature about being able to do that at this point in the process; my mistake.
  4. Journal every day. DONE!
  5. Be the person who gets up in the morning and goes for a run. I sort of did managed this, though I’m having difficultly actually running with the colder morning temperatures and the lingering breathing issues I’m having post-Covid. I am, however, the person who gets up in the morning and goes for a hike–the local nature trails have been seeing a lot of me lately.
  6. Keep being a diligent blogger who gets posts up on time. Done. And I’ve got my schedule plotted for next month, to help me stay on top of things during NaNo.

I’m putting a lot on my plate in November with NaNo, while also finishing up work on Fifty-Five Days, so my goals for this month should reflect that. What’s my plan?

  1. Exercise consistently. The current plan, based on what I’ve been doing the last two weeks, is strength training twice a week and walking three or four times a week, with one or two rest days.
  2. NaNoWriMo standard goal, no frills: 50K in 30 days.
  3. Journal every day. This has really been helping my mental health and isn’t a big time commitment.
  4. Read roughly half of my posted rest-of-the-year TBR. Ideally I’d like to finish Around the Year early–once I broke off following the weekly schedule there wasn’t a good reason to take it up again–and then work through whatever else I can get to.
  5. Formatting and cover design (if possible) for Fifty-Five Days. I’ll be working hard on the days I have off the day job to do NaNo and this too, but I think I’m capable of it, especially since I plan to…
  6. Draw/art journal when I want to, not every day, and don’t go back to the Drawabox lessons yet. Trying to keep up with this daily on top of everything else would be too much, so I’m going to set it aside for now.
  7. Get all my blog posts up on time, still, and continue to write them early whenever possible.

I still have off days. I still have days where I don’t feel “productive” and all I want to do is play video games or read or nap. And that’s okay. But over the last few months I really do feel like I’m getting my shit back together, and I have confidence I can keep that going through November.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Rose-Colored Glasses”

Photo by Ifrah Akhter on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: contemporary American
  • Length: 1,315
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: nothing jumps out to me in this one
  • Explicit?: No, but it’s definitely about to be in the next installment

Andy sat on Rita’s couch, admiring her apartment as she moved around the kitchen making their hot chocolate. She had a sense of style that was deeply feminine, but done in rich, dark tones instead of the bubblegum pink or neon colors he always associated with young girls. Her walls were draped with soft velvet hangings in shades of burgundy and purple, the couch he sat on was a squishy brown leather monstrosity big enough to make a comfortable bed even for someone of his formidable size, and the lampshades looked antique even if they were likely reproductions of something from a burlesque madam’s inner sanctum.

And this wasn’t even her bedroom. This was a public part of her private space.

She’d said this wasn’t a play to get him into bed, but surrounded by this kind of sensuous decor, he found himself vaguely excited again, eager to touch her.

The kettle whistled in the kitchen, and Andy smiled, because of course Rita used a real stove-top kettle instead of an electric one, something sleeker and more modern. If he went over there to inspect it, it would probably be some lovely old thrift store find with an intricate pattern enameled on it, because clearly Rita didn’t keep anything around that wasn’t gorgeous in addition to being useful.

The thought gave him an unexpected boost of confidence, because if she collected beautiful things and wanted her living space to be lovely, then she must really find him attractive. His personal style didn’t match hers in the slightest–he was a tee-shirt and jeans guy, though he’d been dressing up for their dates in button-down shirts, but his winter coat was about as plain and utilitarian as they came, a sturdy brown canvas Carhartt that would last him from two years ago when he bought it well into old age.

He liked her style, though, soft and luxurious and richly colored. He also liked the sight of her walking out with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in each hand, the hem of her dress swishing around her legs in their dark tights. She handed him one of the mugs and sat toward the end of the couch, a few feet away. He thought at first that it was her keeping her promises about not seducing him, until she reached beyond the arm of the couch and produced a thick fleece blanket from a basket on the floor. It was a deep blue with a snowflake pattern on it in white and lighter shades of blue. She turned and swung her legs up over his lap, then draped the blanket over them both. Whatever his expression betrayed at that, she only smiled. “Borrowing some of your body heat isn’t against the rules, is it?”

“No,” he said softly before taking a sip of his hot chocolate. Something about it tasted good, but unusual. “What’s in this?”

She laughed. “I’m not drugging you!”

“No, I meant–it tastes different than I remember. I don’t think I’ve had it in years, but it wasn’t this good.”

“Oh! That’s probably the cinnamon.”

“Cinnamon. Okay.” He took another sip. “I like your place.”

Her face was still too red, recovering from the cold, to tell if she blushed. But her smile changed form, slightly, and she glanced around. “You do?”

“Not enough to redo my place like this, or anything, but…it suits you. Though it would be a heck of a surprise next time my parents dropped by, if I suddenly had velvet wall hangings.”

“Would you be pleasing their inner hippies, do you think?” Rita giggled, then laid her free hand on his arm. “But we’re a generation too late for that, aren’t we? If you have hippies in your family, it would be your grandparents.”

“They weren’t,” Andy explained, “they were very uptight religious folk. My parents rebelled against that, and lived together for something like seven years before they finally got married. My older brother was born before that, and Mom’s parents actually weren’t speaking to her for a while because of it, a couple years. They’d softened up by the time I was born, but I remember they were always fussing over us, about how we were being raised.” He paused at the shock in Rita’s eyes. “Oh, okay, I don’t really know why I said all that. Maybe you did drug my hot chocolate with truth serum. This isn’t really family confessional time, is it?”

“I just didn’t mean to dredge up bad memories.” The hand on his arm stroked him lightly. “You said were. Are they still around?”

Andy shook his head. “Not on my mom’s side, they passed on while I was in high school. And my dad’s parents divorced a long time ago, I don’t really know my grandfather, I only met him once. But Grandma’s doing fine, we visit every Christmas, and she still makes all the same pies and cookies.”

“That’s wonderful.” She sipped from her mug, seeming somehow to be stalling. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t dig into my family right now. It’s complicated, and not generally pleasant, and I’ll end up telling you about it if we keep seeing each other, but I’ve been having such a good time, I don’t want to drag all that out.”

His curiosity clamored at this dire hint of her apparently troubled past, but she was right. He hadn’t meant to open up uninvited about his family, when they hadn’t actually gotten too personal yet on their dates. They’d talked plenty about themselves in the present tense, but very little about their histories. “That’s fine. It’s not like I planned to grill you about it.”

“And I didn’t plan to have you here at all,” she confessed. “At least I didn’t leave my place a mess.”

Andy chuckled. “So why did you want to go back to my place?”

She gestured loosely at the room. “This is a bit much, isn’t it? I kind of like to ease people into it, like by gradually letting out my inner goth-hippie chick in my wardrobe until I’m dressing full-on like Stevie Nicks. If somebody can handle that, then I consider bringing them home.”

He looked straight into her eyes. “Why did you make an exception for me?”

She stared straight back. “Hadn’t you already showed me a vulnerability of yours?”

He set his mug down on the low table in front of them, then plucked hers from her hands and set that down too. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I did.” Then he pulled her onto his lap fully and kissed her.

Their hands started wandering immediately, both his body and hers trying to pick up where they’d left off in the alley. It was some minutes before Rita seemed to come up for air and come to her senses. “Andy,” she breathed. “I said I wasn’t going to–”

“You didn’t,” he interrupted her.

“I’d feel awful if I took you to bed now and you regretted it.” She tucked her face into his neck, breathing hard, her hands clutching his shoulders like she was afraid to move them.

“So ride me on this couch.”

Some deep part of him was shocked he’d phrased it like a command, that he had enough desire and will not to make it a question. It had been a long time since he’d gotten his rose-colored glasses knocked off, and intimacy had become a struggle for him. But he wanted Rita, and he wasn’t conflicted about that.

She pulled back, looking at him almost shyly. “That’s an interesting bit of semantics to let me get out of my promise. Are you sure?”

He couldn’t help his gaze dropping to her parted lips, couldn’t help wanting to kiss them in answer. But that wasn’t clear enough. “I’m sure. You’re not coercing me, Rita. I want this. I want you.”

After taking one deep breath and letting it out slowly, she nodded. “Okay. But I keep my condoms in the bedroom, so you stay right there, I’ll be back.”

This Week, I Read… (2020 #41)

#153 – Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King

  • Read: 10/22/20 – 10/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a place name in the title
  • Mount TBR: 131/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

For most of the first half of this book, I was enthralled and convinced it was going to be a five-star read. Though this came earlier, in many ways it reminded me strongly of Under the Dome, which I read several years ago and LOVED. Stephen King likes to put small towns through absolute hell, and I’m here for it.

Ultimately, though, this had issues I couldn’t ignore.

While I don’t mind a large cast of characters in general, this one felt too big, the subplots surrounding them too repetitive. At first I was intrigued by the mini-portraits of these flawed people, any one of whom could have been the focus of a much more developed character study, some of whom could even be the protagonist of their own novel. But others were less interesting, and eventually the pattern of “goes to the shop, gets hypnotized, makes a deal with the devil” simply got old, especially when we had a parade of truly minor characters doing it in addition to the main ensemble. Did we need to see so many people wander into Gaunt’s lair and hear the specifics of their agreements? Could we not have glossed over any of them to pick up the pace?

Also, I found the end incomplete and less than ideal. In the final act, after being a non-issue for most of the book, the Casino Nite Catholic/Baptist rivalry escalated into an all-out brawl, and I simply wasn’t invested in it enough to enjoy the amount of space it took up, because none of the primary cast (even as large as it was) were involved. It was filler-disaster, to add to the body count, but it wasn’t gripping compared to how much I wanted to know what was happening to Alan and Polly. (I did read The Dark Half prior to this, by chance, not knowing Sheriff Alan Pangborn was going to have a starring role in a later book. It was nice to see him again, and I like him better now. TDH was only an “okay” book for me.) The very end itself was not to my taste, making a near deus ex machina out of Alan’s idle habit of magic tricks, and cutting off without any insight into what will happen to the town in the wake of dozens of its citizens dying in a single day. The denouement I was hoping would explain even a little bit, show even the tiniest hint of the rebuilding process beginning, simply wasn’t there–hard cut to a brief epilogue that mirrors the opening and implies Gaunt has moved on to victimize another town. I don’t object to that aspect of it–of course he did–but the complete absence of any resolution, any aftermath to the destruction he left behind, was unsatisfying to me.

Did I mostly enjoy it? Yes. Am I glad I read it? Also yes. Did it stick the landing? Not really. Maybe I’ll like it better down the road when I get around to rereading it–I often do with King novels.

#154 – An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, by Annejet van der Zijl

  • Read: 10/27/20 – 10/29/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in the 1920s
  • Mount TBR: 132/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I sometimes have this problem with fiction, but never before with nonfiction: this work has a name in the title, but it’s not about that person. Allene Tew is our nominal protagonist, so to speak, but very little in this tale is actually about her, instead following the lives of her husbands, children, ex-husbands, “adopted” children, and in some cases, her husbands’ or ex-husbands’ friends.

Obviously she interacted with many people in her life, but apparently she did so little herself of note that the bulk of her “story” is actually about other people and what they did before/after becoming a part of her life. How many times did we cut away from a narrative about a man to return to Allene, who was “shopping in London” or “buying and furnishing a new house” or “writing letters”? Listen, I understand that the lives of high-society women were circumscribed quite greatly at the time, and this woman in particular did manage to flout the system in many ways (like having five husbands and marrying into royalty) but a history built on social climbing isn’t inherently interesting if the person doing the climbing is basically a non-entity in the narrative who exists to marry the next husband.

The few personal details we get are thin and repetitive: she loved surrounding herself with active young people. She stopped caring about being fashionable when she gained weight in her later years. Look at how high this woman has flown when she was born in a backwoods town with basically nothing.

Even the big selling point of the concept–a Dutch writer takes on the tale of an American “princess” because of her connection to the Dutch royal family–isn’t much of a payoff, because the baptism ceremony where Allene becomes a royal godmother was apparently incredibly boring to her, and then we breeze right past it to tell the rest of the story, which again, is mostly about men.

I realize this is coming across as harshly critical in ways I don’t necessarily mean it to be–this book is obviously well-researched, and sources from the era would naturally be more inclined to discuss men than women in their pages (rampant sexism we’re still fighting today, of course.) So it’s not surprising that there’s so much information available on all five of Allene’s husbands and her son and her stepson. But this circles back to my point about putting her name in the title and making me (and other readers too, judging from other reviews) expect that the book is actually going to be about her and not an endless set of vignettes about every man in her life? Why frame the narrative this way when she’s basically a shadow we follow along through the history while watching other people actually do things? The only chapter that is truly about her in any substantive way is the final one about her death, and even that’s sharing space with the fight of her heirs over her will.

I didn’t find this particularly interesting or satisfying and basically only bothered to finish it because it was short.

Next Month’s TBR: November 2020

The rest of the year is going to be a little bit different, in terms of my planned reading.

I’ve been doing three major year-long challenges (Around the Year and PopSugar, both task-based; Mount TBR, number-based) and most months I’ve also been tackling the Reading Frenzy’s Travel-a-thon challenges.

I’m three books away from finishing ATY, and the last book for PopSugar, I’m hoping to finish in time to review on Friday. I’ve got slightly less than twenty books to go for Mount TBR, which works out perfectly, because I had another year-long, non-official challenge: get through everything in my 2017 backlog.

Well, I’ve got fifteen of those left. Plus three books to go in Robin Hobb’s Realms of the Elderlings series, which was my other major 2020 reading goal.

Once I put all these goals together, I get a list of twenty-two books I need to read between now and the end of the year:

  1. Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story (which I am either currently reading or have just finished, I’m writing this post early!)
  2. Four Past Midnight
  3. The Regulators
  4. Rose Madder (wow, four Stephen King novels!)
  5. Cloud Atlas
  6. Screw Up
  7. Flight Behavior
  8. Yellowstone Heart Song
  9. The Buckhorn Legacy
  10. Forever Buckhorn
  11. Dreams of a Dark Warrior
  12. All Riled Up
  13. Secrets in the Attic
  14. Sell Out
  15. The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
  16. The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin
  17. Nemesis Games
  18. His Bride for the Taking
  19. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew
  20. Fool’s Assassin
  21. Fool’s Quest
  22. Assassin’s Fate

If I just look at overall numbers, this seems doable. Eleven books a month, when I often read at least 12-13 and sometimes as many as 18. But NaNo is coming. But I have a novel to finish up and release. But many of these books are 500, 600, even some 800+ pages.

This is going to take some dedication. And even then, I might not finish. But even if I feel daunted by the tasks I have set myself, I’m going to try! For this week’s reading (Needful Things and An American Princess, to finish my October TBR if possible) I added their page counts together and took an average to give myself a daily reading goal, and it looks like I might make it in time for Friday’s reviews, which will give me two extra days before NaNo starts to dig into something from this list and get ahead.

I’ll be back at the end of November to strike as many books from this list as possible and see what December looks like.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #4

Photo by Ingridi Alves Photograph on Unsplash

My goal for this month was to finish draft five of Fifty-Five Days, the listening edit. I’ve got a week left to get that done. How am I doing?

I’m exactly halfway done! (by the time this posts)

Can I finish by my original deadline? I sure can. My lack of progress has mostly been because I’ve been focusing my energy elsewhere, not because it’s going poorly. I simply haven’t devoted enough time to it. But the good news is, I crunched the numbers and I know exactly how much I have to get through every day between now and Halloween to get this done.

As for my other novel-related goal, making a cover, I have been through so many ideas and plans for this I’m going to stop talking about them ahead of time because they’re constantly shifting. One thing I did realize, however, which I think I’ve “realized” before when commissioning covers and never remember between books: I can mock up ebook covers all I want ahead of time (and I have) but I can’t do any real work on a real cover that I can use for a paperback until the entire editing/formatting process is complete, because I need a final page count.

I have, in lieu of actually making the damn cover, researched and read and bookmarked many useful resources to help me through the process of attempting my own, when the time comes. But I absolutely have to have the print manuscript ready to go before I start, which is a delay to my original plan, but not a fatal one.

I just don’t understand why I forget that, every time.

With NaNo starting in a week, this is the last you’ll probably hear about 55D until I’m ready to announce a release date and send out ARCs! (Unless something else goes horribly wrong! Which I hope it won’t!) So until then, I’d better get my nose back to its novel-shaped grindstone to make that happen.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Hell or High Water”

Photo by Igor Lepilin on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Key Tropes: reunion, and still maybe betrayal, we’re not sure?
  • Content Warnings: death, torture mention, imprisonment, weapons, brief violence
  • Explicit?: No

After half an hour of careful, quiet searching, their luck gave out. Mila turned a corne, ill-lit by smoky torches, and came face-to-face with a Bone Trader in full ritual gear, their mask a horrifying caricature of a human skull, their robes a deep red splotched with deeper stains. A foul smell came from him–Mila now knew the rumors were true, that the robes were never washed, that whatever bodily fluids came from their victims was considered a sacrament.

How wretched was a person’s soul, that they could believe trafficking and torture was holy?

Evran had given her one of his knives, as her own gear had been taken. The blade found a home in the Trader’s gut without thought, and before the man could react. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have aimed higher–belly wounds were generally fatal, but not instantly so. Still, this man’s eyes rolled upwards as he slid backwards off the weapon with only the faintest sigh.

If he had been alone, it would have ended there, a silent death deep in his own compound. But two others stood behind him, and their shock didn’t last long.

Evran’s shadows flowed through the darkness, one for each Trader. Mila didn’t see the blow that felled the first, but Evran had time to snap, “Don’t kill the other.”

The larger companion, a burly man with walnut-brown skin and black eyes above his mask, pivoted and dug the point of his knife into the slim neck of the now-captive Trader.

“Excellent,” Evran said. “Show us the way to your prisoner.”

The commander had realized instantly what it took Mila a precious few seconds to work out–these were likely Belken’s torturers on their way to fetch him. This was good news, if true; it meant they hadn’t already started. It meant no general alarm had been sounded because of the guild’s infiltration and Mila’s own rescue.

And, on a more personal level, it meant Belken was probably telling the truth.

The Bone Trader held up her empty hands. Mila was sure it was a woman; the build was skinny, tall, and the robes they wore were shapeless enough to hide any obvious attributes. But they were also relatively unstained, and the outstretched hands were soft and slim and pale. A woman, a young and rich one at that. A new initiate? Would she be more likely to give in than one of her dead counterparts?

Her shoulders sagged. “This way.”

She led, with the others keeping her corralled, one to each side, one behind. Mila fell into position as rear guard, watching their backs as the woman took them down unexplored ways. As they passed new doors, Mila’s tension spiked, waiting for new assailants to spill from them at some unknown signal.

The door she indicated was locked, but Evran had taken a key from one of her dead brethren. His guards nodded at each other from either side before the smaller of them opened it and the larger jumped through. Inside lay complete darkness. Mila waited, not sure what she was waiting for, until a soft voice said, “Clear.” Evran motioned at Mila to take a nearby torch from its holder, and they all went in.

Belken lay on his side on a dirty pile of rags and straw that might have been a mattress, once. He curled protectively around his stomach in a way that made Mila think he was already injured–someone had kicked him repeatedly, or punched him hard enough to vomit, then left him to await a worse fate. Though it might not be his vomit she smelled, because the air was so laced with vile odors it would be impossible to tell.

She handed the torch to Evran while the shadows secured their captive with manacles attached to the wall. “I don’t know where the keys even are for these,” the woman hissed. Mila lost the thread of any further protests she made when she knelt beside her lover and touched his shoulder.

He startled, shifting away with a low cry. The torchlight showed tear tracks and blooming bruises on his face. “Hey,” Mila said softly. “It’s me.”

After a few heartbeats of shock, Belken sat upright and seized her roughly in his arms. “Oh, gods, Mila. You’re here. You’re free.”

“Not quite yet,” she corrected, “but almost. Can you move? How badly did they beat you?”

He grunted as he tried to rise. Mila shifted to a crouch and helped him to his feet. “Worse than I’ve ever gotten in a bar brawl. But I’ll live, which I wasn’t sure about five minutes ago.” He glanced at the Bone Trader, who hung limply, her feet barely brushing the stone floor. “They were coming for me.”

If this was all still an act, a farce for her benefit, neither Belken nor the Trader showed any hint of it. “But my people came for me, and now we’re here for you.”

Evran cleared his throat behind them. “Hell or high water, Mila,” he said gravely. “We don’t leave our own to rot.”

Belken stared at him for a moment, then turned to Mila. “So you believe me?”

She wished she could give him an unconditional answer. “As much as I can.” She leaned in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Come on, we need to get moving before an alarm’s raised.”

Belken didn’t move, though. “What about my sister?”

“We’re already stretching our mission, fetching you,” Evran answered. “Do you know if she’s being held here, and not somewhere else? Because as far as we’re concerned, you have equal odds on being a civilian we’re rescuing or a traitor we’re capturing. Unless you can produce concrete information on this captured sister, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Belken’s throat bobbed visibly as he gulped. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They showed me a necklace, a locket with a miniature of our parents in it. I never saw her.”

Evran stroked his mask meditatively. “So they have her, or they stole it to convince you they did.” Or you’re still lying, Mila thought as Evran paused. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do. If by some astronomical stroke of luck, we stumble into her on our way out, we’ll take her with us. That’s the best I can promise you.”

“I understand,” Belken answered, his eyes cast downward. “Thank you for even bothering with me.”

They were about to leave when the woman on the wall began to laugh. “How touching,” she said, her voice cruel, and her cultured tone and accent confirming Mila’s earlier suspicions. A Bone Trader from the nobility. “As if any of you will make it out alive.”

The smaller shadow took two steps toward the woman and belted her solidly on the chin. Her head snapped against the hard stone wall, and she fell instantly silent, slumping farther in her bonds. The shadow shook out their hand. “Ouch.” Their voice was ambiguous, deep for a woman’s or light for a man’s. “Should’ve taken off the damn mask first. I caught my knuckles on one of those bony bits.”

“Did it puncture your armor?” their companion said, his voice low, booming. Mila almost felt dizzy with surprise to hear them speak; another rumor about Evran’s shadows–and Petralla’s, too, for that matter–was they had taken vows of silence, or worse, had their tongues cut out. No one truly believed the latter, but still, in Mila’s five years of service, she had never heard a single whisper from any shadow.

Evran only smiled indulgently. “They’re fine, I’m sure. Let’s get moving.”

Mila wedged her shoulder into Belken’s side to support him as he took his first limping steps. “Do me one favor, love,” she whispered to him, hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m wrong, and you’re a Bone Trader after all, show me the mercy of killing me quickly in my sleep some night, so that I never have to know I was wrong about you.”

Belken returned her kiss on the cheek with one of his own. “I swear, Mila. You’ll die of old age, running the Guild someday, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and I’ll be by your side. If your death comes any other way, it will not be by my hand, in your sleep or otherwise.”

Her heart glowed at that, as they carefully backtracked through the compound. By the time they rejoined the others, who were no worse for their expedition, Belken’s limp had eased and he was walking mostly under his own power.

It wasn’t until much later, after her debrief with Petralla, when she tumbled into one of the bunks in the common barracks to sleep off her misadventures, that she realized Belken had quite beautifully dodged every aspect of her request, leaving her no more sure of his loyalty than she had been when he showed up unexpectedly in her cell.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #40)

#151 – Acheron, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

  • Read: 10/16/20 – 10/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book from a series with more than twenty books
  • Mount TBR: 130/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The story of how and why I came to be reading the 23rd book in the Dark-Hunterverse after only having read the first two (and not particularly enjoyed the second one) is long and complicated, but suffice it to say, I undoubtedly would have liked this better if I’d known who more of the minor characters were and more about how various powers worked, but that wouldn’t have solved most of the problems I had with this book.

It’s too long, no question. The first 56%, before the present-day story line and romance begin, is a viciously repeating cycle of “Acheron is miserable and has no agency, things gets better for about ten seconds, then some new betrayal or torture happens to him and he’s miserable again.” I understand that his past is one of abuse, but were over three hundred pages of it necessary to make that point? Absolutely not. It went on so long that my feelings mutated from the initial pity and “I hope he gets to be happy someday” to disgust and horror that his agony was so drawn-out, so indulgent, so sexualized.

The second part of the book was better by comparison, but still not great. The emotional development between Acheron and Tory was generally okay, and their banter as they went from enemies to friends was genuinely adorable (and most of the reason this gets a second star.) Was their catapult from friends to lovers/soulmates/fellow godlings rushed? Despite the overall length of the work, yes, it was rushed, because we had to spend over half the book wallowing in Acheron’s horrific past.

The rest of the reason this wasn’t a one-star read for me was actually Artemis. For all the other flaws I found in this book, it does succeed at one thing I think many other works inspired by Greco-Roman mythology fail to achieve–the absolute arrogance and total lack of a humane moral compass found in the gods. Artemis is unquestionably evil from a human perspective, for her delight in inflicting pain and suffering, and her complete indifference to anything that doesn’t benefit her in some way. She inspires hate in me to a far greater degree than I managed to get invested in any other character, Acheron included–Artemis is THE WORST, which is almost hilarious to me, because as Greek gods go according to the classic myths, she’s not even close to the most “evil.” So I applaud this book (in a very limited capacity) for managing to give me a villain I love to hate.

#152 – Blindness, by Jose Saramago

  • Read: 10/19/20 – 10/22/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring a disease or sickness
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

From other reviews it appears as if I dodged a bullet by listening to this rather than reading a print edition; it seems as though the style of the text would have been a sticking point for me. But I did listen, and while I might criticize the narrator for lack of differentiation between character voices, especially the female ones, he might have done me a favor overall.

Many years ago I watched the movie, and when I learned it was adapted from the book, told myself I would someday read it, to see if it was better, or if it solved any of the flaws I felt the movie had. (Brief movie review: I thought the central part of the story, the quarantine within the mental institution, was a brilliant commentary on man as a social animal and the differences in how people’s moral compasses and general outlook on life influenced their behavior under stress. The very beginning and ending, in the outside word? Hated it, felt so flat in comparison.)

So after all this time, how does the book compare to my memories of a film I watched only once but often thought about afterward? About the same overall quality, though their strengths lay in different areas. The narration’s verbose style irritated me at times, but provided insight into the characters the movie lacked; the movie gave me a more tightly plotted story–for example, the movie removes most of the final quarter of the book, and I can’t say that’s a bad idea. The movie let me have visual representations of the nameless characters, rather than the book’s endless “the doctor” and “the doctor’s wife” and “the first blind man” and so on; but the book often gave me better tension within the scenes.

I enjoyed this enough to be glad I went back for it, but based on my dislikes of Saramago’s style as presented here, I’m not particularly interested in seeking out his other work. There was an over-reliance on aphorisms to make a point, which was strange because they were aphorisms I’ve never once heard in my life; whether this is because they are Portuguese sayings in translation, or if the author made them up to contribute to the setting’s lack of definite country, I don’t know. There was also a tendency towards heavy-handedness in the philsophizing, especially in the final act, which simultaneously made me wonder “Am I getting what he’s really saying?” and “Damn, I get it, you don’t need to hammer your points so hard.” The constant equivalence drawn between blindness and death made sense to me, to a point (re: the loss of a person’s “humanity”) but since it kept coming up and alluding to some apparent (even) deeper meaning, I’m left with the sense that I thought I got “it” but I didn’t get it at all. Which is frustrating.

Finally, there was also just some instances of “men writing women” that irked me, though considering a large point of the quarantine story involves rape, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse. There were times when I thought “women aren’t like that” or “I would never say that,” but they were small, individual complaints, a lack of connection, rather than any larger issues surrounding portrayal of female characters in general. The author sometimes stripped them of their dignity, but in most ways no more so than the male characters, and in the direst circumstances, it is mostly the women who band together to affect change, so while I wouldn’t call this a feminist piece, it’s at least not a misogynistic one.

From My Art Journal #16: Planttober

With my renewed motivation to “learn” to draw again, and to play with my art journals more, I had decided to tackle the popular Inktober event this year, which I’ve half-assed once or twice in the past.

Then there was the plagiarism controversy surrounding the creator’s book, and though I haven’t examined the evidence myself so I don’t know for sure, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I searched for alternatives–of which there are many–but didn’t like the strong Halloween/horror/gore focus of many of them.

I found a more generic “botanical” challenge that is just a list of thirty plants to draw, and that’s totally my speed, so I named my personal challenge Planttober and off I went.

As of writing this, I’ve only missed one day, but I doubled up the prompts in one spread the day after, so I’ve actually done all of them so far.

For this month’s artsy post, I’m going to share my favorites!