This Week, I Read… (2021 #25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#70 – The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #24)

(Somehow this got stuck in my drafts folder when I would have sworn I scheduled it. Better late than never!)

#66 – The Light of the Fireflies, by Paul Pen, translated by Simon Bruni

  • Mount TBR: 62/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

If I want to do a really in-depth, “this is everything I disliked and/or think is wrong with this book” kind of review, I would spoil everything; while I usually don’t care too much about spoilers in reviews that I write, this is definitely an exception, because the point of the book is the mystery, otherwise what point is there?

Other people have said “this is Room except it’s a whole family,” and that’s both true in fact and somewhat misleading in concept. Yes, it is a whole family living within very strict boundaries and never going outside. But I never got the same sense of fear and dread I got from Room, because the mystery here isn’t “who is imprisoning them and how are they going to get out?” but “why have the adults of the family chosen to be in the basement?” because it is definitely a choice that they have made. Sure, the disfigurements of several family members might mean they want to shun society and live quietly as shut-ins, but it’s quickly clear that whatever the situation is, that’s not what’s going on.

Even though I ended up hating this book, I was initially intrigued enough by the mystery of it to keep going when, ahem, shall we say “certain factors” of the evolving family situation made me want to throw the book in the toilet. Very bad things happen to someone, and ultimately there’s very little reason for those bad things, and the story doesn’t do enough (in my opinion, obviously) to merit the inclusion of those bad things. By the end, I just felt like I’d read misery porn with a dash of pseudo-magical realism for flavor.

As the story/backstory unfolded and I discovered the reason the family was in the basement, and the things that happened immediately before and after their seclusion there, I came to the realization that everyone in the story except the child narrator is a terrible person with no logic, sense, or redeeming qualities, and most of the rest of the book (post-reveal) is just these horrible people lying to each other, shouting at each other, lying to each other some more, and committing various acts of physical violence. Seriously, there is a lot of violence, and very little of it seemed necessary.

If there was meaning to any of the story, it’s genuinely lost on me. Oh, I could guess that there’s trying to be a theme about light in dark times, and the necessity of family, except everyone in this family is awful and if I were the narrator I would run as far away as possible, as fast as possible, and try to forget my traumatic childhood instead of [what the actual ending is that isn’t the narrator cutting ties.]

I haven’t really liked too many of these random World Book Day books I’ve been cleaning out of my backlog, but this might be the worst one I’ve actually finished.

#67 – Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S.A. Corey

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: It’s on a ship
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Wow, there’s a lot to unpack in this book.

In some ways, it felt disjointed, because the repeated attacks from the Something That Killed the Protomolecule Civilization were always abrupt and paradigm-shifting, so the story emphasized that and flipped the narrative table a few times. Which I get, because yeah, when it escalates, it gets really serious, and you know, “really serious” is kind of underselling it, but there are so many things that happen that could be labeled “catastrophic” that I don’t want to jump the shark too soon. But the net effect is a sort of semi-constant whiplash that made this difficult for me to read quickly because I kept having to let my brain catch up with the text.

And that’s really my most major complaint, the overall choppiness I found–everything else I liked. I was dreading the return of Elvi, my least favorite POV character ever, but here she was an actual character, with depth and history and a personality and perhaps most importantly, morals, rather than the shallow science-spouting mouthpiece she was back when she was introduced. As for new characters, I liked Teresa, because I felt the authors absolutely nailed both the “spoiled princess” and “mightily confused teenager” vibes she gave off.

I think it was satisfying to finally see Naomi doing something right. By which I mean, throughout the entire run of the show (I was a show-watcher first, and my husband is still only a show-watcher) we would constantly be like, “So hey look, Naomi’s doing something stupid. So hey look, this problem is entirely Naomi’s fault. Oh, now she’s doing something very clever and engineer-y, but only because she did something stupid to get herself into this mess.” And here, wow, she really steps up and gets shit done, and she acknowledges that her decisions could still be the wrong ones when she’s making them, but then they’re not! Things actually go well! Part of me was actually waiting for her to fail, because I’m so used to seeing her fail, but she succeeds at the biggest role she’s ever taken on and the biggest plan she’s ever conceived. I was genuinely surprised and pleased by that.

On the flip side, I lost two of my favorite characters in this book, and one of those deaths made me cry seriously ugly, put-the-book-down-for-the-rest-of-the-day tears. Like, we’ve had character deaths before, they’re not new. And it’s not that I didn’t expect the penultimate book to axe at least one or two more…but man, that hurt a lot.

And the ending…well, that definitely feels like we wrapped up one plot fairly neatly, and everybody’s dusting their hands together and saying, “Guess it’s time to deal with the big one.” The one the entire series has been about, even if it faded into the background so much in the middle that I kept seeing book reviews saying “I wish this was still about the protomolecule at all.” First, honey, it was the whole time, but second, we’re finally getting set up to fry the bigger fish, and I’m here for it.

The series has taken weird turns and big risks, or at least they seemed so at the time, but poised at the edge of the final book, I can see how it all makes sense. Let’s hope (and I have some confidence) that the last one lives up to the promise of all that came before.

Getting Serious About Series 2021: Update #2

Waiting for the Next Book to Be Published

Series in Progress (books read/total books)

Series Off My List in 2021

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #23)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#64 – Skin Hunger, by Eli Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #22)

#61 – Beauty and the Mustache, by Penny Reid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#62 – Dragon Rose, by Christine Pope

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #21)

#55 – All In: Double or Nothing, by Lane Hart

  • Mount TBR: 52/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I finished this solely because it was a constant train wreck and I wanted to see how the love triangle/menage crashed out in the end. It was not a good book, it did not have a good plot or good characters, and while I have no objection to indulging in a smut-fest for its own sake, honestly, the copious sex scenes weren’t great either.

First, it can’t decide if it’s a menage romance or a love triangle, and in trying to split the difference, you end up with a lot of really awkward dynamics. Our heroine comes off as being a selfish, indecisive idiot who doesn’t mind hurting these two men with her dithering, while Heroes #1 and #2, who were best friends before this woman entered their lives, are reduced to constant fighting (both with words and physical violence) about which one of them is going to “win” her. It’s gross all around.

Second, it utterly fails at being a love triangle if that’s what it really means to be, because Heroes #1 and #2 are basically indistinguishable from each other. Sure, they have different names, and are introduced with different hair colors on the heads that top their identical muscle-bound bodies. Okay, fine, they’re both super hot, but they talk the same way, they both bond with the heroine in basically the same way–lots and lots of sex, and very little talking–and they’re both immature jerks trying to one-up the other until the heroine finally decides on one of them. (To be slightly more fair, one of them is supposed to be a little more sweet, while the other is supposed to be a little more “caveman,” but the difference between them only matters briefly at the beginning, then dissolves into no real difference at all when they both decide to be idiots about the whole situation.)

Third, the heroine’s backstory is over-the-top tragic but doesn’t actually matter, because the story isn’t at all about any trauma she’s suffered. I guess it’s supposed to be a reason to pity her and let her get away with this awful behavior? But I don’t buy that, and on a larger scale, it’s Problematique (TM) to have your young heroine be traumatized and abused and a sex worker, and then make her a complete nympho in her personal life, because that says to me that, as a character, she’s so damaged that the only way she can connect with someone is through sex, as a substitute for love, and that’s not at all what this story is about! The narrative claims she’s falling in love with both dudes, and the plot doesn’t deal with her past in any significant way or show her growing as a person.

Fourth, the dudes are also pretty problematic, because one is a cop who meets the heroine when he responds to her car accident, and he immediately goes full-pervert and nearly drools on her while he’s supposed to be doing his job. And then hits on her and asks her out while he’s giving her a ride in his squad car. NO NO NO. Second dude is a little better when he first meets her, except they’re at a bar (where she’s supposed to be meeting dude #1, but he’s late) and when she admits to being twenty, so she can’t drink, he buys her a drink! Illegal! And then it’s not entirely clear at first how drunk or sober she is when she bangs him later that night, until afterward when she’s puking her guts up in his bathroom…so she definitely wasn’t sober enough to consent to sex. Hero #2 got an underage woman drunk and took her home to bang her, and that’s not what I want to see in my romantic leads.

Fifth, the plot makes no sense. There’s very little of it, because this is smut, so I didn’t expect much to string together the many sex scenes, but this plot? Makes no sense. There’s actual cheating going on before the three of them enter the menage stage of the relationship, but instead of that being a deal-breaker for the cheated-upon party, they go for a shared-custody sort of situation and the shenanigans begin. Nobody acts in a way that makes any sense, except, notably, late in the story when the heroine is pissed that her men paid off her school tuition without asking her first, and they were boggled that she was angry. That was just about the only set of emotional reactions to anything in the whole story that felt genuine, because yes, they were being controlling when they thought they were being helpful, so of course they were confused by her anger.

Sixth–I won’t spoil what the ending actually is, just in case anyone who gets this far in my review does honestly still want to read this book, but I will say that I was not satisfied by it.

I’m glad this was a freebie, I’m sorry I wasted a few hours reading it, and I won’t be reading anything else by this author.

#56 – Hot as Puck, by Lili Valente

  • Mount TBR: 53/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Kept you up late reading
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Humor is intensely personal, and what makes one person double over with laughter can leave another absolutely indifferent, or even disgusted. I always go into rom-coms knowing I may be disappointed.

But here, I was head over heels for the hero by the end of chapter two, and laughing my ass off constantly. While I didn’t end up loving every minute of the plot–there were a few elements I could have done without–the humor and the characters more than made up for any small quibbles.

I loved that this is a sports romance lite: so many that I’ve read are somehow aspirational, like the women “catching” a sports star is guaranteed to make them happy for life, or that the lifestyle is what matters, not the relationship. That’s not the case here–with some minor changes, this story would have worked just fine if the hero had basically any other job that kept him fit and active. It’s a part of his character that he’s a hockey star, and that informs the plot only as much as necessary to reflect his life–the plot doesn’t revolve around his hockey career, and I like that.

I also like that he’s a crafter, and so is our heroine, and crocheting is basically as important to the story as hockey is. Bonus: the author demonstrated she knows the difference between knitting and crocheting, which you wouldn’t think would be a high bar to clear, and yet it is. As someone who’s known how to do both since childhood, I appreciate anyone who gets it right, because so many people get it wrong, and when I’ve called people out on it (in person, not me haranguing authors in reviews) I usually get dismissed with “it’s all basically the same thing, right?”

But I’m getting diverted, back to the book. Best friends romance! Friends with benefits mashed up with “I’m clueless about sex, please help me!” It’s all a delicious stew of tropes that interlock neatly, with that humor mixed throughout. I nearly finished this in one day, but I fell asleep just before I got to the end and had to finish it in the morning. I knew there was more to this series, of course, but when I flipped through the end matter I almost squealed when I saw how deep the author’s back catalog is. It’s too early to say she’s a new favorite–this is only one book, after all–but there are a lot of first-in-series freebies for me to grab, as well as going on to book two in this one, which I did read the sneak peek of (I don’t usually, I like to be surprised, or I’m not planning to read it anyway when I didn’t like the first book) and I’m honestly tempted to buy it right now.

It’s genuinely been a long time since a rom-com made me laugh this much. I can recommend this to romance fans almost wholeheartedly–there’s a lot of swearing, to the point where it’s a joke about a few characters near the end having to not swear in front of someone’s kid; it’s also stuffed full with dirty talk, even outside of the sex scenes themselves, if that’s a thing that you don’t care for. (I found both aspects to my taste, and also hilarious, but again, humor, and also kinks, are personal, so your mileage may vary.)

#57 – Next to You, by Daisy Prescott

  • Mount TBR: 54/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While this had decent character development and an okay beginning, it really got muddled in the middle and trite towards the end.

I’m not a fan of blatant miscommunication as a romantic conflict, but this story actually handled it in a new-to-me way: a somewhat disastrous and disjointed conversation at a party between the couple and another woman who was after the male lead. No one was on the same page about what was going on, and you could practically see everything crumbling away as everyone dug themselves a pit. But that interesting point of conflict lead to a lot of “now neither of us knows what we are, and we’re both putting off doing anything about it” that got really boring.

And resolving it all by putting the two leads together at another party (a big fancy fundraiser) that neither knew the other would be attending… (yawn.) On top of it being one of the most overdone things I’ve seen in contemporary romance, the end of the book relies on putting both leads back in touch with their families, neither of which had been all that important to the story beforehand, so the entire thing feels very fish-out-of-water, very forced. It might have helped if the book were actually a little longer, and there was more time to gradually transition from “we’re both in Aspen” to “we’re both in Chicago.” Especially since when the hero goes to Chicago, it’s not immediately clear why, and I spent most of a page wondering if he had followed the heroine there to resolve their conflict; no, he was actually there because his father ordered him to be, but hopefully while he’s in town he can sort out his love life. Again, it was abrupt to the point where it felt forced, rather than natural.

Everything about their interactions from that point until the epilogue felt awkward to the point of being out of character, so it was hard to keep my investment going for these two floundering fools who had started out as characters I found charming enough to get attached to.

On top of that, I had enough minor issues to not be excited about reading more of this series, or this author–especially the worn-out Stan Lee joke about Stanley/Stan/Lee’s name, because why name your hero one thing when the heroine could call him three? The waffling between Stan and Lee was actually a little confusing at the beginning, and “confused” is rarely what I want to be when I’m reading, especially what promised to be a cute, fluffy romance.

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

#58 – Sit…Stay…Beg, by Roxanne St. Claire

  • Mount TBR: 55/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Let’s be generous and say 1.5 stars, because it’s better than one of my recent one-star reads, but definitely worse than another recent two-star read.

I am not a dog person, but I’m not not a dog person either, so I thought I could still enjoy it. I didn’t realize going into this that being a dog person is a requirement. Dogs are arguably more important to the hero than the heroine (which is an issue I’ll revisit) so I felt mildly alienated the whole time that I don’t love dogs as much as anyone in this book.

I dislike romance series that front-load the premise and set-up in the first book to the detriment of the story of the first book, and this was a prime example of that. The prologue is a heavy-handed and maudlin backstory that set a depressing tone for what is supposed to be a happy romance, and throughout the story this history is brought up repeatedly, to the point where I don’t believe the prologue was necessary at all; everything in it could have been revealed organically as the plot unfolded, and it would have been far better that way. In addition, every sibling in this huge family had to be shoehorned into the plot somehow so that we could meet them all, which took away time from the romance but didn’t really add much otherwise. I think the “family” bits could have been limited to Garrett (the lead) and Molly (the former best friend of the other lead) as the primary focus, with Dad and Gramma Finnie being the stronger supporting roles. Everyone else was completely extraneous.

Now let me gripe about the actual story, because Garrett is garbage. He got burned badly once by a woman, so now all women are untrustworthy liars, and he got burned badly once by the media, so all journalists are untrustworthy liars. Our heroine is both of those things. They spent most of the book doing this weird (and at times, questionably ethical) half-interview-half-romance thing, and then when something goes wrong near the end, Garrett one-eighties from “I love you” to “I’m completely unwilling to hear your side of the story because obviously you’re an untrustworthy liar,” and I get that in most romances, it’s the hero who makes the mistake and the heroine who forgives him, because that’s how the genre works, but man, Garrett really effed up, and his apology fits with the theme of the book (dogs are better than people, which is maybe not actually supposed to be the theme but that’s what I got out of it) but doesn’t actually address in any depth how he screwed up, or the magnitude of the hurt he inflicted both by abandoning the heroine over a betrayal she didn’t actually do, and by refusing to listen to her because she’s clearly a no-good lying journalist.

Like, seriously, Garrett, get the fuck over yourself. If you really have trust issues that deep, get counseling, don’t expect the woman in your life to fix you, or yeah, maybe just be alone for the rest of your days with the dogs you like better than people because you’re a bitter mistrustful person, and our heroine could probably (and maybe should) do better.

I’ve read two other novels by this author, also first-in-series freebies I picked up over my years of scrounging romance deals, and since (looking back) I gave those two reads three and four stars, I’m genuinely surprised I thought this was so bad. I certainly won’t be continuing this series, because I’m not dog-person enough to connect with them; I haven’t felt any great need to go back to either series I’d started before, either, so maybe it’s time to scratch this author off my reading lists.

#59 – Bend, by Kivrin Wilson

  • Mount TBR: 56/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 85%.

But Elena, I hear you say. If you were that close, why not finish it?

Listen, I was putting up with the fact that this plot didn’t justify a 400+ page novel and a good 40% of the narrative was excessive stage direction. Both lead characters had to describe their every action in detail, right down to clicking through a screensaver to wake up a computer to type up a report. Just say you typed up the report! Or, actually, don’t, because it’s not at all important to the plot, sum up that you end your ER shifts by doing your paperwork and sometimes that means you end up staying late, which is (or at least could be) an important aspect of your life!

I stuck it through despite this being a best-friends-to-lovers story where the leads hardly seemed like friends at all, because the sex question comes up in the very first chapter and we never get to see what they’re like as friends, we only get to see them awkward and at odds with each other until they finally start banging. For most of what I read, they actually don’t seem to even like each other.

Still, that wasn’t bad enough to make me abandon it. I was skimming past paragraphs of pointless description or everyday minutiae, but I still wanted to find out the plot, so I tried.

I gave up at the beginning of chapter 28, because it should have been chapter 27. And I mean that quite literally. The two chapters are clearly reversed, and this book never should have been released with a mistake that large.

How can I tell? Chapter 27 is from Mia’s POV, after a significant family event (which I won’t spoil because it’s not relevant to my complaint what the event is, only that it happens.) The emotional fallout leads to an important conversation, practically an intervention, for Mia about the state of her love life, and it seems to come out of nowhere, because it references a “talk” with Jay, the love interest, that we don’t see happen. I thought it was a weird narrative choice to not actually show the big family event and that talk between our leads, because if the author is detailing screensavers and every sip of a beverage someone takes, why leave out something so big and plot-relevant?

Then Chapter 28 is headed with “Three Weeks Later,” and shows Jay showing up to the family event.

…what? Oh, that was supposed to happen first. The event didn’t take place three weeks after Mia dealt with the consequences of it, because this isn’t a time travel novel and it has to obey the laws of physics. The time skip is between Chapter 26 and “now,” except 27 + 28 are in the wrong order, so I didn’t know that at first.

This is clearly supposed to be the beginning of the end, the road to the emotional climax that gets our lovebirds back together after the big split that ruined everything…so why publish it in this state? How do two chapters get reversed, and it goes to print this way?

#60 – Goodbye Paradise, by Sarina Bowen

  • Mount TBR: 57/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In my wilder years of snagging up romance freebies, I somehow ended up with a lot of examples of the “escaped from a cult” genre, and I honestly thought I’d read and discarded all of them already. The differences here are that a) those were invariably about a lone young woman running away, and this is about two young men; b) that lone young woman inevitably falls into the first bed she finds with some protective older (but not usually “old”) man, whereas these two guys are only interested in each other; and c) those other novels only rarely attempted to deal with both the trauma and the day-to-day shortcomings that a cult life stamps on a person raised there.

This novel absolutely tries, and maybe doesn’t do as great a job as I wanted–for all the talk of sex in general and specifically homosexuality being a sin, it goes from a serious issue to a gentle joke pretty fast, after Josh and Caleb start getting each other off. And the story does far more to deal with the practical concerns of being a former cult child–not having a birth certificate, not having proper schooling, and so on–than the emotional scars.

As a romance, though, it’s on fire. These two are clearly made for each other, I believed right away that they’ve known each other their whole lives (unlike many friends-to-lovers pairs I’ve read, who hardly seem like friends at all) and the sex scenes are both hot and emotionally relevant to the story.

Now this means I have another Sarina Bowen series on my list–I’m two books into True North–and for a minute there, I was like, wait, isn’t the next book in that series also about a runaway from a cult? Yes, yes it is, and it turns out he’s even mentioned in this story as being from the same cult. So that’s a nice touch, and I can go into it (whenever I do get to it) with a reasonable amount of confidence that his backstory will be handled well. Because even if part of me is griping “but these men weren’t traumatized enough!” the story here was still really good.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #20)

#53 – The Falconer, by Elizabeth May

  • Mount TBR: 50/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Finally got around to reading this, years after the hype. I actually own the whole trilogy, thanks to the ebooks going on sale for 99 cents a piece, but I’m not inclined to go on with the series.

Why not?

Let’s start with the most obvious: why bestow upon your main character the title of “Falconer” when there are no birds of any kind in the entire book? This just goes unremarked upon for half the book until Mr. Dark and Broody Fae finally explains what the title means and why Aileana is one. Even if she doesn’t have a falcon.

It’s meaningless. And no, at the moment, I don’t care if she gets a bird in the second or third book. It’s the damn title of this one.

So it’s a well-established fact that I hate love triangles as a trope, it’s one in a million if I can even tolerate one in a story. But here, I finally have a new experience–I actually prefer the losing man. I like Gavin 1000% better than Kiaran. I’m not an angsty teenager anymore, I don’t want the many-hundreds-of-years-old supernatural love interest who’s damaged and mysterious but loves the naive young heroine because she’s just so damn plucky. I want the good, solid dude who’s right there in front of me, being a friend, being considerate as much as possible, doing the right thing, the one who’s loyal and steadfast rather than capricious or downright evil.

As much as anyone gets to have a personality in the midst of this action-action-action fest that barely slows down to think, Gavin comes out on top, and I’d marry him pretty willingly in our heroine’s shoes. When it’s first announced to her, I thought, “Cool, she’s going to marry someone who knows her secret, they could work something out about her quest for vengeance and fae-killing, etc, while still maintaining a veneer of respectability in the human world.”

…but no, that would actually be interesting, so she’s got to end the book kissing Kiaran and being all sad that she has to lock him in the mystical prison in order to save the world. You know, just like Buffy had to kill Angel to close the portal to Hell…wait, was I not supposed to notice that?

I’m not the first reviewer to notice similarities to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in tone and overall plot concepts more than actual details, but Kiaran is early-seasons Angel down to his bones, and Aileana wishes she had as much personality or depth as Buffy. She doesn’t. As for whether this is near-plagiarism-similar to another particular fae YA series, well, I’ve never heard of that one before and thus haven’t read it, so I can’t say. I can say that aside from moving the standard Fae Dark Romance concept to a steampunk historical Scotland, it’s wildly unoriginal. I’ve seen all this before many, many times, and by not giving me my damn falcon companion to bond with, and ignoring a wealth of potential in making Gavin the winner of the love triangle, it’s repeatedly choosing the safe, well-tread path.

Also, even though I knew there was a cliffhanger so I wasn’t shocked by it, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed with how clumsy and abrupt it was. That ending is just bad.

#54 – The Prince and Other Writings, by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn

  • Mount TBR: 51/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: An anthology
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In this case, I want to make it clear that my rating is not a reflection of how “good” the book was, but how much I got out of it. I’m not trying to trash a classic of philosophy and political thought. But I also don’t read much about philosophy or political thought, and this work reminded me why.

It’s dry as hell.

I admit to skimming, past a certain point, because especially in “The Prince,” which leads the collection, Machiavelli follows an incredibly clear formula: open a chapter with his thesis statement, explain it a little in generalities, mention a few applicable real-world examples, and then go in-depth on one or more of those examples, before summing his point up at the end. I was able to skip most of the in-depth assessments, because they were basically meaningless to me, as I am not a student of Italian history and had no idea who most of the figures he mentioned were. Some of them continue to loom large in historical perspective today, but many don’t.

What did I actually take away from this? Well, mostly, a rebuttal of the reason I read it in the first place. This is well outside my comfort zone, but I’ve been hearing the descriptor “Machiavellian” thrown around idly for years, and like many, I’d come to understand that it meant cruel or even flat-out evil. I thought, if this is such a foundational work that the author gets his own adjective, I should probably read it at some point, yes?

But I didn’t get a sense of cruelty or evil from his philosophizing at all. Sure, he’s definitely espousing “the ends justify the means” as an overall theme, and he advises duplicity in leaders, to project an image of what he considers “good” while sometimes doing bad behind the scenes in order to promote stability. So from a broadly modern perspective, he’s less than perfectly moral. But he does spend a chapter pointing out that acquiring power through criminal activities isn’t a strong foundation for power. And I discovered that the famous “better to be feared than loved” tidbit is a misquote.

He’s not evil, or promoting evil. He’s just a realist and a pragmatist, from a time in history and political structure incredibly different from ours. No, I personally don’t agree with the idea that the only way for a prince to be a strong leader is to have a kick-ass military. But in context, I do understand why Machiavelli thought that, and advised his own patron thus. I don’t think most of this is applicable to modern day life, but it’s still useful to understand how Machiavelli changed political thought with his writing.

So I’m glad I read it, even if I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m glad I have a more accurate understanding (even if it’s still a basic one, because politics is Not My Thing) of what this famous person really said, versus what common knowledge claims he said. And while I don’t think I was ever using it that much, I’m going to stop throwing around the term “Machiavellian,” because it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, but I alone can’t stop the tide of people using it incorrectly. (Or, if you want to be really pedantic, using it correctly because that’s what the term has come to mean, even if that meaning is now divorced from its source. Because I can’t in good descriptive faith argue that “Machiavellian” doesn’t carry connotations of evil and cruelty–it does. What I am arguing is that it shouldn’t, but that’s not a fight linguistics will ever win.)

This Week, I Read… (2021 #19)

#50 – Persepolis Rising, by James S.A. Corey

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: More than one author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

So I’m about to spend this review criticizing and nitpicking what is essentially a really strong book. Do I like it as much as several of the others in the series? No. But I also wouldn’t still be reading the series if it had fallen off a cliff already.

Consider everything after this to be major spoiler territory, and these to be the rantings of a deeply invested fan who has gripes, but nothing earth-shattering enough to abandon ship.

Listen, authors, I know one of the themes in this story is “history repeats itself,” but did we really need to spend several prolonged action sequences blowing up Medina Station again? We fought a huge battle on it when it was still the Behemoth and it seems like we can’t go two books since without having to take a chunk or three out of this ship. I’m sure the science behind what they did was smart, it pretty much always is, but I admit that the action/sabotage sections made my eyes glaze over more than a little and I ended up skimming them by the end of the book because they just kept blowing stuff up.

(Once they were instead blowing stuff up on the Storm, I started paying closer attention again. Taking an enemy ship like that was cool and honestly unexpected.)

I’m groaning at the renewed (future) importance of my least favorite POV character to ever show up in the series, Elvi Okoye. While I’m glad we’re finally circling back to the mysteries of the protomolecule and the hyper-advanced, unknown enemy that took out their civilization, I can’t exactly be thrilled knowing she’s coming back, whether as a POV character or not, because she was the worst part of Cibola Burn. I suppose I can hope that the thirty intervening years have made her wiser, or at least less annoying…

While I mostly like how our core crew have aged up over the time jump, and how the authors have shorthanded the missing years by showing us minor and believable changes to each individual and their relationships, I really felt like Alex got shortchanged in this book, with a hand-waved second marriage and basically nothing to do with himself. Even Bobbie’s best-friend-ship with him, while excellent, doesn’t give him any real importance to the plot–everything he contributes to the insurgency is basically “this is how the Laconians either are or aren’t like the Martian military I remember in ways we can exploit” and Bobbie can and does provide that exact same role and information. (Because I am reading this after the end of the fifth season of the show, I know that Alex was killed off, a major deviation from the books, and while that was for reasons relating to the actor and not the story, I’m beginning to see why they felt like they could get away with it, plot-wise. Alex just isn’t important here, at all. And I wonder if he will be going forward.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find Avasarala still alive, as she’s always been a favorite. I found Drummer ending up as a war leader as weird and uncomfortable as she herself did, in-universe, but instead of that drawing me closer to her as a reader, I felt her POV chapters alienating. I guess because I knew her first in her greatly expanded role on the show (being a show-watcher rather than a reader until book/season 4, when I finally caught up) I feel like she’s been so many things, because she’s been so many different characters, quite literally, since show!Drummer took over the narrative of two book characters in addition to her own. This didn’t feel like a natural evolution for her, the way the Roci crew felt in their older versions; and I do get that she’s in a position she never expected and was unprepared for, so that’s deliberate. But I think her chapters were some of the least interesting in the book.

I think that’s it, my list of complaints. As I said, still a good book, and it takes the series in an interesting direction. I do think it’s a solid opening to the beginning of the end, and I’m still going on with the series, but I had issues I wanted to whine about.

#51 – Deliver Me, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 48/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Poorly constructed, poorly researched, poor representation of mental illness, and some tropes I simply don’t like, though that is of course a matter of personal taste.

I got this free in a bundle and it’s my first Rochon read, though I’ve been hearing good things about her for years. I dearly hope that this is not representative of her more current works.

So let’s tackle these issues one by one. Poor construction: first, the whole book is building up to the climactic charity bachelor auction, and I have no problem with that, but then the story ends abruptly at the same time the auction does, with the heroine “buying” the hero from it, some time (several days?) after she literally walks out on him after sex and does her absolute best to ghost him over what we know is a complete misunderstanding. I’ll talk more about the miscommunication aspect of this later, but after the hero’s repeated attempts to get to the bottom of why she left seemingly without warning or reason, he doesn’t really have the chance to apologize or defend himself properly, but then the heroine forgives him anyway for basically no reason. Now, we the reader know that he wasn’t actually cheating on the heroine, but she pulls a one-eighty and forgives him on the spot, when he sees him onstage, because…he’s just so sexy? I’m not really sure. That happened to fall at the bottom of the page on my e-reader, so imagine my surprise when I flick to the next page and see the end matter–the book ends quite literally with the big auction, there’s no denouement, there’s no explanation of why she changed her mind, there’s not even an epilogue to show them several months or years down the road being happy together. It’s just OVER.

Second issue with poor construction: the multi-chapter subplot about the second couple who are patients of the hero, complete with an extra POV character, is jarringly distracting and (in my opinion) wholly unnecessary. This book would have been long enough to qualify as a novel without it, so it’s not helpful padding, and I’ll get more into why later, but I believe this subplot actively undermines the main plot.

Poorly researched: I can cover this one pretty quickly. I’m no medical expert, but when the hero early on in the story performs an emergency c-section on a conscious patient, without any form of anaesthesia and without her consent, I was not impressed. No, I’m serious. At the top of the page, the woman very clearly says “I don’t want a c-section” and the next few paragraphs are the hero shushing her and doing anyway. I honestly don’t know the protocols for informed consent in emergency situations, and under what circumstances doctors are allowed to exercise their best judgment and operate without informed consent, but whatever they are, I don’t think it’s just merrily slicing into a woman who moments ago explicitly withheld it.

There weren’t any more insanely obvious medical blunders for the rest of the book, but I also didn’t have much of a sense of realness from the hospital, either. Much later, a side character in the subplot makes an observation about knowing how to scrub up properly from watching “ER,” and that really crystallized the level of medical accuracy in this book to me.

Okay, next issue. Poor representation of mental illness. The entire subplot is about a couple where the wife has bipolar disorder, hides that fact, and her treatment for it, from her husband, and then goes off the rails when her pregnancy screws with her medication regimen, which fails to control her symptoms.

Where the hell do I even start with this? She’s depicted as a shrewish, terrible woman, and yes, I do think that’s mostly because of her mental illness. Bad look to start with. Then add to that, that she thinks her husband will leave her if he finds out she’s ill. Not a good look either. Her paranoid delusions all center on her husband cheating on her–which he’s not–and her erratic behavior includes not following her doctor’s orders about bed rest, which eventually leads to the premature (but ultimately happy and successful) birth of their child.

Now, to be fair, the husband is an absolutely stand-up guy through all of this, and the couple does get a happy ending. So I’m not accusing the author of believing or endorsing the idea that mentally ill people are either incapable or undeserving of romantic fulfillment.

But the problem is that if the point of this subplot is to mirror the main plot, then it’s a terrible idea to have the main couple be a player with a string of clingy ex-girlfriends matched up with a woman who ghosts him because she believes he’s cheating on her. See where I’m going with this? By having the subplot LITERALLY be about a mentally ill woman’s paranoid delusions, it’s drawing a parallel between those and the miscommunication of the main plot. THE HEROINE IS NOT CRAZY, SHE’S JUST INCORRECT. And implying she’s “crazy” for thinking the hero might be cheating on her (even if we know he isn’t!) is doing a disservice to women who have been or really are being cheated on, because a common backlash from the men is “you’re crazy!” Um, no. No to all of this.

The tropes I don’t personally like, but aren’t necessarily big issues the same way: yes, the entire conflict between the leads boils down to a miscommunication, which results in an unsuccessful ghosting, which leads to the hero being really pushy about tracking her down and finding out what’s going on. I hate plots where the love interests refuse to talk to each other for no good reason. Also, I didn’t love that when these two get horizontal, there’s no mention of any kind of birth control in the room with them, nor was it established that they’d had an earlier conversation about it. As much as I dread the “man wants to go bareback, woman bites her lip and says okay, i’m on the pill” scene that half the bad romance novels I read inevitably rely on, at least those books are talking about it! At least we establish there’s not going to be an accidental pregnancy in fifty pages! And the hero is an OB-GYN, so there’s literally no excuse for these two not to have a rational conversation about how they’re going to handle birth control.

I’m genuinely struggling to find anything good about this book.

#52 – Broken Harbor, by Tana French

  • Mount TBR: 49/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I said when I reviewed The Secret Place that if I got a chance to read an earlier book in the Murder Squad series, I would take it. Sure, I jumped backwards from #5 all the way to #4, but that’s what fell into my hands at a used book sale.

Did I like it better? Yes. I certainly read it faster–this had far better pacing, and even when new information came up and I said, “aha! I know what happened now!” I also knew there was X number of pages left for the book to add further complications and show me I was wrong. I felt like this plot had a much clearer progression from point to point to point, and always made it clear what you were meant to think about the new twist or reveal, even when you (I) knew that couldn’t be the full answer yet.

I’m still not a mystery fan, I doubt this series will ever convert me to the genre as a whole, because this is far different from the mysteries I’ve read before (my other Tana French read excluded.) Maybe I was reading too many stories that relied on obvious twists or cheap surprises, but the two French novels I’ve read so far are definitely far more reflective and interested in thematic cohesion than the mysteries I’m familiar with–The Secret Place was about friendship, primarily, and Broken Harbor examines family bonds, mental health, and the boundary between civilization and “wildness.” The commitment to exploring those themes deeply is evident in every aspect of the story.

Unmarked spoilers throughout the rest of the review, because some things I want to talk about, I can’t really talk around.

My complaints are simple: despite the better pacing it still feels wordy, on occasion, especially in the many interrogation scenes; and in some senses I’m satisfied by the ending, but in others, I’m not. I understand why the detective acted the way he did re: the case and his job, but I’m not sure I fully get why the book ended where it did with him and his sister–those final pages lacked any sort of punch for me and felt incomplete.

Whereas something that was deliberately left incomplete–the identity/existence of the possible animal intruder in the house–doesn’t bother me at all. It’s immaterial to me whether there was actually an animal or not, as Pat’s behavior was unhinged either way and clearly contributed to the deterioration of his family life. (The theory posited by some reviewers that it was mold toxicity from the poorly constructed house itself definitely has legs, though that’s an interpretation of events that I hadn’t considered myself. I suppose that, in reading this after more than a year of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, I was more willing to believe that the physical isolation of the house and the social isolation of their situation was enough, over time, to send the adults in stress-induced irrational behavior, which caused the chain of events being investigated. That certainly seems to be the case for Conor, who spent comparatively little time in the house itself, though it would have made sense for his hide to also be compromised by mold, I suppose.)

I’ll end this review basically the same way as the last one–I’m still not a mystery fan, but I would read another French novel, if one comes my way. And maybe even start at the beginning!

This Week, I Read… (2021 #18)

#48 – The Vagrant, by Peter Newman

  • Mount TBR: 46/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A non-human character
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I did like enough about it to finish it, despite the concerns and complaints this review will list in detail; I don’t care for it enough to keep going with the series.

I started this book almost two months ago, but in the middle of what eventually became obvious was a major reading slump. After 60 pages, I put the book on hold, reasoning that I was frustrated with reading in general and not with this specific book.

When I picked it back up, I started over, and this time, I annotated it to help myself pay more attention, and to pick at the edges of the mysteries that lie thick on the ground in this story. The “eight years ago” narrative line did eventually answer most of my questions–those it didn’t were almost uniformly about world-building details I was struggling with.

So there’s my first major complaint: this world is going for “cool” and “dark” without really having a cohesive style. Sometimes it’s idyllic landscape, sometimes it’s the Blasted Lands (which I will forever think of as a zone in World of Warcraft, but I guess the author hasn’t played that.) The few cities had distinct but fairly generic personalities–one was a little Blade Runner, because there were neon signs everywhere, while another felt like a standard large fantasy town, and eventually the Shining City is certainly shiny, but also devoid of any originality.

The infernal aspects of the world-building–literally, the demons and how they worked–started out as an interesting concept, which I interpreted as them basically being incompatible with reality as we know it, and to combat that, they anchored themselves (in various and generally disgusting ways) to living flesh. Gross, creepy, excellent. But my early notes about what I pictured the Usurper and the Uncivil and the fallen Knights as actually looking like, or how I imagined they functioned, didn’t end up jiving with information that came later. And yeah, readers can be wrong about things that authors set out clearly, but this felt more like I had developed a framework for the infernals that was more codified than what the author himself envisioned, because there were contradictions, and there were gaps, and whenever I encountered one I got frustrated.

Another frustration quickly sprouted from the style of the prose. What at first was a charming way to make sure I’m paying enough attention to connect some dots eventually became a slog. Yes, make me work for the connections about characters and plot. No, don’t make me dig through every single line of a fight scene trying to figure out whose limbs are being cut off and who is buried under rubble and who died. There is a constant and deliberate lack of clarity to the narrative that I feel would serve the story better if it were saved for those big special occasions–who is the Vagrant, why can’t he talk, how did he end up with the baby–than spreading it like a frosting over literally everything down to the smallest and most mundane details.

This extends to names, as many characters don’t have them at all, or only get them late in the story, and even when they do, they are often still referred to by epithets. Harm doesn’t need to constantly be “the green-eyed man,” or I don’t know, maybe he does, because half the time when he or the Vagrant look at something, the text doesn’t say “The Vagrant looked at the sky,” it says, “Amber eyes searched the clouds.”

That’s another complaint–the detachment. At the bottom of page 107, I scrawled a note to myself: “I’ve just hit on what I don’t like about this narrative style–the descriptions sound like I’m reading a screenplay.” The sentence which triggered this revelation reads: “Sweaty faces shine in shielded lamps.” It’s the first sentence after a scene break, and it frustrated me because I could see the effect of the description in my head–sweat glowing by lantern light in an otherwise dark space–but I didn’t know who those faces belonged to! I didn’t know who to picture because that sentence told me nothing about where the scene had jumped to! The following line tells me that men and women are in tunnels–okay, I’m in tunnels, but who are the men and women? The third sentence finally gives me a character name and I know I’m back with Tough Call’s gang.

And this, too, is a constant problem. Not every chapter or scene break takes that long to establish who I’m reading about and where we are, but throughout the story, there’s this repeated stepping back from the characters, a distancing, by referring to their actions in that deliberately obscure way. “Reluctantly, amber eyes open.” “Breath labours in the dark.” “A small foot twitches.” I know that active verbs are great and conjugations of “to be” are easy to overuse, but it’s possible to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Let my brain rest on some easy verbs and sentence constructions once in a while! Not everything has to be so vague and portentous!

Final stylistic complaint: I dislike present tense narratives in general, but lots of people like them, so whatever, authors are going to keep using present tense and sometimes I’m going to end up reading it. But I absolutely fail to understand the benefits of using it for the past story line. If the main bulk of the story is “now” and uses present tense, shouldn’t the “eight years ago” use past tense? Because, you know, it’s the past?

So after all of that, what did I even like about this? The baby. The goat–the tiny and rare scenes written from her viewpoint are generally hilarious. Harm ended up being okay, in shouldering the weight of one-sided conversations with the silent Vagrant. Though I question the wisdom of having a mute protagonist paired with a deliberately vague and detached narrative style (seems like an obvious recipe for the difficulty I had connecting to the story) I do think Harm brings out the Vagrant’s desire to communicate as they get to know each other, and their deepening relationship as they bond over their struggles to save people, keep themselves and the baby safe, and still find a way to journey onward…okay, that was compelling enough to keep going even when I was frustrated by nearly everything else.

But the ending? No, sorry, this book failed to get me invested enough to care about why our protagonist achieved his apparent goal then decides to reject the dominant social order to do his own thing. I get it–it’s super clear, even for this often-vague story, because the reason is exposited immediately after it happens. But I didn’t care. And I don’t have any need to find out what happens to our ragtag found family of weirdos afterward.

Hm, I hadn’t considered that before. Found family, as a trope, pretty much relies on emotional investment in developed characters, whereas this story opted for (mostly) flat characters viewed from a safely detached distance. No wonder I couldn’t get into it, these goals are fundamentally opposed.

#49 – Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayşe Kulin, translated by John W. Baker

  • Mount TBR: 47/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This book is saved from a single-star rating because I did learn a fair bit about Turkey’s history and the context of its neutrality during WWII.

Very little else about this was interesting, and in fact, the blurb gives the impression that it’s at least partially a romance, but it’s not. It’s not even really about the couple themselves.

Loosely, this is story about family set against the backdrop of war, but even that falls apart as the novel goes on, because the members of the family that were so important in the setup of the story and consistently present in the first half were ignored for the second half, when the plot followed the politicking necessary to make the train journey happen, and introduced many, many, many side characters for horrible things to happen to before and during the journey on the titular train.

I strongly dislike this story’s absolute lack of any recognizable structure. Flashbacks take over without much logic to where they’re placed. Characters are introduced as needed and discarded quickly and often as soon as they’re not necessary to the ultimate goal: getting on the train. I find this flattens the characters, who could otherwise be interesting or at least sympathetic, in favor of making sure the reader knows how truly noble Turkey and the Turkish people are for helping these poor, passive, helpless Jewish people. (There is no subtlety to the messaging in this as a foreign reader.)

Wouldn’t I be more invested in their lives if they were more than the thin stereotypes I’ve seen from so many other war novels?

Even the supposedly “main” couple didn’t generate much sympathy, because the first half of the story spent so much time harping on how selfish their families thought they were for running away together (essentially.) I’m all for “true love > everything else” as a motivation, but since their romance is told to us as a past event and we only witness the tiniest bit of it ourselves as a flashback, the fact that the story strongly emphasized the disruption they caused rather than their happiness together made them less sympathetic. Sure, it’s terrible that they ended up caught in a war because of where they chose to settle when they left Turkey, but it’s terrible in an abstract, academic sense, rather than an immediate one.

I also question the usefulness of the many, many loose threads of side stories left hanging after the train journey ends. If the author introduced us to a buffet of minor characters and attempted to get us invested in their lives, then why does it suddenly refocus on the main family to the exclusion of all else? I could list several examples, but I’ll let the most chilling one cover them all: why did one of the passengers get raped by an unknown assailant (everyone assumes one of the German soldiers on the train) but then forgotten about a handful of pages later? If we never find out who did it, and we barely cover the strain it causes between her and her husband (it’s mentioned, and he wants to go fight the soldiers to vent some rage, but nothing comes of it) then why include it at all? I made this complaint about All the Light We Cannot See as well, that a basically gratuitous rape scene was included to quickly stand in for the horrors of war to women, but neither story gives the trauma of rape any real depth or consideration. It’s there to check a box that some authors apparently think need ticking: this is a war story, and rape happens in war (I’m not arguing that) so some woman needs to get raped before the end of the story.

But no, they really, really don’t, not if it’s a mere footnote of suffering that has no impact on the plot and is never even resolved, in this case.

To wrap this up, I’ll mention I experienced many of the same language and translation issues other reviewers have suffered–this is not elegant prose in English, and because I speak zero Turkish, I’ll never know if the original is better in that regard. But beautiful language wouldn’t have saved this plot, and the plot isn’t the responsibility of the translator.

I can’t recommend this to anyone, and if, like me, this is sitting around in your TBR because you got it for free on World Book Day, I wouldn’t feel bad about discarding this unread.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #17)

#47 – The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

  • Mount TBR: 45/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book with illustrations
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A quote from the final pages sums up my problem with this book, and with almost any book I’ve read that promises deep insights into life, the universe, or human spirituality:

“If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them.”

I won’t say that I got nothing from this book, but I got very, very little. For every line that resonated with me, for every tiny chunk of fable that seemed to make clear a fundamental truth about existence, there were five more bits that I read and thought, “how antiquated,” or “how limiting,” or, “how vague.”

Because in trying to be all things to all people, to reach as wide an audience as possible (as it clearly has) it has to be vague and applicable to everyone. I won’t attribute capitalist motives to an author who took twelve years to write a book of not even a hundred pages, published almost a hundred years ago: trying to view it through today’s modern lens takes this laughably out of context. But as I read, I did get a sense of the author seeing himself as the prophet bringing this pablum to the masses, and while a quick read of the history of the book and its author makes it clear the content draws on multiple religious faiths, the bones of it are obviously Christian, right down to the Scripture-like style.

Which can be beautiful, at times, even as it is vague, high-minded tripe.

I’m wary of any book that promises spiritual revelation. And now that I’ve read this one, I’m skeptical of its ability to reveal truth when it’s so riddled with contradiction–in particular, the fact that the entire story is framed as the Prophet delivering wisdom through speech, yet “…in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.” So all of us normal people, we talk just to hear ourselves and it’s useless, but you, special Mr. Prophet, you drop pearls of brilliance twenty-six times in a row? Plus, of course, that built-in “get out of jail free” card, the line I quoted at the beginning of the review, that tells the reader “hey, it’s okay to not fully understand this, don’t think about it too hard” because it all might unravel if you do. Yet, clearly the author thought about all of this very hard–I would never have guessed it took so long to write such a short book, but I guess if one is selling a philosophy rather than a story, one has to develop it first. And the fable about teaching also boils down to “you already know these things deep inside you, so what can teachers actually do?” Which is also a contradiction–the author is trying to teach me his way of spirituality, and it’s not ingrained in me already–and also rubs badly against my grounding in the sciences, because that’s not how science works.

I won’t say this book is entirely without value, but it’s basically a mirror–when I read it, I agreed with the parts I already agreed with, and rejected the parts that made little sense to me or I outright disagreed with. In the end, it didn’t teach me anything or deliver any kind of spiritual awakening.

That second star in the rating is for the beauty of the language alone, because it is well-crafted, and when I read a few lines out loud to myself, the cadence is charmingly musical and flowing. My view of the actual content is solidly one-star.

And now that I think about it, even writing a review to post qualifies as “talking,” in the sense of communicating ideas through words, so here, too, my thinking about this book is supposedly “half murdered,” yet the reason I write reviews is as much to clarify and codify my feelings and reactions to the books I read, as it is to have other people read the reviews and know my thoughts (and possibly allow my opinion to sway their decision to read the book, or not, depending on the book and the person involved.) Would the author be hostile to the idea of book reviews? An interesting thought experiment.