This Week, I Read… (2017 #7)

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#20 – The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook

This has, hands down, some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen in a fantasy work. Anyone with even the most basic grasp of the steampunk ethos will understand the details of this particular world without trouble, as the fantastical elements are introduced smoothly as part of the story, at a pace that won’t overwhelm.

There’s very little in the way of exposition-dumping, either for the worldbuilding or for the political elements of the story. Granted, on the latter count that means I didn’t jump to the same conclusions about motivations as the characters did, but the maneuvering will undoubtedly be easier to follow on a second read.

The romance was nicely balanced with the mystery/thriller/action plot (and boy, is some of the action slick) and I found I liked Rhys more than I usually do a typical Alpha Male Badass. That stereotype generally doesn’t have much in the way of flaws, or they have the One Serious Flaw that the love of the heroine will “cure.” Rhys, on the other hand, has quite a few issues, and Mina’s love doesn’t solve or erase any of them–just gives him the will to do better on his own terms. Which is awesome. I mean, an AMB who can both admit he’s wrong and ask for forgiveness? Not something I’m used to seeing.

Speaking of Mina, hey, look, a heroine who’s great at her job and WE GET TO SEE IT IN ACTION. She is not composed of informed traits handed to the reader by other characters. She is a complex knot comprised of family, ethical, and sociopolitical tensions, with a wicked sense of humor and an uncompromising view of her duties and responsibilities. I think I might be a little in love with her myself…

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#21 – Seduced, by Cari Quinn and Taryn Elliot

I’m all for romances with alternate structures or surprising turns, and this might have qualified, with the two male POV characters from the same rock band who each carry on their own “romance.”

On the other hand, calling this work a romance at all is really stretching the genre. There’s no Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending for either lead. Both of them are rampant mysogynists who treat pretty much every woman in their sphere like shit, and no, neither of them show any signs of growing out of that by the end of the book.

What the book really is, is setup for the rest of the series, and it shows. I have the next two books, as I purchased them all on sale way back in 2015 (hence them being part of the BtB challenge, I’m trying to clean up even my digital TBR pile) and I know from the blurbs that the next book features what appears to be an actual romance plot with a third member of the band, so that’s something, at least.

But this is just marking time on the romance end of things so that the band’s rise to fame can be told from the beginning, which strikes me as sloppy and unsatisfying. I wanted and expected romance, and I got so-so smut featuring two men who don’t even seem to like women, let alone love them.

If I didn’t already have the next two books and plan to read them as part of the challenge, I would not be continuing this series.

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#22 – Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City, by Meljean Brook

A quick, enjoyable novella that caps off Rhys and Mina’s love story with a short new mystery and some welcome insight into how their marriage turns out. While I have a beef with novels that end in cliffhangers to be resolved with novellas (grrrrrrr) that isn’t the case here: The Iron Duke had a true ending to both its main plot and its romance. This is just a bonus, giving us a peek into how they go on with each other, like an extended epilogue.

I docked it a star because it actually seemed a little rushed–the new mystery couldn’t be nearly as complex, given the space constraints, and I think it would have benefited from being longer and a bit better-developed.

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#24 – Finding Destiny, by Christa Simpson

Firstly, setting this book around Valentine’s Day turned out to be nothing more than a pretext to introduce the female lead as being tired of men and uninterested in dating. Yawn. Nothing else about the story has the slightest thing to do with the holiday, to my disappointment.

Secondly, despite this introduction, she falls into bed with the first cute guy she meets after less than twenty-four hours of knowing him. So much for being tired of men, am I right? Because he’s just that hot, I guess.

Thirdly, there’s zero character development. Personality traits are shallow and unchanging. Dialogue is stilted and semi-ridiculous. The female lead doesn’t seem to give two shits about her friends, despite one of them being injured, and in her internal monologue she calls her other friend a “slut” for jumping into bed with the male lead’s brother right away.

Well, honey, she only beat you doing the same thing by about twelve hours, so what does that make you?

This story is basically a bare-bones Snowed In trope, where pretty people have sex with each other because they’re stuck together and might as well do something.

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#24 – The Lost Duke of Wyndham, by Julia Quinn

My previous dislike of historical romances, years past, has mostly stemmed from a distaste for either the fussy formality of them, or the blandness that type of society seems to press upon the characters.

Here, Jack Audley, former highwayman and then presumed Duke, is an absolute charmer with genuine warmth and a sly sense of humor that informs the tone of the entire narrative. I fell for him just as fast as the heroine Grace did.

That being said, their relationship only dips its toes past the shoreline of the InstaLove trope that so many romances fall prey to. It does make sense, given the urgency of determining Jack’s legitimacy of succession, that the main plot would feel hurried, but the romance suffers for it, stirring everyone (not just the couple) into fevered heights of emotion that throw the family into turmoil.

But Jack is determined to make his own Happily Ever After, and he does. Which is satisfying in one sense, of course–we romance readers do love HEAs after all–but given how quickly it comes about, it seems to easy.

Bonus points to Quinn, though, for abandoning the typical pain-and-blood narrative associating with a woman losing her virginity. Actually, in hindsight, I’m not even sure the word “virginity” was ever used, which is nice to see.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #6)

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#17 – Trial by Desire, by Courtney Milan

I don’t read a lot of historical romances, but I’ve been trying to branch out by picking them up at book sales, especially when I see one by an author who’s been recommended to me several times, or has come to my attention elsewhere.

In Courtney Milan’s case, I’d heard of her in passing, but she joined my to-read list with an entry in her current contemporary series that features LGBTQIA+ characters. I was excited about that before, and now that I’ve read her work, I’m even more excited.

I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, I liked this more than other period pieces I’ve read. Maybe because it was emotionally honest in a way that didn’t truly depend on the trappings of High Society to cause conflict–there’s only so many times you can read about a heroine Breaking the Rules™ before it gets old.

And yet, this heroine does break the rules, in most spectacular fashion, but she does it in secret, for a good cause, and not because she’s bored or attention-seeking. And the hero? Aside from some cheesiness in the repeated theme of “taming the dragon,” used to refer to his inner struggles, I found him charming and quite different. While I don’t suffer from major depressive episodes myself, I found the depiction of them in his case realistic (feel free, readers, to disagree if you know better, I’m always willing to be educated) and while fiction in general still has a long way to go in not romanticizing OR stigmatizing mental illness, I felt like this was presented fairly. The hero’s depression was something he didn’t like about himself and something he worked hard to rein in, so clearly he felt negatively about it (ie, it wasn’t romanticized) but the heroine didn’t shun him for it, in fact coming to a realization about herself and how to support him through it (not stigmatized.)

And as I do know myself, a supportive partner makes all the difference on bad mental health days. So kudos, Courtney Milan, I look forward to reading more of your work.

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#18 – Get A Clue, by Jill Shalvis

My first DNF of the year, which is richly deserved. Where do I start?

The hero is an entitled jerk who repeatedly causes the heroine to feel stressed, harassed, or physically uncomfortable.

The heroine, however, does more than a little to invite this behavior by being scared one minute (of him, or of the “creepy” house–more on that later) then wanting to jump his bones the next, because gosh darnit he’s just so HOT.

So that’s two of her three possible emotional states–the other one is annoyed. She is relentlessly negative about everything. Yeah, yeah, she had a shitty day, that’s the whole premise, but I definitely see why three different men have all left her at the altar.

(Which is, in and of itself, somewhat preposterous. Sure, she could have been engaged three times, but not one of them broke it off before the big day? Seriously?)

Then let’s talk about the murder mystery. Because there is one, apparently. The power goes out at the luxury rental house early on, and we the reader are constantly told how frightened the heroine is (even though there’s very little but darkness, and occasionally the advances of the hero, to unnerve her) but I never felt it. It just seemed ridiculous, because the description of the setting was basic and flat.

Oh, and racial stereotyping alert: the butler looked like “a thug” and also looked “Cuban.” Because he had tattoos, I think, but honestly I’m not even sure. This was published in 2005, and I realize thug didn’t become a highly politicized, racially-charged word in the collective social consciousness until after that, so I can sort of let that slide; but there are constant references to how dangerous he looks, and for no obvious reason, because none of his actions on the page tally with that assessment. So the heroine is racist, which wasn’t appealing to read.

And it should be noted, this is WELL before the body shows up and any actual danger manifests. In fact, I didn’t even get that far–in a 309-page book, the dead guy doesn’t make an appearance until almost halfway through, on page 137. I skimmed ahead when I decided to stop reading, because I was curious about just how long that plot would take to get going.

This book is just laughably bad.

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#19 – Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon

This wordy ramble started so slow I wondered if I would even have it done this week, hence the quickie paperback romances I shoehorned in.

Once I hit the middle, where the action picked up with some characters time-traveling back to see our beloved Jamie and Claire–ill-advisedly, I might add–things got interesting, and I was quite pleased to sit down for three hours and chug right along toward the end.

But the last quarter of the book, and the ending? Seriously disappointing. A) How many characters have to get raped, because that’s beyond overused as a plot point in this series, and B) how does the end manage to feel like a letdown and a cliffhanger at the same time? Very little is actually resolved, beyond the new romance story line, and even that’s not exactly a happy ending, or even a Happy For Now.

I realize there’s four more published works in the series, and it’s not even done yet, but just how long can we keep these plates spinning?

Are You a Book Monogamist?

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My whole life, I’ve been a book monogamist–that is, I only read one book at a time. Sure, during school I had my classwork reading and my personal reading, so I was juggling multiple books at once. But I don’t count that, because my personal reading was still only one book at a time. Pick it up, read until I was done, start something else.

I’ll admit it–for a long time, I thought that’s how everyone read. I thought that was the only way to read. Why would you want to start another book when you haven’t finished the first one?

Well, now I have a Kindle, and I don’t take it to work with me. Buuuut I do want to read on my lunch break. So now I’m a book bigamist (not that I’ve ever actually heard anyone use that term, but it’s the logical next step) reading two books at once–the Kindle book when I’m at home, and a physical copy of something on my breaks.

It’s weird, and I’m not sure I like it.

Let me tell you why this is happening. For Beat the Backlist this year, I decided to wrap up a bunch of unfinished series, including the Outlander books. I read the first one in 2015 and the second and third last year. So here I am, wallowing through the 1000+ pages of Drums of Autumn, and I realized two things: 1) I might not have it done before Friday, which would leave me without any reviews to post; and 2) I needed something to read at work.

So I’m all about catching up on my stockpiled romances in February, and I did not lack for choice. I grabbed one and oops! finished it in just over a day instead of spacing it out over several, reading it at work AND at home until I was done.

So yesterday, I needed a different non-Outlander book to take to work with me. Which I’m strongly considering DNFing.

I’m apparently bad at book bigamy, because if I pick up a second book, I want to finish it before going back to the first.

My question to any readers who regularly juggle books: why is this your style? Different books for different moods, or something else? I’m confused, because this is not how my brain is trained to read, but curious about it.

This Week, I Read… (2017 #5)

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#13 – The Shining, by Stephen King

Having seen the Kubrick movie adaptation so many times, it was impossible for me to entirely divorce those images from my reading of the book, but for the most part, that didn’t end up mattering–where the movie follows the book, it follows it with incredible precision, and the scenes played out in my head perfectly.

Where the movie differs from the book, it does so wildly, and mostly to its detriment. The book ending is FAR superior. I do see why the topiary animals in the book became the hedge maze for the movie–early ’80s special effects weren’t necessarily up to the task–so that’s one change I can forgive. But the rest is all nonsense, and now that I’ve read the book, I see why I’ve been hearing for so long that as good as the movie is (and it is good) the book is still better.

 

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#14 – The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

It was so close to being a five-star book, but the ending didn’t sit quite right with me. Even given that this was a retelling of a Russian folk tale, knowing its ending, I almost believed The Snow Child itself would turn out differently. It’s not that it was a sad(ish) ending that I object to; it was that Faina was both frightened and hopeful about being a mother, and having her “die” (ie, return to the wilderness, leaving behind her newborn) lops off her character arc too early. In fact, she could almost be a prop at that point, satisfying Mabel’s need to be a mother by first acting as a daughter, then providing her with an actual baby to coo over. Not that it isn’t wonderful to see the family united in the end by the child, but why couldn’t Faina have stayed? Or a compromise worked out, like the way she was gone in the summers as a child?

Now that I’ve gone and spoiled that, I will say, it’s still worth reading. The prose is beautifully simple and direct, the setting gorgeously characterized, and the characters charming. Like I said, it was so close to earning those five stars.

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#15 – Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach

This was weird, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I can’t say I’m opposed to a book aimed at children that focuses on the morals of hard work and self-improvement, but at the same time, the liberal use of the word “perfect” implies a kind of fanaticism about self-improvement that might set an unattainable goal. And honestly, I was getting tonal whiplash, reading the moralizing for a few paragraphs, then being bombarded with a section on flight speeds and dive heights and record-breaking number after number.

It was good in many ways, but it also felt disjointed. And the photos didn’t add anything for me, grainy and pedestrian as they were. I might have been mildly interested as a four-year-old, but as an adult they were boring.

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#16 – Seduce Me at Sunrise, by Lisa Kleypas

The second entry in the Hathaway series is enjoyable overall, but it suffered from some tropes I don’t personally care for. The “love” triangle is a rivalry so weak it’s barely worth being part of the novel–not only is it a foregone conclusion who Winnifred will end up with, the final twist of that subplot is poorly foreshadowed.

The “mysterious” tattoos on both the male lead from the first book and the lead in this one finally get explained, and that was pretty obvious too–they’re long-lost brothers. Okay, that’s fine, but hey, they’re also lost heirs to an Irish lordship! How convenient! How overdone!

That being said, I did still like this, on the strength of finely-drawn characters in a large family with interesting dynamics, and on the heart of the love story itself (ignoring the semi-pointless rival) being solid. I seem to enjoy Kleypas’ writing style and characterization more than her choice of plot elements–I’ll have to take a hard look at the third book in the series to see if I want to keep going.

The End of the Month Wrap-Up: January 2017!

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I made four major resolutions for this year: write more, journal more, exercise more, and Read My Own Damn Books.

I’m happy to report three of the four are going well. (It’s tough to run when it’s all ice and snow outside. I’ll do better as the weather gets warmer.)

On the writing front, I have cold, hard numbers to report. As part of the 365K/365 Day Challenge, I’ve been tracking my word count vigilantly.

For January:

  • 41,078 words written (/31,000 goal)
  • Highest words/day: 2,655
  • Lowest words/day: 1,006
  • Average words/day: 1,325
  • Yearly goal completed: 11%

And almost all of that writing has been on a single project: the Rock Star Novel, a.k.a. my NaNoWriMo 2016 novel that “won” at 53K but wasn’t nearly done at all. The final version of the first draft clocks in at a whopping 115K (that’s 20-25K more than any of the What We Need books’ early drafts) and boy, am I ready to work on something else for a while!

That something else, for a few days at least, will be proof notes on the WWNTR beta draft, then when I’ve got all that in order, the actual rewriting will follow. #RockStar might have taken me longer to finish than I’d hoped, but it’s done, and I won’t let my beloved trilogy go unfinished any longer than I have to!

On the journaling front, I’m in love-love-love with my art journals, and I actually finished my first one a few days ago, the one I’ve been showing off (sporadically) since I made the darned thing last April. I’ll start sharing pages here from my new one in February, of course. I splurged on new art supplies (I have succumbed to the joy of gel pens,) and giving my right brain something fun to do has helped keep my left brain from burning out over all the writing.

My reading is also going well: 15 books this month! One I borrowed from my mother and two were library books I needed for the PopSugar challenge, so I’m actually a tiny bit behind pace for Mount TBR 2017–I’ve only read 12 of my own, which puts me behind pace for the year. But I’m focusing in February on catching up on some backlogged romances, and those usually go fast, so I’m not worried.

How’s everyone else doing on their goals for 2017, reading or otherwise?

#Motivation Monday: Quotes

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I’ll be providing an update in a few days about how my various New Year’s resolutions are going, as part of the monthly wrap-up, but it’s fair to say now that I’m not operating at 100% yet, for a lot of reasons.

I thought this would be a good time to share a few choice bits of wisdom and inspiration that help keep me going. Some are about writing specifically, some about art, and some about life in general, but they’re all good things to keep in mind when you want to give up on whatever you’re doing.

“Creativity takes courage.”  Henri Matisse

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” — Salvador Dali

“Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking at what you did.” — Neil Gaiman

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

“Passion is what gets you through the hardest times that might otherwise make strong men weak, or make you give up.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.” — Octavia E. Butler
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe
Got any quotes to add to my list? I’d love to hear your favorites!

This Week, I Read… (2017 #4)

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#9 – Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas

I tried to read this book once before, back in 2015. One of the librarians who most often handled my checkouts saw me, over several visits, taking out their entire Maggie Stiefvater collection, so she asked me if I had ever read Sarah J. Maas. I had not, so I added ToG to the pile.

Perhaps because I was coming down from a Stiefvater hangover, ToG suffered badly by comparison. I hate love triangles as a trope and got about four chapters in before I saw the angst coming for me down the line. And I thought Caelena was too perfect–despite her assassin-ness, she struck me as good at everything with no flaws except her temper. I DNF’d and didn’t even record that I’d tried to read it.

Here I am, giving it a second chance after reading (and loving) Maas’ other series, and hearing extensively from book buddies that the ToG series starts weak and gets better.

Surprisingly, this time I found I liked it much more than I expected to. I guess I was acclimated to Maas’ style, and honestly, knowing Caelena is held up as a shining example of “young love doesn’t have to last forever” and “it’s okay to date lots of people before you find the one you want forever” has reconciled me to the love triangle. Those are lessons young women need to hear (this is YA, after all) and while you know I’m a diehard romantic, true love doesn’t often come into your life so quickly.

And, to be fair, the relationships between the three people involved were much more nuanced and less angsty than I was given to expect.

It’s not going to win any awards as my favorite book, or even my favorite Maas book (thank you, ACOMAF) but I am definitely intrigued enough to keep going with the series. Caelena shows a lot more potential than I’d expected, even if she’s still basically good at everything and her only initial flaws are her temper (I was right about that the first time) and occasionally her impulsiveness. But given what I’ve seen from Maas elsewhere, I don’t doubt there will be lots of character growth to keep me going.

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#10 – The Dark Wife, by Sarah Diemer

I’d heard a fair bit of buzz about this. A lesbian retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone? Sign me up!

But, sadly, it’s a wreck of a story.

First, the technical aspects: the prose is stilted and florid. It felt like it was about 80% dialogue and internal monologue, so there was A LOT of telling and almost no showing, ever. I was being spoon-fed this epic, semi-tragic romance, hammered repeatedly over the head with just how beautiful everything was, how sad it was, how absolutely and completely wonderful and amazing and ohmygod the first “sex” scene is a single run-on sentence with about a, hundred, commas, for, all, the, clauses, it’s seriously an entire page long, but it’s so vague, you’re halfway through, before you even realize, they’re probably having sex.

Whew. That was actually painful to make myself write.

But the romance, being entirely told, was weak. Neither Fem!Hades or Persephone had much of a personality, it’s insta-attraction turned semi-instant love, and partway through Gaea, Mother of Everybody, comes to Persephone and tells her this has all been foretold, she’s going to save Hades and the Underworld and Everything Else Ever. It’s all hand-waving instead of actual character and relationship development.

But my real bone to pick deals with Fem!Hades herself. Gender-bending Hades is entirely unnecessary and doesn’t add a single thing to the story.

WAIT! PUT DOWN YOUR PITCHFORKS!

I want LGBTQIA representation in romances, I do. I want it across the board in all genres. But what does this story, specifically, gain from making Hades female?

The common romanticization of Male!Hades is that he’s misunderstood. Not in the typical modern bad-boy way, but the other gods speak of Hades as a cold, implacable force, Lord of the Underworld, without a heart or much in the way of feelings.

Persephone comes and either a) shows him how to love; or b) reveals that he’s always been a heart-of-gold type of guy, nurturing and loving and tender behind the mask he’s forced to don as LotU.

In one fic I read years ago (sadly it’s been taken down so I can’t provide the source for you) Male!Hades was actually Farmer!Hades–he had a deep love of his land and wished he could have gardens and farms and all that like the Earth did, but nothing would grow until Persephone showed up. It wasn’t a desire brought on by her appearance–he was always that way, and that’s why he was emotionally closed off, because he was unfulfilled by the life he had before her.

So you see what I’m getting at, right? Hades as the romantic hero actually relies on the subversion of Alpha-Male-Hero stereotypes. Sure, he’s powerful, he’s a god and it’s often stated/implied he’s actually one of the most powerful gods around, if not the most. But that’s never why Persephone loves him. She does because she expected to find a monster and got a loving, wonderful man, a man he either becomes or is revealed to be solely because of her presence. Loving!Hades is hers and no one else’s.

Making Hades female undoes all the good of that subversion. Women are expected to be loving, nurturing, to care for their homes and everyone around them. Here, Fem!Hades isn’t defying or subverting any stereotypes, she’s embodying them.

Which is why this was such a disappointment. It’s not even that the gender-bending is merely cosmetic–I wouldn’t have a problem with that–it’s that it actively undermines the entire dynamic of the love story.

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#11 – The Martian, by Andy Weir

A modern take on the epistolary style of novels, I chose The Martian for this task because the bulk of the story is told through Mark Watney’s logs of his time on Mars. It’s a blend of genre-saavy and narratively engaging, and I love it.

Problem was (slight problem, anyway) that I didn’t keep loving it. By the end, I felt the constant “This piece of tech went wonky, here’s how I fixed it” to be extremely repetitive and numbing, taking away some of the emotional drama from the climax.

This book, while awesome in so many ways, definitely illustrates the danger of having your protagonist exist for long periods of time in isolation. Without anyone else to interact with, the only actions Watney can take are accidentally breaking things and then fixing them.

The beginning started off strong with his realization of his predicament and all the MacGuyver-esque problem-solving, and the highest point of the story (for me) was not when (spoilers) Watney got off Mars at the end, but only midway through, when he made contact with Earth again for the first time. So, yeah, the same-ness of the plot throughout really dragged at me towards the end, which dinged it that star it could have earned if it had continued to be awesome all the way through.

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#12 – The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, by Carey Wallace

Another contender in the Starts Strong, Ends Weak category. I was enchanted by the fairy-tale tone and idyllic Italian villa setting, with the promise of romance.

What I got was a muddled mess of vivid dream imagery interwoven with boring characters doing nothing. Over-reliance on the protagonist’s dreams, with their incredibly fanciful descriptions, made it hard for me to recall while she was awake that she was blind–she was born sighted and gradually lost her vision, so she could still “see” in dreams, and having the two types of passages constantly switching back and forth made the distinction hazy. Tighter writing could have fixed a lot of that, or making the dream passages shorter or less frequent.

It was clearly a literary device instead of an actual component of the story, and it weakened the already-trite plot. What was supposed to be a “romance” was actually two unhappily-married people having an affair with each other and almost running away together, but not, because the protagonist’s husband took her away himself before she could go. And then an incredibly brief, unsatisfying tacked-on epilogue about her typewriter, which despite being the titular object of the story, shows up very late and doesn’t really change as much as it should. It’s such a non-object I almost forgot to include it in my review at all!