This Week, I Read… (2021 #44)

#133 – Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown

  • Mount TBR: 104/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a book I’ve heard so many good things about, this was a disappointment, because it had an awful lot of “yikes” moments and even more unquestioned ableism, biphobia, and internalized misogyny on the part of many characters.

If you’re a teenage Christian lesbian questioning how to navigate your own fraught existence within the teachings of your faith, this book is for you. If you fail to check even one of those boxes, something about this story might very well make you angry.

But let’s start with what’s good about it–despite my one-star rating, there are a few things I liked, just not enough to outweigh all the bad.

1. Friendship. The circle of friends Joanna finds herself with after her relocation to small-town Georgia is generally a good one (minus the obviously telegraphed homophobic apple of the bunch, who is both hater and hated by the end.) When things get messy for both Joanna and Mary Carlson, these friends really do step up and prove they believe in love, forgiveness, and having each others’ backs.

2. Elizabeth, the stepmom. No, she’s not perfect, but over the course of the story I’d argue she gets a better character arc than Joanna herself; she really finds it in her to shed the homophobia inherent in her upbringing (and still pointedly present in her mother) to be a positive force in Joanna’s life. Also, I’m just so tired of the Evil Stepmother.

3. Dana, which I’m honestly surprised to find myself saying. Sure, she’s a total delinquent, but delinquency isn’t a solely male pastime as other media might have you believe, and also not all lesbians are perfect angels who don’t have other problems. Plus, she’s just about the only character in the whole book who consistently calls Joanna on her bullshit, which there’s a lot of.

So what’s bad about it? Everything else.

1. Biphobia: everyone in this book is either lesbian or straight. There are no gay men (ETA: I remembered a few hours after I wrote this that there’s a gay couple at the dance who compliments Joanna’s outfit, but I don’t remember their names, if they even had any, and they never showed up again) and no bisexuals of any gender, let alone any of the even-less-well-known flavors of queerness. When Christianity intersects with the homophobia I’ll give this a pass–like the “returns to being a breeder” example in one of the glossed-over sermons early in the book–but from the actual behavior of named characters, I want to see better. While Joanna knows herself to be a lesbian, so we as readers know she was never really interested in George, to others that apparent interest is confirmation that she’s straight; to everyone else, constantly in all of their discussions and actions, you’re either attracted to men or attracted to women, and that’s that, no murkiness allowed. No one ever goes so far as to say anything directly biphobic, but they don’t have to, because bisexuality simply does not exist in this story, there’s no room for it to.

2. Ableism: other reviewers have gone into far more detail about this subject that I can with my own limited experience, but even I know that this pervasive air of patient but condescending tolerance of the differently abled may appear benign but is still ableism. And as charming as B.T.B. could be out of context–I do genuinely like some of the things he says in conversation–he doesn’t strike me as positive representation of, well, anything, firstly because his disability/neurodivergence is never addressed directly so I don’t know what he’s meant to be representing; also because simply making a teenage character so obviously child-like without further explanation of why is such a lazy way of going about it.

3. Internalized misogyny: listen, I’m not a lesbian, I’m bi, so I can’t begin to unpack the complicated relationship any given lesbian might have to traditionally feminine presentation and how that differs (or doesn’t) from my lived experience. But I do know that this book opened by assuming I already knew exactly what Jo the teenage lesbian looked like, because it wasn’t described in any great detail before she suddenly remakes her entire appearance to fit in better with the small-town Christian vibe of her new home. She feels conflicted about making those changes, but then later conflicted about liking some of those changes, while the whole time Dana (in an aspect of her character that I did not like) is constantly ragging on her for selling out, basically. As if the only way to be a “true” lesbian is whatever the mashup of goth and punk and any other fashion trend they think rejects traditional femininity. I hate to tell you if you didn’t already know, but femme lesbians exist and are just as valid, and appearing more traditionally feminine is not a sign of straightness or selling out. Also, Joanna makes a lot of offhanded comments about how her crying is also weakness or “girly girl”-ness, and I’m just not here for that, because crying is both an entirely natural response to stress or emotional turmoil, and that’s not just misogyny, it’s misandry, because dammit, boys cry too and they should absolutely be allowed to, so stop equating crying with weakness and femininity already!

4. Christianity: woooo boy. As someone raised Christian who has left the faith, I suppose I should be applauding that books like this even exist, that there are Christians who say “love is love” and not “God hates fags.” But even the “good” Christians in this book are still pretty inflexible for a big chunk of it and have to have their own character arcs of Joanna holding their hands and gently leading them to acceptance, or occasionally yelling at them to prod them along. (The notable exception being Mary Carlson’s parents, who seem to be awesome and accepting right off the bat, but their transition from not knowing their daughter was queer to being supportive parents happens entirely off-page, until MC and Joanna make up at the end.) It was honestly just exhausting, and that tentative, hand-holding level of change made the whole book come off as apologia for that very same religious inflexibility. Yes, the worst offenders are either disliked by the important characters (Mrs. Foley) or socially ostracized from the friend group (Jessica) but everyone else gets babied about it.

5. Actual writing problems that aren’t some sort of social justice problematic bullhonky: This book is entirely too long for its plot and spends far too much time indulging itself in Joanna waffling about literally everything in her life. Cut even just 50% of her internal whining and the story gets 100 pages shorter. Also, she’s a terrible protagonist, not on a moral or social level, but simply because 90% of her problems are her own fault, in such ways that I don’t feel any sympathy for her. Yes, her father asked her to do something out of line; but she agreed to it, bargained for things she wanted with that leverage, then started a whirlwind of lies to basically everyone she interacted with in order to hold the door open for still getting what she wanted. And that’s most of the story–an external threat to Joanna’s journey of self-hood doesn’t rear its head again until about 2/3 of the way through, with the stepmom’s pregnancy subplot. Yes, the story has to threaten Joanna with being a potentially miscarriage-inducing source of stress to her family in order to raise the stakes, because she’d gotten so close to coming clean about everything that possible sibling death was the only thing to prevent her. Was that really the right way to escalate the situation?

6. The ending: am I actually supposed to be happy that MC took Joanna back after the 400 pages of lies Joanna told her? Oh, right, Christian forgiveness and all. But seriously, MC would be better off with almost anyone else, and the possible girlfriend after Joanna, Deidre, had to be a blatantly manipulative (possible, future) abuser in order to seem like Joanna was a better choice. And in case you didn’t notice this from Deidre’s behavior, more than one friend character literally says so out loud to Joanna, to eliminate any possibility of missing the messaging. It’s a pretty bad romance book when I’m not actually happy that the couple gets back together at the end, right?

#134 – Burn for Me, by Ilona Andrews

  • Mount TBR: 105/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

By all rights, I should be panning this book to some degree, because it should feel like a direct rehash of the Kate Daniels series. Sure, the setting is different–there’s magic, but so far no beast people or mythical creatures, and it’s definitely pre- rather than post-apocalypse–but the same major elements are there. The heroine is a smart and spunky private investigator who isn’t fully aware or or able to utilize her own power, hinting at secrets in her past. Her love interest, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful men around, with the skewed moral compass and priorities to match. They’re forced to work together by circumstances when they don’t fully trust each other, but sparks are constantly flying.

It’s Kate and Curran all over again, minus the shapeshifting part.

But I’m giving this book five stars, and you want to know why? Because it all still works. I’m not above reading stories based on the tropes and dynamics I love over and over again. If I were, I wouldn’t be a romance reader, because while I value variety in how storytelling is approached, romances do follow certain patterns, and this push-pull power dynamic is one of them, and it’s one that Andrews does extremely well.

I wish I were already reading the next book, and if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is. (I don’t own it yet. Is it on Hoopla? I should check to see if it’s on Hoopla, because then I could start it today.)

#135 – White Hot, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Five stars for being an addictive read that I tore through in less than 24 hours. Maybe only four for the actual plot–this suffers slightly from what I presume is middle-book syndrome, where everything that’s up in the air at the end of the first novel (the romance, the conspiracy plot) still has to be an least somewhat unresolved at the end of the second so that we can tie it all up (hopefully) in the third.

As I said with Burn for Me, the primary romance dynamic is still roughly the same as Kate and Curran from the Kate Daniels series; Incredibly Powerful Alpha meets a Plucky Female Private Investigator who doesn’t put up with his bullshit. And yes, I still like it. But what I like more is that in between all these crazy action scenes, we get to know both of them better and both have moved away from that reductive framework I slotted them into at first. Nevada is defined by her love for her family and the pressure of her (at least partially self-imposed) responsibilities towards them. Rogan is struggling with how his highly unusual military service has affected his mindset and personality. Both seem to spend a lot of time wondering how tenable a relationship is for them beyond their wild and compelling sexual attraction, and that’s still a question at the end of the story, though matters have (*cough*) progressed in some respects.

As we get to know Nevada we’re also getting to know her family better, and I have to say I like them too. It’s only snippets at this point because there are a fair number of them as a supporting cast, but they not only feel like real people but interesting ones: I look forward to watching the younger ones come into their magic as the series progresses (because I peeked ahead and I know that one of Nevada’s sisters will move up to protagonist status.) Meanwhile, I will wonder quietly about potential future romances for Leon and Bern (extremely unlikely, I know, but an interesting thought exercise in what sort of stories they would star in) and look forward to both this arc’s conclusion with the next book, and the start of Catalina’s down the road.

#136 – Clean Sweep, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Using up my Hoopla digital borrows for this month led me to a backlog of Ilona Andrews books I haven’t read yet, so I took a break from the Hidden Legacy series to give the Innkeeper Chronicles a try.

For this author, honestly, this book is kind of bad. Which still makes it better than a lot of the romances I try randomly across many authors and subgenres, true, but it feels lean, underdeveloped, and mildly disappointing.

The world-building has potential and I like what I do get of it, but there are also a lot of moments where events hinge on things that haven’t already been introduced. Most telling in this is that at the beginning, it seems like it’s going to be a Sean/Dina romance by the end, but partway through, suddenly there’s a vampire who becomes both a major character and another potential love interest, leading to an unresolved love triangle cliffhanger that was not at all satisfying. At several points through the rising action of the vampire’s plot line, he stops to work out and/or explain precisely why all this nonsense is happening, based on complicated cultural politics that no one else involved (me the reader included) could possibly have known at that point, so despite the stakes being at least a little personal for Dina (the safety of her inn was threatened) it felt like the story wasn’t actually about her. Especially because it’s hammered in repeatedly that she probably shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place, which gives everything an extra layer of contrivance.

(The pointed final lampshade between Sean and Arland that was clearly referencing the Twilight series didn’t help. Okay, IA, you wanted to write a vampire/werewolf love triangle of your own. Fine. There’s no need to be cute about it.)

What rescued this from being unreadable was the characteristic snark and sass that at least two or three characters in any IA book are required to have, and in this case, one of those was an obviously powerful but equally mysterious permanent “guest” of Dina’s inn, whose nearly every line was a treasure of attitude and humor. Sean also came out on the funnier side of the Badass Alpha Male stereotype, which I appreciated.

When my borrows refresh in a few days I’ll give the second book a try, but I’m not a huge fan of love triangles, so if this series doesn’t get better in a real hurry, I’ll drop it.

#137 – Wildfire, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A solid conclusion to Nevada’s trilogy within the larger series, but it fell down on enough minor stuff that no matter how much I enjoyed parts of it, it’s not a five-star finale.

I love that Cornelius, the client from book two, is still around in his new capacity. Compared to Rogan he’s definitely painted as a beta male and less desirable (not that he’s remotely a love interest possibility in universe, just in general) but I love that he’s a good, caring dad, he’s intelligent and willing to learn from his mistakes, and he’s constantly surrounded by animals like a Disney Princess. A+ supporting character.

I thought the conspiracy plot was finished off well (aside from that one all-important detail, which I’ll get back to later) and most of the action surrounding it was fine. I did think that the Final Boss himself was a bit of a letdown, not in terms of power, but in terms of plot importance–the encounters with his henchmen earlier had more personal stakes, and the escalation to “but now we have to save the city from this semi-madman who wants to destroy it to escape the consequences of his actions” was a pretty big jump and somehow actually felt less important than saving the kids did earlier.

The weakest part of the book to me overall was Rynda, both in her capacity as client, and as Rogan’s ex. Sure, her husband was kidnapped and that’s what starts the plot moving, but at all points she’s a pretty terrible person to everyone involved (except her kids, in theory, though we don’t actually see her parenting them at all, they’re just props for her to worry about) and something about her behavior always rang false to me in a way that the story wasn’t accounting for. I understand that she’s supposed to be an empath who doesn’t use her powers because she’s convinced everyone hates her and she feels deeply unloved, which she then turns outward into being an off-putting person as a defense mechanism. But her excessively needy behavior and reliance on men to solve her problems never squared neatly with that, and her desperate attempts to get Rogan back, especially late in the story, were in direct conflict with what she’d said earlier about how she was actually frightened of Rogan. Also, Edward seemed like a decent guy in the end, so why on earth did he pine so bad for Rynda when she’s such an unlovable person, both in terms of suitability under House strictures (her genetic wild card status) and her general pattern of horrible behavior? What on earth does he see in her? I can’t understand it.

As for the very, very end, the epilogue…I’m not the greatest at figuring out mystery identities, but the unnamed man gives himself away with a key line of dialogue we’ve already heard him say, and we know that our intrepid investigators didn’t find the head of the conspiracy, so clearly that’s who he is. I feel great, in one sense, that I figured something out when usually I’d be scratching my head in confusion, but on the other hand, this feels so blatantly obvious that I almost don’t believe I’ve uncovered anything, that this is somehow another layer of plot confusion and maybe the head of the conspiracy is Somehow Good Actually. I genuinely don’t know if I’m overthinking this because I’m so unused to having this level of knowledge. I’m probably going to be second-guessing myself as the series moves forward.

#138 – Diamond Fire, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I congratulate this novella for doing something I rarely see them do: tackling a story idea that suits itself to the novella length. A few romance novellas I’ve read are glorified short stories with thin plot and extra padding, but by far most of them are actually novel- or near-novel-length ideas with rushed pacing and something else cut for time, be it character development, setting description, whatever. Novellas frequently try to do too much, and this one felt like the perfect length for what it wanted to accomplish.

It also serves as an excellent bridge to cross over from Nevada’s POV in the first three book and this novella’s prologue, to Catalina’s POV. While she’s stepping into Nevada’s role in the story as protagonist, and into her shoes as well in-universe as a private investigator, her methods, personality, and character voice are all distinct, even with a relatively short amount of time to nail them down. Catalina does not already have years of experience dealing with people, and it shows; this also naturally leads to the touching moment at the end when Rogan’s mother steps up to be Catalina’s mentor.

The major flaw I felt this had was to populate Rogan’s extended family with so many people. I understand that as a mini heist mystery, we had to have a decent field of suspects; but when Catalina herself mentions that the long Spanish names are confusing, especially when there are so many of them, I groaned a little at the obvious lampshading of an author-created problem. It’s not that I had trouble tracking the most important ones once their subplots were set up, but I did wonder why there were a generous handful of names leftover that didn’t end up being important to the plot at all. Couldn’t some of those have been trimmed out during the editing phase?

After reading this, I’m really looking forward to the next book.


This Week, I Read… (2021 #43)

#129 – Haven, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

  • Mount TBR: 101/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I had issues with this. Like, lots of them. The entire premise is a pretty strong case of Magic Healing Dick, because what the heroine apparently needs to move past her trauma is a lot of kinky sex.

As far as that goes, I found myself uncomfortable at times not during the actual sex scenes, but in the run-up to some of them. Claudia gives Shep carte blanche as far as her submission goes, and that leads to (what felt to me like) a lot of tits-out exhibitionism that didn’t sit right. Their rules discussion was so vague it didn’t specify much of anything, much less prohibit public play, so it’s not a case of a Dom ignoring the rules. But it always felt like that was something for him, something that didn’t turn her on at all; also there’s a line between fun, thrill-seeking, low-risk exhibitionism, and actually involving someone else (non-consensually) in that play by having them catch you. The situation didn’t seem particularly safe to me, and not a little bit because I’ve waited tables before and you better believe I never want to catch a customer partially nude, for everyone’s sake.

I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between the leads, and I definitely didn’t feel like their relationship moved from Magic Healing Dick to love. For a relationship based on shared trauma, I felt like it could have been explored more–the fact that Shep killed Claudia’s attacker barely registered past the opening chapters, and though more time is spent dealing with Claudia’s issues, their treatment still felt shallow, because, again, Magic Healing Dick.

#130 – Heartland, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The best parts of this book were about Dylan, the youngest Shipley who’s been quietly hanging out in the background through the rest of the series while his older siblings and most of the other people associated with their farm get romances; he fights with his oldest brother about his (and the farm’s) future, then figures himself out and decides what to do with himself.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about our heroine or the romance? Yeah, that was on purpose.

Listen, I’m a solid Sarina Bowen fan. She’s usually knocking these out of the park, or at least entertaining me with something fun even if it’s not the Best Romance Ever. But this? This is a really standard take on “virgin girl wants to get with her best friend but is mostly too chicken to actually do anything about it.” Not my favorite trope to begin with, but we’re doubling down on the worst aspects of it by making the hero a dude who mostly thinks with his dick, and throwing in a comically shrewish and awful college roommate who was sleeping with him for the beginning of the book. Also, I think it might be time for this author to stop going back to the “escaped from a cult” well, because I’ve praised her for that several times before, for making those characters much more interesting that similar ones I’ve seen from other authors, but here, Chastity is honestly lame and uninteresting.

In terms of keeping up with the series, I flipped numbers in my head and read this without reading #6, but I don’t seem to have missed anything important that would prevent the continuity from making sense, at least. I’ll probably go back for it at some point, through I think the mix up happened because my library doesn’t have #6 at the moment so I thought this one was next.

#131 – The Magpie Lord, by K.J. Charles

  • Mount TBR: 102/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love nearly everything about this unreservedly, from the characters and their banter to the magic system to the power dynamics to the fast-paced action. I’ve had this book sitting around unread for a little more than two years, and boy, do I regret that now; on top of that, I’ve been hearing great things about this author for even longer, and it’s a personal shame that I let it go so long before I gave her a try.

The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the revelation of who the enemy was at the climax. I felt like a lot of names were being thrown around very quickly, most of whom we hadn’t met yet, and Stephen was solving a mystery based on his knowledge that I simply never had a chance to figure out. (Not that I necessarily would have, I’m generally bad at mysteries and often don’t enjoy them.) As this isn’t, strictly speaking, a mystery novel in the classic sense, I’ll forgive it this minor hiccup on the strength of loving everything else about it.

I also love that there’s more! I didn’t realize there was a bonus short story included until I was at 89% of the book file and hit the end of the story, but that was excellent as well and I’ll be writing that review momentarily. But also, I do love a good series romance and I’m pleased to see that this isn’t the end for Stephen and Crane, because yes, this is a romance, but it’s not the HEA kind, it’s the “we’re just getting started on all sorts of adventures” kind. So I’m hooked.

#132 – Interlude with Tattoos, by K.J. Charles

  • Mount TBR: 103/100
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Short and decidedly not sweet in some ways, while being absolutely charming in others. This does an admirable job of making me eager to continue with the second novel in the series; of making me more curious about Merrick as a supporting character; of making me worry about where Stephen and Crane’s relationship is headed without introducing an unsatisfying cliffhanger; of giving me just a taste of the wonderfully dirty things these two will get up to in the future.

Also, magical tattoos. I didn’t know I needed that in my life, so I’ve learned something about myself. Shelving that somewhere in my brain as “how can I put a spin on that for my own writing?” someday.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #42)

#126 – Pucked Up Love, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

As sweet as the story could be sometimes, I felt like both Will and Hailey had muddled conflict and character arcs, which resulted in the story being weaker overall than it could have been.

Let’s start with Will. He’s a Dom but he shelved that because when he got together with Hailey she was young and a virgin. Whether or not that was the “right” thing to do from any larger perspective, in terms of honesty or protectiveness or female empowerment or whatever, Will successfully stopped being a Dom for the five years of their relationship. They didn’t break up because he couldn’t handle denying that part of himself anymore; he never brought it up at all, Hailey overheard someone else asking him about it.

She quite rightfully was upset that she didn’t know this big thing about the man she was possibly about to marry, and ghosted him, basically.

But neither ever fell out of love with the other, and that’s the first problem with this story’s conflict–when I stopped to ask myself, at various points through the book, the “why aren’t they together now?” question that’s so vital to a well-paced and -plotted romance, the answer was usually just “One or both of them has their head up their ass, and not in a reasonable or relatable way.” Will tries to keep their new teacher/student relationship just sex first because he mistakenly assumes she’s interested in BDSM because of a new man in her life, though that gets cleared up quickly. (More quickly than I expected, actually.) And after that, he’s doing it to protect himself from the consequences of failure, if you can even call it that–because what if he lets himself be in love with her again and she turns out not to enjoy all the kink?

That’s where my problem with this arc lies–he was perfectly willing to not be a Dom to Hailey for so long, and his Dom-ness wasn’t the actual problem she ran from, it was that he never told her about it, which meant you could substitute any sort of deep secret that’s not kink and the result would be the same. On top of that, throughout the story Will displays continued interest in being with Hailey no matter how, and eventually states directly that he’d rather be vanilla with Hailey than kinky with anyone else. So, quite literally, what’s keeping them apart?

Nothing. Or just Hailey being stuck in her own head about what she needs to be for him, versus being herself, except in the end “being herself” also means being kinky. And while that’s a legitimate character arc in terms of growth, it mostly involves her flailing about wildly in terms of personality, not trusting herself in ways that were painful to me to listen to (as I got this on audio) and basically being a wishy-washy uncommunicative woman. For all that Will stressed honesty and communication as necessary to “the game,” both of them at various points in the plot fall down on that, in ways that felt more frustrating than understandable.

It’s really interesting to me to read other reviews that skewer Will for his actions, because in the end, from my perspective, Will never did all that much wrong. Sure, he probably should have told Hailey at some point during that first relationship about his Dom tendencies, I’ll agree with that. But throughout the entire story he consistently put Hailey’s needs before his own, while she floundered about trying not to be a hot mess. Yes, the whole point of the plot was that she was attempting to change herself “for a man,” and that’s not great, but also Will didn’t put her up to it–it was her decision, and coincidence brought them back together. Hailey was consistently the one making snap judgments and bad decisions and inflicting her troubled emotional state on everyone else around her. Honestly, I don’t like her much. Her backstory and her inner narrative are constantly harping about what a strong person she is because she’s a cancer survivor and a self-defense teacher and a small-business co-owner, but the plot constantly demonstrates she’s a deeply confused woman who, despite Will’s solid efforts to educate her, doesn’t really understand what submissiveness is about, even if she enjoys it in the moment. She first equates submission with weakness (and later with assault and rape culture, which was acutely painful to listen to even if I knew the author didn’t believe that because this was Hailey’s final obstacle to hurdle over) and even in the end, only figures out that consensual kink is fine because it’s consensual and not rapey, but without ever acknowledging that submission requires/encourages a person to be mentally strong, in order to trust and transfer power. I was disappointed she never got there, so her personal arc felt incomplete.

And Will doesn’t really change at all.

This is definitely the weakest entry in the series so far, to me, but there’s only one left to go, and I really like Bree as a side character so I’m intrigued to see where her romance goes in the final installment.

#127 – Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George

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

I’ve come out at the end of this story with strongly mixed feelings–what was good about it was very good, downright charming, while what was bad was pretty awful. And most of it comes in matched sets, right across the board.

What do I mean by that? Let’s start with our cast of characters. The protagonist and her circle are both morally good and well-characterized. The villains, major or minor, are all stereotypically evil and weakly characterized, with little or no depth to the motivations for their actions. It’s great that Creel is skilled at a craft, and ambitious, and kind when she can be but protective of her own needs when that’s more important. I love that I have a good sense of her personality and how she would react to any given situation. But her counterpart Amalia? The shallowest of spoiled princesses, with no characterization beyond that, and the general motivation of “this country is our enemy so of course its princess turned out to be working against us.” I’m sorry, girls her age with her upbringing and personality (what little there is of it) strike me as more likely to rebel against her parents and refuse to do anything useful, rather than help orchestrate the takeover of a hostile country using magic and dragons.

Now consider the pacing. The opening and middle of the story are a sort of genteel, plodding fairy tale where everyone takes their time having conversations, and Creel gets to describe her craft at length, and sure things are happening but no one is in any great hurry. Then the war starts and suddenly we readers are plunged into a fast(er)-paced narrative of danger and death and intrigue. I’m sorry, what happened to the almost Gaiman-esque layer of polish and charm to everything? (Not that bad things don’t happen in Gaiman novels, they do, but they happen with a certain style to them.) The tonal whiplash I felt between Creel conversing calmly with her dragon friends, and then nearly everyone in the palace dying in a mind-controlled-dragon attack, cannot be overstated. It felt like I was reading an entirely different book that happened to have the same character names.

Let’s talk disability rep, too. I’m not thrilled that our minor antagonist, Larkin, is a bitter young woman with a limp who hates being relegated to the back of the dress shop because of her appearance and disability, who eventually commits a bit of light treason to her country. Like, do I understand her feelings about the unfairness of how she’s been treated? Absolutely! Do I think I’m actually supposed to believe as a reader that she’s angry enough about it to want to turn her entire country over to the enemy, though? Not really. And if she’s only supposed to have done the traitorous thing she did out of a certain level of understandable spite, then shouldn’t she be remorseful in the end when she realizes the part she played in a situation that presumably went farther than she ever knew or intended?

And there’s an obvious attempt to balance that “bad” rep by having Prince Luka’s guard Tobin be mute, but still be awesome. And I’ll agree he pretty much is, that’s not the problem. The problem is that Creel is apparently so sheltered that she literally doesn’t know sign language is a thing–though to be fair to her, it only gets brought up directly very late in the story, so it’s not like I knew sign language was a thing in this fantasy world–and she only notices at the very end that Tobin has been communicating with others through gestures, in addition to the much more obvious body language that even speaking people use, like nodding or shaking one’s head, etc. Yes, Creel is definitely a bit of a country bumpkin, but how does characterizing her as ignorant about disabilities help the narrative, or the reader? If Tobin is the “good” disabled rep to even out Larkin’s “bad” rep, then why aren’t his issues handled with more sensitivity?

Finally, I love Luka as the down-to-earth and kindly prince, and I get how he could be fascinated by someone like Creel, but the romance between them is mostly a tale I’m spinning in my own head based on a combination of hope (because I am that romantic) and pretty subtle clues I don’t actually know if I would have picked up if I were the age group this is targeted towards. At the end, when my maybe-this-is-where-we’re-going hopes were confirmed, I still wasn’t sure it wasn’t going to be just that Luka and Creel had forged a reasonably strong friendship across their social and class boundaries, but no, it was a romance, though that romance seemed as surprising to Creel as to anybody else, which I believe partially makes my point for me.

I see there’s more to the series, but looking over the blurb, I’m just not invested enough.

#128 – Puck Buddies, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is a five-star read for me, despite some minor flaws, because this is the first one I’ve enjoyed as much as the series starter.

What are those flaws? Well, much like entry #5, the couple in question is basically already in love when the story starts, and we don’t get to see much of a transition as they grow closer. (Though for very different reasons, as this is a friends-to-lovers story, not a second-chance romance.) And the ending…sigh. The ending. I know almost nothing about the nitty-gritty of player’s contracts for hockey (or any other professional sport) but even I know how silly and preposterous that happy ending would be in reality.

Which doesn’t fully negate the happiness, but still…

Anyway, I’m still giving it five stars, because Shane is fantastic; Bree is hilarious; they’re actually totally believable as close/best friends before the romance starts; “fromance” may be a term I’ve only heard a handful of times and doesn’t have the same cultural capital as “bromance,” but I love it anyway and I’m now tempted to fromance-woo some of my friends whom I love; and also, Sheldon the hermit crab, who does not play a large role in the story but I am an absolute sucker for non-standard pets.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #41)

#124 – Hold Still, by Nina LaCour

  • Mount TBR: 98/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I found this difficult to read not only because of the subject matter, but because of a personal bias which I will be up-front about: I usually dislike stories about or deeply involving photography, as I often find them tedious or pretentious. And this starts out very much being about the artsy, depressed teenager who’s a precociously fantastic photographer, so I wasn’t optimistic that I was going to like this.

Fortunately, it got better.

Which isn’t to say that the story doesn’t constantly tell us about the images that Ingrid photographed, or eventually about the ones our protagonist Caitlin snapped, leading up to her triumphant masterpiece series at the end that shows she’s healing. It’s carthartic, I get it. Or maybe I don’t get it, because the description of the photographs didn’t sound that interesting to me, and the feedback Caitlin gets from her teacher sounded–guess what–pretentious. Artists, man. I love the act of making art, but the really serious artists often rub me the wrong way with how they talk about art.

So I’m kind of meh about that aspect of the plot’s climax.

But there were things I liked! I thought that Caitlin’s antagonistic relationship with her photography teacher was an excellent way to convey that grieving the same person can sometimes put two people at odds with each other, with the extra wrinkle that it’s an authority figure, but not her parents.

I also liked the progression of Caitlin’s relationship with Taylor, even if I don’t think Taylor got enough characterization to stand on his own, or even to explain why he was interested in Caitlin. There’s a snippet of conversation near the end of the book where it’s revealed he didn’t know about two of her major hobbies–photography, and carpentry (the treehouse specifically.) Like, I get that you two got to know each other from working on a school project, and then you spend a lot of time making out, but did neither of those things ever come up in conversation?

It wasn’t a page-turner like smoothly-written YA novels sometimes can be, I wasn’t racing to finish. In fact, I had to take breaks sometimes on purpose, even if I still wanted to be reading in general I couldn’t take more of this book. Suicide and grief are difficult subjects. But I’m glad I made it to the end, since I wasn’t sure that I would when I started. It’s not life-changing for me or so amazing that I think I’ll need to reread it, but it was good.

#125 – Perv, by Dakota Gray

  • Mount TBR: 99/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I want to start by saying, I genuinely don’t understand why the narrative is so insistent that Nate is a pervert. Like, his fetish is giving oral sex, how is that the gold standard for perversion? People are turned on by far stranger things than a common sex act, and one that’s generally considered a good thing by women. I don’t want to kink-shame anybody by suggesting another fetish that I think is more suitably “out there,” but I can safely say there are a lot of things people will do to each other in the bedroom (or out of it) that I think would better qualify Nate for “pervert” status.

I’m much more creeped out by his behavior in attempting to find the woman from the bar, because it’s really difficult to convince me there’s ever a good reason for tracking a woman down when she didn’t volunteer contact information, and Nate’s admission of his tendency to fixate on things that bother him feels like a big red flag. Also, I would have expected him to hire a private investigator or something, but a paralegal? Am I missing something? How’s a paralegal going to get security camera footage from a bar? Wouldn’t it have to be involved with a case the law firm was working on? Like, an actual crime, or at least some kind of civil suit? This is just a horny dude looking for the woman who turned him down, so this can’t be legal, which is also a red flag. I know his friend is a big shot there, but that still seems like stretching things for a favor.

So he’s not a sex pervert (in my view,) but he might be building up to be a stalker. Ick.

I was super-tempted to give up there, but upon skimming some reviews to help me decide, both good and bad ones, I saw that the woman–I suppose at this point I should say “the love interest”–gets her own POV, and I haven’t gotten to that yet, so I waded back in to see what her thoughts on the matter would reveal.

Well, I kept going, and it never really got better. She’s under the impression from what she’s heard of Nate that he’s a super hardcore BDSM enthusiast, but I maintain that liking to give oral sex is not that extreme a fetish, and from his own POV he does not seem particularly into the lifestyle. Dominant tendencies, sure, and eventually there’s a sex scene where Robyn needs a safe word, but even that felt pretty tame (by my standards, which are apparently higher than this story expects.)

As for the emotional and romantic aspects of their relationship, it makes very little sense how they progress from “obvious sexual tension but I hate you” to banging, and then somehow to love, once the really belabored mystery identity of the friend/ex-lover is finally revealed. (Which is a strained premise anyway, and then the friend’s story didn’t seem compelling enough to make Robyn go to all this trouble. I mean, yeah, the friend died, but it’s not like Nate killed her. He didn’t even dump her, she dumped him! So how exactly did he ruin her life?) They both use the L-word by the end, but I can’t see why, because there’s very little to them aside from the copious amounts of sex they have, and then near the end they start cuddling a tiny bit and not being awful to each other. Not convinced.

So even if this were “pervy” enough to me to justify its title, it’s still not a particularly good romance.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #40)

#121 – Stay, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Yikes. I rode the coattails of a Hoopla romance binge straight into this from Good Boy and the entire Him series by the same authors, and this disappoints by comparison.

Part of it could be, of course, that we’re moving farther and farther away from the center of this story universe–Jamie and Wes. But even setting that aside, this setup had me uncomfortable right from the beginning. It’s a business/client relationship, and by its nature, one where there’s already some privacy boundaries crossed, and apparently they’ve been kind of friendly-flirty in their chats for a while, but it’s all still business….

Ugh. I really didn’t like it when Hailey started breaking rules for Matt, even though they were minor ones, even though her co-owner never caught her at it.

And I never felt their chemistry was worth all that hush-hush rule-breaking. Hailey was honestly over-the-top irritating in her babbling phases (she doesn’t have Blake’s silly motor-mouth charm, I guess) and Matt was just…a dude? Who likes his kids but has a bitchy ex-wife? He didn’t actually have much personality, and came across as very needy, because the entire basis of his relationship with Hailey is founded on her seeing to his every need/whim/request via her Fetch business.

I’d say this has turned me off the series, only there isn’t any more planned, so that’s a moot point. We’ll just call it a misstep then, from an author pair I otherwise enjoy very much.

#122 – To Do List, by Lauren Dane

  • Mount TBR: 96/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I started having problems with this read right away, so I took some notes, and they ended up being so extensive for such a short novella that I’m just going to use them as my book review directly:

Starting with a kiss between two people that haven’t been introduced yet, beyond the blurb? And it’s a mistletoe kiss? Unsatisfying.

Everyone is commenting on the exact same details about Belle: Rafe, her brother, her mother, and her sister, all in the space of a few pages. They all say at least two of the same three things: she’s pale, she’s lost too much weight, she has dark circles under her eyes. Her mom and sister comment separately on the dark circles four paragraphs apart. I GET IT ALREADY, BELLE IS TIRED.

Can we get commas, please? Some of these sentences go on forever, and they’d read better if I could more easily tell where clauses start and stop.

Aaaand a few pages later grandma has precisely the same complaints about Belle as everyone else. I know this isn’t the point of the story so far, because Belle’s absence from “the family” is attributed to her hours as a junior attorney, but could she also not want to come to visit because everyone in her family is awful to her about her appearance? Sheesh.

Oh, and later, when she’s not even around, Rafe’s brother takes it upon himself to make a joke about fattening her up so she can’t leave. GROSS.

90%+ of the dialogue is either purely expository, or simply repetitive: either two people are talking about something they both already know so the author can inform the reader, or they’re speaking out loud something that was just said in internal monologue, or they’re saying something to one person that we already heard them say to another person.

Rafe brings up the idea of proposing (not in front of his lover, but in front of a family member) about two days after the story starts. Yes, they’ve known each other for most of their lives, but that’s not a reasonable reaction to a romantic relationship that new (when it’s not framed as a love-at-first-sight or other sort of “whirlwind” romance story, which this isn’t billing itself as. Everything I see tells me that I’m supposed to be taking this utterly seriously as a concept.)

Rafe’s page-long monologues where he spills his feelings in detail don’t read as genuine. It’s not even a “men don’t talk that way” thing for me, it’s simply a “people don’t talk that way.” That’s true for everyone, to some extent, for the entire book, but Rafe monologues about Belle like three or four times to different people and it’s just an info-dump of Telling Instead of Showing every single time.

Really abrupt ending–I actually turned the page on my Kindle and was surprised to see the end matter, turned back a page to make sure I hadn’t missed something, no, I hadn’t, it was just over with basically no warning.

#123 – Under His Kilt, by Melissa Blue

  • Mount TBR: 97/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I didn’t like anything about it. Not one thing.

The leads have no personalities, and I’m apparently supposed to be invested (or swooning) over the hero simply because he has an accent. Maybe also because he’s kind of a jerk, but he’s enough of one not to be a great person while not being enough of one to qualify as a bad boy worth reforming (if you’re into that type of thing.) The heroine is bland as hell.

The premise is clear and we jump right to it, but there’s no real chemistry between them so the sex scenes feel kind of mechanical. Also, we only get about one and a half of them before the heroine is already getting weird pseudo-nostalgic feelings about what a shy, retiring, demure flower she used to be before one week of kinky sex turned her life around. That really brought me up short, because I didn’t find the sex to be particularly kinky, though obviously where that line is depends on the person.

Also, I know hardly anything about what setting up a traveling exhibition at a museum is like, so I could be wrong, but these people don’t sound like they have real jobs: when they’re shown at work together (so they can flirt because this is a workplace romance) they’re mostly dressing mannequins in historical clothing. Okay, obviously someone has to do that–but the curator and the traveling consultant that’s responsible for the exhibit? When the items were described as replicas, I thought workers lower on the totem pole could handle it, but then later they’re “priceless artifacts” so yeah I guess only the higher-ups can deal with them. (Which are they? Please be consistent with your details!) But what is Ian’s job exactly, anyway? If he’s in charge of the exhibit as it travels, why is he leaving as soon as it opens? If he’s not necessary to the safety/protection of the items in the exhibit, then why is he even there at all? I simply don’t understand how any of this works, either in real life (my fault) or in the story (the author’s fault, because it’s not clear at all.) And they do spend a lot of time at work together because that’s the basis of the story.

The puppy subplot? Poorly thought out. No puppy is that well-behaved without a lick of training, and only seriously confused, in-denial people would get a pet together and think it doesn’t mean anything about the state of their relationship. I had a hard time believing any of it.

And their happy ending was silly in a bad way. Hero does a rude thing to provoke the heroine into contacting him again so he can continue their relationship, only she doesn’t do it and he breaks first. And they argue. Again. And it’s all so dumb.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #39)

#115 – Race of Thieves, by S.M. Reine

  • Mount TBR: 95/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 54%. I’m bored, and I’m tired of not knowing enough about the setting to understand the stakes of this high-energy heist plot.

The author’s note at the beginning mentions that there are over 50 books in “the Descentverse” and yeah, this is not a good place to jump in, even if the note claims it is. Barely anything is explained about how shifters work and even less about the world. When I gave up, the lead and his rival/ex-girlfriend have taken a literal, physical elevator down to Hell and are trying to steal something from demons. Also there are angels, also there are more types of shifter than you can shake a stick at, and there’s allusions to some sort of world-altering event, but no details.

I’m lost, and I’m tired of being lost. I can fill in some blanks with the general knowledge I’ve acquired about how paranormal romance and urban fantasy tend to work–but by doing so, I’m making the Descentverse more generic, in my own brain, than I’m sure the author intends. It seems like a vibrant and well-realized world, if you don’t get dropped into it with no grounding.

Also, “Shatter Cage” is a really dumb name, and its dumbness is not redeemed by having another character make fun of it in-universe. And if this is a romance–which I was under the impression it was based on the charity bundle I acquired it from–then it’s not great that the love interest (the ex) doesn’t even show up until more than a quarter of the way through the story. I kept waiting, and waiting…

#116 – Traitor’s Moon, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

When I finished and reviewed the second book in the series, I said that I wondered where this one would go, story-wise, since the main plot of the first book was clearly wrapped up in the second. Now, in hindsight, it seems almost obvious: time to deal with Seregil’s exile. And it does.

It just takes a long time and a lot of political and magical nonsense to get there.

I’ll be honest, I was mostly reading this for Alec. Not that I don’t like Seregil in general, but he’s not at his best under these circumstances, and the complicated (overcomplicated?) plot around negotiations for war aid from his homeland involved so many new characters, so much wrangling, and so much semi-defined magic that I got more than a little lost on occasion. The reveal of the murderer’s identity–because yes, there’s a murder tangled in all this–hinges directly on a single magical charm bracelet, who had it when, and how that can be magically proven. I did not follow all of it, and inconsistency in details is starting to show in this series anyway, because I feel like a few names from previous books were changed (or spelled wrong) when referenced, and I noticed a few other small things I couldn’t be sure if I was remembering wrong, even though I read both previous books in the last few months…

As far as the romance goes, I’m glad there was enough of a time skip between books to see Seregil and Alec jump past their awkwardness–this is a fantasy series with romance in it, not a full-blown romance the point is to jump all the hurdles with them, as readers. I’d rather them be a bit more settled in their relationship if we’re going to wade through this much complicated plot. But I was briefly and repeatedly uncomfortable whenever the text referred to either one of them (from the other’s perspective) as “friend.” Like we’ve done all this work to make a world where same-sex couples are as everyday and unremarkable as opposite-gender couples, even to the point of having the four-lamp-color system of brothels to mark which sex workers are for whom; but then Alec and Seregil are constantly referring to each other as friends. And if that’s supposed to mean their friendship is the solid core of their romantic relationship, I get it–it follows with some things Seregil said in book two, about how they’d be friends even if Alec had other lovers in the future. (Which I believe, though it would have to be far, far in the future for Alec to loosen up enough for that to happen at all. A point of characterization in his favor.) But at the same time, it’s frustrating how little the narrative acknowledges that they’re lovers. Yes, there are a few elliptical, fade-to-black sex scenes, and I’m not arguing that the solution is more sex, or more explicit sex. But the ‘faie term they were using before “tali” or “talimenios” got weakened in this book–I had taken it to mean “lovers” in the pair-bonded sense, but Seregil’s family use it for him, so obviously that’s not its only meaning anymore. And when they’re not “tali,” they’re merely “friends.” And that was jarring whenever I stumbled into it, and disappointing overall.

Anyway. Between a kindly fellow reader pointing out after my last review that they wished they had stopped after the first two books, and me peeking ahead to read the blurb about the fourth book, which seems kind of squicky to me–I’m done. I enjoyed this, but I don’t feel a great need to read the rest.

#117 – Him, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Finally got around to reading this after letting it sit on my TBR for four years–thank you, Hoopla.

I already know I’m thumbs-up for Sarina Bowen, I don’t love every book of hers to pieces but they’re always worth my time. Elle Kennedy is a total unknown factor to me. But this didn’t really read like two authors (as sometimes books unfortunately will) so I have to assume I like Kennedy as well, because I liked this. Totally willing to check out her other work.

But about this book. I’m here for every kind of queer romance, but I’ve been burned by plenty of M/M specifically in the past that is either “chicks with dicks,” as we say when the characters are designated as male but don’t feel authentic; or when the romance is fetishizing queerness, and the characters don’t have any real personalities or conflicts, because the female author/readers just want to write/read about two guys screwing.

This is neither. I know that’s a low bar to clear, but when you’re jumping in with a new series or author, it does need to be cleared.

So I’m here for confused friends-to-lovers, I’m here for the sort of second-chance-ness of this romance. Even though I’m not particularly a sports fan (of any sport,) somehow I keep reading hockey romances, and it delivers there too–enough hockey to make sure it’s important to plot and characters, not so much I’m groaning at excessive play-by-plays. I actually love that our two budding young hockey stars have vastly different views about the reality of playing in the pros, thanks to their different skill sets and personalities; that’s icing on an already delicious cake.

What kept this from being a five-star read? Honestly, the plot hinged on miscommunication or a lack of willingness to communicate, and by the end it was pretty one-sided (Wes.) Also, Wes’ biphobia.

I see there’s another book and a bonus novella in this series for Wes to possibly grow past the fear that Jamie’s bisexuality means he’s always halfway out the door to bang some chick, but that insecurity of Wes’, while realistic to a point, becomes such a tired pattern. I’m willing to forgive it a little more than usual because from Jamie’s POV, we get a refreshingly uncomplicated journey from “I like women” through “do I only like this one guy, or possibly all guys?” to “yep, I also like dick in general, therefore I am bisexual.” I will forgive a lot to get good bi rep, because it’s so hard to find, and Jamie is excellent. He questions but doesn’t agonize, he takes steps to figure himself out when he realizes he needs to, and there’s no missing b-word.

I’ll keep reading–I want to see where this goes. And I think I’ll dig up some solo Kennedy books to put on my TBR as well.

#118 – Us, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’m happy that there’s more story here–I love series romances following the same couple through multiple books–but unsurprisingly, it mostly had the same strengths and flaws as the first book.

What’s really good is the depiction of personal stress and relationship tension between Wes and Jamie because of the secret of their relationship. But to balance that, I’m never going to be a fan of forced outing as a plot point.

I’m also pleased with the seriousness of how Jaime’s illness was handled, not only when it was happening, but also the aftermath. I have personal experience with struggling to “be myself again” after a long illness, so I got it. (But again, his illness is what leads to the news of their relationship getting out, so there’s a downside to this plot.)

New thing that’s good: Blake. At first I didn’t know what to make of someone so Big and Dumb and Loud, but he turned out to be real charming, in his own way, by the end. (Though I don’t blame anyone who can’t warm up to him, YMMV.)

Old thing that’s bad: Wes is still biphobic. It’s toned down and less important to the story most of the time, but it’s still there, even when he’s trying to talk himself out of it.

Overall, still glad I read it, looking forward to the bonus novella.

#119 – Epic, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s cute, it’s quick, it’s fun. I don’t have a lot of in-depth things to say about it–I couldn’t give it five stars, because I don’t think it’s really better than the two novels, but it’s certainly not worse.

The only issue for me is that since I haven’t been a Bowen/Kennedy reader since the beginning and I wasn’t reading everything as it was released, this jumps past Jamie and Wes getting married, which apparently happens in the first book in the spin-off series, which I know about now and have queued up on Hoopla to read next. Not that it’s a hardship to read Blake’s book, because I love that goofball. But since I was just plowing through this series in order, it did come as a bit of a surprise.

#120 – Good Boy, by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Good, but not as great as the series it spun off from. I doubled back for this after reading the bonus novella about Jamie and Wes and finding out they were married, only I hadn’t read the book where it happened.

I can’t point to much, really, to complain about directly. The plot fits together neatly, everybody goes on their journey properly and gets a happy ending. I loved Blake as a side character, and his humor did wear the tiniest bit thin when he became the lead, but he’s still an awesome dude with a serious heart of gold, so it’s not like I don’t like him. But now I know I wouldn’t want to date him myself.

Jess got her personal arc of “I’m the family screw up” to “I know what I want to do with my life and I’m pursuing it” and that’s great! But somehow it also wasn’t all that satisfying.

And while I’m not arguing that relationships like this can’t happen or won’t work out, I’m not a huge fan of “let’s just keep having sex until eventually emotional bonds form” as a plot trajectory. There was only so often I could listen to Jess’ internal monologue about how she really, really meant to keep her clothes on, this time. And then, of course, she didn’t.

Also, given that injury and illness have been plot points in this story world before, I kept waiting for Blake’s mysterious neck pain to pay off, but it didn’t–it was just a sore neck, apparently, with no real plot important and only a tenuous symbolic meaning (since it disappeared as soon as he and Jessie got together for real.)

It’s fine. It’s readable. But it’s also missing something I can’t quite identify, compared to the series that brought me here.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #38)

#111 – Stalking Darkness, by Lynn Flewelling

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Darker in theme and content than its predecessor, more polished in terms of plot and pacing, more cohesive from start to finish. Still not without its problems, but I liked this substantially more, more even than I expected to.

Still, I’d rather talk about the problems rather than endlessly gush about how much I adore my best boy Alec. Because I could. But I won’t.

So, those problems:

  1. Micum. He was a major side character in the first book, and this plot would have me believe he’s one of the mystical Four that are needed to save the world from the Big Bad. But he’s not present at all in this book until Seregil goes to fetch him from home 2/3 of the way through, and even when he’s around, he’s not really doing much. The page-space I expected him to fill here was entirely taken up by the military subplot featuring his daughter Beka, and given the triumphant-but-not-perfect way the ending falls out, I honestly don’t see why she couldn’t have taken over his role entirely, even in the prophetic sense.
  2. And while I like Beka and I understand the point of her arc, honestly, the military maneuvering was boring compared to the rest of the story, and it was hard to be invested in the various injuries and deaths among her troops, because I didn’t have time to get to know them, and meanwhile in another plot thread my favorite character was being psychically tortured by an evil, vengeful necromancer. What can stand up to that, in terms of engagement?
  3. Certain aspects of the ending were not just foreshadowed, but telegraphed, to the point where I have a hard time believing Seregil didn’t see it coming…
  4. Which is tied to my dissatisfaction with Nysander’s constant insistence that everything related to the prophecy must be kept strictly secret on pain of death, until oops Seregil figures out a bunch of it on his own, so then Nysander is like “lol I guess you can warn the others then.” And that’s before Alec falls into enemy hands. Why the sudden change of heart? Nysander acts like not telling them is mostly to spare them the dread of knowing that “a terrible Something,” as Seregil puts it, might happen–but then after the fact, Alec is pleased that he couldn’t tell the enemy anything important during his torture, because he didn’t know anything important, despite Seregil explaining the prophecy. The prophecy that was the enemy’s plan in the first place, so didn’t they already know? And the actual information that needed to be kept secret wasn’t something Seregil ever knew, exactly, and wasn’t revealed to the enemy by him, but through the murky Ylinestra/Thero subplot at the beginning. I’m genuinely confused by the ways secrets are regarded and handled in this story, because I can’t figure out why they’re vital sometimes and less dangerous other times.
  5. Maybe not so much a problem, exactly, but this ties up all our plot threads pretty damn neatly, so if I had read this at the time of its publishing, I would have dusted my hands together and said, “Cool ending, that’s taken care of.” But there are five more books. I own the next one and glanced at the author’s note at the beginning, which repeatedly and pointedly declares that “This is not a trilogy.” So where do we go from here? I love Alec and Seregil and will be happy to read more about them, but I feel like the Big Bad is vanquished, and the war that got started in this book may not be over but wasn’t particularly interesting without the mystical evil, so…

#112 – In Her Wildest Dreams, by Farrah Rochon

  • Mount TBR: 92/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What I expected based on the blurb: friends-to-lovers romance between two people highly committed to their jobs.

What I actually got: two lengthy, detailed job descriptions with ancillary characters attached, who eventually fall into bed together after arguing a lot.

I’m not convinced they fell in love as the plot moved forward. I’m not convinced they were friends to begin with, since Gavin was a stew of barely restrained lust mixed with anger that Erica wasn’t already his girlfriend, and Erica just seemed to be using Gavin for free chocolate and someone to listen to her whine.

When you get right down to it, I barely believe these characters are readable as real people, because they’re both essentially the same stereotype–“My job is the most important thing to me, to the point where I’m a control freak about it, and I have no other interests, hobbies, or people in my life worth mentioning.” Erica has a mother she supports but doesn’t care much for, a plot thread that seems important at the beginning but is dropped extremely quickly. Gavin has a comically evil ex-fiancee, and a “friend” who only interacts with him about trying to get Gavin to come work for him, so I’m going to count that as job-related and not an actual friend, because he never serves any “friend” purpose in the story.

I’m supposed to believe these two don’t actually loathe each other for being too similar and sharing the same major flaws?

And the dialogue, spare me this dialogue, where they flirt coyly for a minute and make each other uncomfortable, then communicate honestly for about ten seconds before one of them gets instantly offended by something and overreacts and the whole thing becomes an argument. They’ve constantly got their wires crossed to the point where, again, I don’t see how these two consider themselves friends, never mind being able to fall in love.

On top of all of that, the writing style itself is poor, too. I knew I was in for a bad time when the first chapter opens by setting the scene like so:

“The heady aroma of rich, dark chocolate enrobed Erica Cole the second she walked through the doors of Decadente Artisan Chocolates. She inhaled a lungful of the slightly sweet, slightly smoky-scented air, letting the intense fragrance permeate her senses.”

  1. “Enrobed” might be laying it on a bit thick, since that’s a word you see a lot in descriptions of fancy chocolate, but I could probably forgive that, without the rest.
  2. “Slightly” both doesn’t need to be used twice (if at all) and directly contradicts “intense” later in the sentence. The smell can’t be “slightly” anything and “intense” at the same time.
  3. I’ve never smelled smoky chocolate in my life. Smoked things smell smoky, like cheese and sausage and bacon and fish; some alcohols I’ve encountered certainly qualify as smoky. But chocolate? Is Gavin actually smoking his chocolate? Do people do that? (He does lots of things to and with chocolate throughout the story, but I never saw him put it in a smoker.)
  4. Also, “smoky-scented” is awkward. Drop the -scented. Oh, wait, then you’d be implying there was actual smoke in the air. Change it to “sweet, smoky aroma” or something like that. See? You don’t need the “slightly”s.
  5. Cut “a lungful of.” It’s just not necessary.
  6. “Permeate her senses” doesn’t work, because it’s just one sense. Smell. She’s smelling the air. She can’t hear or see the scent, and yes the air is touching her, but she can’t feel the scent on her skin in any significant way (I hope.) If you wanted to make the case that the scent was so strong “you could almost taste it in the air,” I could see that working, but then we loop back to the “slightly/intense” problem I’ve already described.

So I have six editing notes for just the first two sentences of this novella. And the writing does not get better from here.

#113 – Go, by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated by Takami Nieda

  • Mount TBR: 93/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At first I was compelled by the simple, direct language and the protagonist’s tendency to solve everything with violence, but as soon as the romance began, the narrative became a long string of pop culture references that I quickly tired of.

If this is a deliberate choice by the author to show that our confused teen is floundering about to find his identity in an attempt to define himself by what he consumes…then it’s kind of brilliant, if tedious.

If it’s not a deliberate choice, then it’s just lazy writing, because about 90% of the romance arc is the two characters recommending stuff to each other, or exploring new media together. Which is not unrealistic in the slightest, but the realism of it doesn’t make it inherently interesting to read about.

Whether or not the love interest qualifies as a true Manic Pixie Girl would require me to re-examine the text more closely than I care to at this point, but if she’s not strictly the archetype, she’s at least adjacent to it, in that she doesn’t have a lot of personality beyond the cool/quirky vibe that makes her attractive to the protagonist.

As for the story’s exploration of racism and xenophobia in modern Japanese society? I knew about their attitude towards foreigners in general and Koreans in particular, but not just how far it goes, structurally. I wasn’t aware of the citizenship issues, or the oppression in employment, or the separate schools. It’s institutional racism on a level that certainly echoes what we have had (or still have, in far too many cases) in the US toward non-white people. So I did learn something.

But I learned it through a story vehicle that I didn’t end up enjoying all that much due to a lack of character development. If this is both a coming of age story and a romance, shouldn’t I feel more connected to these characters? I can’t be, because it’s leaning so hard into the social commentary aspect of things that it distances everything else.

#114 – Bad King, by M. Malone

  • Mount TBR: 94/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Most of this story’s problems stem from its too-short length. It wants to cover more ground than 149 pages can handle (minus bonus materials at the end, I think the story actually ended at around 81 or 82% of the file, so call it more like 122 pages.)

In that tiny space is crammed:

  1. Olivia trying to convince herself that she should start a relationship with her male best friend despite a complete lack of sexual chemistry, because he’s a good guy;
  2. Olivia having a semi-tragic backstory about a strained relationship with her parents and how her pride cost her “everything,” plus her current money troubles;
  3. Olivia embarking on the sort-of fake dating adventure with King and the entire wild “romance” arc that comes from that;
  4. King’s intended personal arc from “everything in my life is about my career” to “I want to be a good boyfriend, actually;”
  5. King’s sister Georgie trying to liberate herself from the narrow romantic/sexual life she’s been living not entirely by choice, plus some implied tension with/attraction to one of King’s friends who is not her fiance;
  6. King also having a somewhat strained relationship with his father and sort of getting to resolve it, but not really.

Doesn’t that seem like too much plot for 122 pages?

Everything in this would have benefited from slowing down and letting it breathe. Everything happens so fast it gave me tonal whiplash at times. The leads go from strangers to lovers in about 24 hours. Little sis Georgie wants to be instant best friends with Olivia and trusts her with a pretty big secret after very little acquaintance. King’s heel-face turn from cold business man to quality boyfriend material seems to come from basically nowhere, he’s just so into Olivia (based on his fantasies about her plus a single party where they spent most of their time apart) that he wants to make over himself to be a better person.

None of these are bad ideas in general–I think the plot fits together quite neatly, in fact, aside from the failed attempt at romance with the best friend–but none of them are given enough time to develop naturally. It’s just rush, rush, rush ahead through the checklist of plot events until we get to the happy ending, but it doesn’t feel earned.

Give this story another 50-60 pages of room for the characters to have personalities and thoughts and feelings, instead of zooming straight to the next conflict, and this could be great.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #37)

#108 – A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, by Jean Thompson

  • Mount TBR: 89/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Even for a thoughtful and ponderous character study novel, this was slow-paced. My interest was low enough in the beginning that I wondered if I would have the mental fortitude to wade through all of this depression and misery to the finish, but fortunately for my sake, events did pick up in the middle for a while.

But ultimately, this is a fairly unrelenting parade of sadness and grief, lightened only by stupid decisions.

As a family saga, it makes its point effectively that women of one generation often reject the norms and values of the one that came before: Evelyn felt trapped by an unwanted marriage and was an indifferent mother at best; her daughter Laura overcompensated by trying to be the best of all Susie Homemakers; and her daughter Grace basically rejected the notion that she had to have goals in life at all, or to stay connected to her family.

Unfortunately for all three of them, the men in their lives were demanding, whiny assholes of one sort or another.

As interesting and valuable as it might be to reframe the Great American Lit Novel of Total Misery–a staple we simply can’t seem to stop producing–with women front and center, this is still mostly about men; how men rule and shape women’s lives and prevent them from being happy. It’s also still the same brand of generic middle-class Americana, look at all these sad white people. Nothing about it felt original or noteworthy.

Many women in different phases of life, with different life experiences, could certainly see themselves in aspects of these characters, and I don’t want to criticize anyone who found some sort of emotional revelation or catharsis within its pages. But I think this story tries and fails to have a hopeful ending, tacked on to the misery, and that left me disappointed.

#109 – Sheltered, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 90/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked it, even if it’s not exactly good. It’s incredibly basic, actually–the plot couldn’t be thinner, and the bad boy/sheltered religious girl dynamic is doing a lot of heavy lifting to get the reader to assume stuff that’s never actually specified.

The writing is often vague and ominous, and spends a lot of time inside Evie’s head where she’s constantly imagining danger and indulging fears that aren’t real, which has the detrimental effect of making me unsure how seriously to take what’s clearly supposed to be the real fear and danger she’s living under–her father’s authoritarian household regime.

Where this story shines, and why I ultimately do like it despite its many flaws, is that the dialogue between Van and Evie captures perfectly the dynamic of two people with wildly different lived experiences somehow coming to realize they’re a great deal alike. It’s awkward and sweet, with a lot of false starts and even more misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, I do believe that these two weirdos are actually falling in love (which is a low bar that so many other romances still fail to clear.)

#110 – Captivated, by Charlotte Stein

  • Mount TBR: 91/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A collection of polished but eclectic stories about sex. How much you “like” these may vary wildly based on what kinks you enjoy reading about, but even when the story’s Thing was not necessarily my Thing, I appreciated that these were well-constructed and vivid little pieces of fiction–I’m tired of reading short “stories” that are really just overblown scenes that have no point, no direction, no closure.

As a collection, though, I feel that a few of them felt out of place with the others, aberrations of tone or genre–in particular, the tale of a dream “machine” that had a Victorian fantasy vibe that was unique among all the stories. Maybe I’m biased because I didn’t like that one nearly as much as some of the others, but I did question why it was included.

Since I just came to this from one of Stein’s novellas, I’m actually impressed by the difference in the quality of the writing–everything felt smoother and more purposeful. Maybe I just had a slightly lackluster title as my first, or maybe she’s just better at crafting short stories than novels or novellas. I have another novel of hers on my TBR from ages ago, based on a recommendation, so I’m definitely interested in reading more.

NaNoWriMo 2021: The “Not Doing It” Announcement

It’s been a stressful year, following a crazy-stressful year before it.

I’m not doing NaNo this year, breaking my six-year streak. I’m perfectly aware that I don’t have to justify this decision to anyone, but since every year on social media I see writers of all stripes agonizing about whether they can manage it and if they should try, I thought it might be worthwhile to write about why I’m choosing not to do it.

When those writers are unsure and asking for advice, I’m generally of the camp that responds, “Try if you want to, it’s no big deal if you don’t win. Any progress is progress.” And beyond that, if somebody tries and hates the experience, then they’ve still learned something about themselves. Most of the time, for most people, I think attempting NaNo is a positive thing, no matter how many words they do or don’t have by December 1st.

But this is not most times, and this year, I am not most people.

This year, I need to rest.

I don’t think it’s an accident that my creative energies have flowed away from writing and towards hand crafts. I’m knitting and working on an embroidery project consistently every day; I’ve produced more sweaters for myself, and more knit Christmas gifts already this year, than ever before, plus I finished the largest needlepoint project I’ve ever attempted. That isn’t to say I’m not keeping up my daily writing habit–I’ve paid for my 4thewords subscription though mid-2022, so I’m using it–but I’m mostly fulfilling my minimum word count with book reviews and journal writing, rather than fiction. I do sometimes have passing ideas for plot bunnies, which I dutifully note down for the future, and occasionally I’ve been rereading and nibbling at the editing for my mostly-finished NaNo20 novel, which is/was supposed to be my next book release, the sequel to Fifty-Five Days.

And that could still happen. Fifty-Five Days took me just short of two years of work spread over a four-year period. This novel isn’t going in the trash any time soon.

But I gave up hope pretty early on this year that I would get back to my yearly publishing schedule. Too much was going on in my life even then, and more has happened since. Plus, it took me a while to recognize how burned out I was from falling into the “lockdown = productivity” mental trap that pushed me to publish Fifty-Five Days in the first place. I’m proud of it, but did I really need to release it last year? Couldn’t it have waited until I was in a better head space?

I’m not there yet. It’s telling that this is my first non-book-review post in over five months (aside from my book-series update, which is easy to maintain) and that even before that, my posting schedule was full of holes. It’s telling that I haven’t had a single idea for any of my ongoing post series in order to revive this blog. It’s telling that when my writer friends on Tumblr started counting down to NaNo, I felt nothing but dread and a vague sense of guilt. It’s telling that I can pump out thousands of words when I sit down to “talk” to myself in a journal entry, but struggle to write anything creative.

I need to rest. NaNoWriMo is a wonderful event and a valuable experience, and it has a strong and supportive community around it that I’ve been happy to be a part of for many years. But this year? I just can’t do it.

And that’s okay.

No matter how much pressure you feel from seeing your friends and fellow writers participating, it’s okay for you not to.

No matter how many times you’ve done NaNo before, it’s okay to take a year (or more) off and break your streak.

No matter how guilty you may feel for letting yourself down…you’re not. Not really. Taking care of yourself is more important, and if that means you need to Not NaNo, then that’s the right decision.

I said that I felt guilty, and a month or so ago when NaNo fever started percolating through my social media feeds, that was true. As we creep ever closer, that guilt has slipped away under the increasing certainty that I’m simply not up for such a challenge. And if somebody else needs to hear that in order to feel better about their own decision not to participate, I’m here for you. We’ll sit this one out together.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #36)

#105 – Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

  • Mount TBR: 86/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’m not generally a fan of romance novels where the titles are either a character’s name (doesn’t tell me anything about what to expect) or a candid description of the major trope that might attract me to the story (tells me too much, or at least is too blatant.) This title does both! So you’d think that splits the difference and makes it okay, but really, it doesn’t.

This is another one that came to me in a charity bundle, and thus I did not go out of my way to acquire it. But the author is new to me and I’m reading through my backlog, so here we go:

It’s fine. The author’s note at the beginning explains that this is low-angst fluff, and it mostly is. So in terms of delivering what it promises on, A+, it’s precisely what it says on the tin.

The problem I have with it is that it is so “low-angst” that there’s hardly any plot to speak of, with even less conflict to drive it.

They meet. He gets hired. They admit they’re attracted to each other. They give in to that attraction almost immediately. He’s good with the kids, her friends and family like him. Eventually there’s some drama with her ex, but they handle it. They get their happily ever after.

Okay, I genuinely wish more real-life people communicated as clearly and honestly as these characters do, but they don’t get a chance to grow, really, because what conflict is present in the plot is all external–her ex is 99% of it. Their internal conflicts at the start–which they both get over very, very quickly–are “is dating the person who hired me/the person I hired a good idea?” but it’s never really framed as the boss-employee dynamic you’d find in most workplace romances. They never even talk about power dynamics at all, though the set-up is certainly an inversion of the typical real-world power structure: the black woman is the boss and the white man the employee.

Which I do appreciate. But a near-total lack of internal conflict doesn’t make for a riveting plot, and pinning all the external conflict to a single source leads to a pretty predictable conclusion, and honestly the ex is so over-the-top, Grade A asshole that it’s hard to believe, even with the heroine’s explanations and backstory, that she would have ever married him in the first place, he’s that awful.

As a low-angst fluff read, yeah, it’s fine. But in my view, it’s an interesting premise with reasonably likable characters, which suffer from a lack of development due to an absence of conflict to make them grow.

#106 – Thinner, by Richard Bachman

  • Mount TBR: 87/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 44. Why that page? Because the racism graduated from constant use of the g-slur to an n-word joke told by a minor character. (One whom I suspect we’re not supposed to like, but still.)

I’ve always known that King’s relationship to racist ideas in his novels varies from book to book. Many of his works I would not say are particularly racist, and some use racist language in very specific ways as tools, tools that don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the author as a person.

This one, though, if it had somehow been the first King/Bachman novel I had ever read, would have made me say “this is racist garbage” and I never would have touched a single other work.

Now, I know that the g—- curse is a trope as old and tired as the hills, and in 1984 most non-Roma people were not batting an eyelash at it. I still wasn’t educated enough about the subject to bat my own personal eyelashes when this trope showed up more than a decade later in my beloved (but deeply, deeply flawed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’m educated enough now, dammit. I was really having trouble with the constant use of the slur, anywhere from one to ten times a page, but for the sake of finding out where the story was going, I was trying to isolate that issue in my mind from the rest of the book, to acknowledge that it’s a problem but keep it from ruining anything else good about the story.

By page 44, I hadn’t found anything good about the story for it to ruin, then a character said the n-word and I gave up.

I know it’s easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, so take this with however many grains of salt necessary, but I genuinely cannot believe that anybody read this at the time and didn’t instantly know it was Stephen King. It’s certainly got the classic King repetition problem, where you can’t go more than a few paragraphs without reading the same words over and over, and this was a particularly egregious example, because if I have to read “the old g—- man with the rotting nose” one more time, I will scream, I will scream so loud, I will shatter every window in this building. It’s also got the boring-everyman protagonist with the good-but-not-great family that you just know is going to suffer because he screwed up. It’s got the tonal disdain for the upper-class lifestyle combined with the yearning for it–in 44 pages I was also treated to many repetitions of various phrases about the local country club.

It’s just blatantly King all over, and in the worst way possible.

Whatever merit the plot might have had is completely overshadowed for me by the packaging it’s in. The racist, boring, repetitious package. I’ve already DNF’d two other books this month, and I try not to do it so often, but I just can’t keep going with this, it’s turning my stomach already and we haven’t even really gotten to the body horror yet…

#107 – Brave Hearts, by Phoenix Sullivan

  • Mount TBR: 88/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What a mess.

There’s no consistency to this, no romantic arc to follow. I’m not against our leads starting their relationship as a hookup that becomes more, but it stays in a weird, not-really-romantic place for a long time, where they keep having sex as boss/employee without becoming emotionally attached to each other. And then when they do form emotional attachments, it’s more that they’re both projecting their needs and insecurities onto Jasiri the elephant, whom they’re both so invested in, rather than each other.

I was uncomfortable with their extended banter at the beginning, when both of them were dancing around the idea that sex was part of the hiring package that Nicky was/wasn’t offering Peter. But I’m genuinely squicked out by the idea of them deliberately having sex near the elephant’s enclosure to try to bond with her, or to show that life is still worth living? I think I understand what the point was, even though I’m having a hard time describing it, because by that point in the story all of their emotional development was tied to this elephant. And this happens more than once.

Their inability to bond to each other for most of the book seems to rely heavily on their traumatic backstories, but neither is well-developed. Peter’s is an incredibly standard “I’m ex-military and I’ve seen some shit that damaged me,” but Nicky’s is… I don’t really know? So their eventual happy ending feels forced, because I believe they have had lots of sex with each other, but I never once thought they were falling in love. (Also I’m not in love myself with the idea that they only get together once Jasiri has had her own happy ending, and that they get together because they succeeded with Jasiri. She’s not your third wheel, guys, stop basing your personal life choices on her.)

I think the only good thing I can say about the “romance” here–which is incredibly minor–is that our leads did sometimes have bad sex when they weren’t really in the right mood for it, which is something a lot of romance novels pretend never happens, because it spoils the fantasy. Yeah, not all sex is “starfire.” (Which came up a lot as a descriptor here, and honestly if it had only been once, I think that’s fine, but it showed up too often.)

The b-plot with the unscrupulous animal broker seemed thin overall, and it wandered in and out of the story at seemingly odd times. It felt both like an excuse to make this story novel-length without investing more in the actual romance, and an excuse to have Peter be in danger a lot so that Nicky could be upset about it.

Ultimately the problem with this novel is likely that the animals are more important characters in the story than the people, and that’s not what I want from a romance.