Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge: Complete!

This was a new challenge to me this year, which I decided to do on impulse at the very end of 2019. Originally I intended to stick strictly to the one-book-a-week schedule, but once I realized that I had to read The Picture of Dorian Gray during one calendar week for ATY, but much later in the year (for Banned Books Week) for PopSugar, it stopped mattering and I read some books early. At the start of each month, I put any books for those weeks I hadn’t gotten to yet on my monthly TBR, but no longer worried about reading them during the correct week.

So, what did I read?

  1. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
  2. Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
  3. Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb
  4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  5. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
  6. From a Buick 8, by Stephen King
  7. Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan
  8. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
  9. The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
  10. Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint
  11. The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  12. Bayou Moon, by Ilona Andrews
  13. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson
  14. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  15. The Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko
  16. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller
  17. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
  18. Wasted Words, by Staci Hart
  19. The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb
  20. Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs
  21. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  22. Room, by Emma Donoghue
  23. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  24. Love on My Mind, by Tracey Livesay
  25. The Art of Peeling an Orange, by Victoria Avilan
  26. The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang
  27. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  28. Fake Out, by Eden Finley
  29. Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier
  30. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
  31. Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, by Maziar Bahari
  32. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  33. In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
  34. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
  35. The Great Passage, by Shion Miura
  36. Dirty, by Kylie Scott
  37. Insomnia, by Stephen King
  38. Sleeping Beauty and the Demon, by Marina Myles
  39. Autiobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  40. Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story, by Stephen King
  41. Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer
  42. The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
  43. Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
  44. The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch
  45. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey
  46. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
  47. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  48. This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples
  49. The thing About December, by Donal Ryan
  50. His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare
  51. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
  52. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Would I do this challenge again? Probably. A large part of the reason I liked it when I found it was that I keep wanting to go back to the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, which I did back in 2016, but the prompts every year have become increasingly narrow and specific, to the point where it seems like only one or two books would even qualify. Which is not a good match for me reading down the huge piles of books I had sitting around at the start of this year!

Will I do it again next year? Probably not. I still have a month and a half to change my mind, but so far, my plan is to do Mount TBR only, while prioritizing my 2018 backlog (assuming I’ve finished my 2017 by then, but I’m making good progress.) Also continuing to polish off series I still have hanging. But even with those constraints, I intend to put a lot less pressure on myself in terms of reading next year, because I’ve been going hard for five straight years now.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #43)

#159 – Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 11/4/20 – 11/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 137/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it nearly unreservedly. I was so invested, so quickly, and I guess I’ve finally wrapped my head around the way foreshadowing and clues to the mysteries in these stories work, because I figured out many of the things that were available to be figured out, while still being surprised by several turns of events.

Fitz is still, in many ways, the half-feral and bumbling idiot we’ve watched grow up and mature from his mistakes, but now he’s got a shiny new arena to flail about in–fatherhood. I’m sure he made a credible stepfather to Molly’s children, but they were already out of babyhood by the time he came along, and by the time this story is set, they’re adults and all out of the house. This is the first time Fitz has to play a real, direct role as a parent in a child’s life, and you really see the conflict between his genuine love for Bee and acceptance of who she is (eventually) with the expectations of the society around him, and how that goes against the way he was raised himself, which he both recognizes was often unconventional and harmful, yet in some ways still thinks is good enough. He would never want Bee to be hurt in the ways he was hurt as a child, but he sees little problem for most of the book allowing her a large amount of freedom to dress and act and spend her time as she likes. It’s a really interesting dynamic, that when Fitz feels he had to impose rules on her, for her safety or to meet the expectations of others, that’s when the two of them show the least understanding of each other. Despite being mostly under Molly’s care for the first years of her life, Bee still turned out to be a half-feral kid, talking to cats and hiding in spy-ways and not getting along with her school mates because they (mostly) don’t understand her.

I could talk about plenty of other things, because WOW did a lot of this book punch me straight in the chest repeatedly, but it would just be more gushing thinly disguised as book analysis, because if the point of this deeply detailed domestic tale was to reinvest me in Fitz and his life so that the cliffhanger ending hurt as much as it possibly could, this book was a runaway success for me, and I am still reeling the next day as I write this. (So glad I don’t have to wait for years for the next one!)

#160 – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

  • Read: 11/8/20 – 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to time
  • Mount TBR: 138/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Nope. DNF @ page 145. I slogged through the introduction of the first three narratives in this “sextet”–and boy does Mitchell love that word, once it starts showing up, everything is a freaking sextet–but I’m not invested. This book is clearly not for me; I value character over style, and I found the experimental structure tedious. Why have just one cliffhanger when you can have several? The first narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, and I actually turned the page back over to see if my used copy of this book had pages stuck together, but no, that’s intentional.

So my first cliffhanger was “is this random dude whose narrative purpose I don’t understand going to die from a real brain parasite or is this quack doctor telling him he’s got a parasite to make him buy drugs?” Except he was treating the guy for free, I think, so…

The second was…I’m honestly not sure. “Does this adulterous little shit get caught by the husband first, or the guys after him for the money he owes?” Maybe. There was more direction to that bit of the story, but not by much.

The third was at least solid, with our intrepid reporter getting run off the road and at great risk of drowning in her car. Legitimate cliffhanger there. But that’s when I realized I didn’t actually care. These story bits are so short and heavily stylized, and I’m too busy scratching my head trying to figure out the meaning of the obvious-but-unexplained linkages between them, that I never managed to care about the characters themselves (even the reporter, who was clearly trying to Do Good) so I really don’t have the energy to wade through three more story styles, then do it all again in reverse order, to find out if the reporter doesn’t drown or what becomes of the musician or if the dude from the first story actually has a brain parasite.

I started the fourth section but immediately disliked the character voice after only a few pages, so I knew it was time to give up. I always knew I was either going to love or DNF this book, because it seems to be so divisive among readers and their reviews; and I came down on the DNF side.

#161 – His Bride for the Taking, by Tessa Dare

  • Read: 11/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a silhouette on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 139/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Cute, quick, charming. My only complaint is my usual one for novellas I enjoyed–I liked it enough that I would have preferred it to be a full length novel! There’s enough going on here in terms of plot and backstory that got shorthanded to fit the bite-size format, and I think a lot of it would have benefited from more space to breathe.

That being said, it was still well-characterized and interesting, and as my first exposure to Tessa Dare, it more than justifies all the praise I’ve heard of her. Historical romance still isn’t my favorite subgenre, but I’d read her again.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #41)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #39)

#148 – Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

  • Read: 10/9/20 – 10/13/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring the undead
  • Mount TBR: 127/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

As usual with a review where I have strongly mixed feelings about a book, let’s just break it down into what works and what doesn’t:

The good stuff: fantastic alternate-history setting with zombies, while I’m not up on every aspect of American history of this period all the changes that the book made flowed easily with what I knew and I never had a head-scratching moment. Strong criticism/commentary on racist ideas by portraying racism constantly and unflinchingly throughout the story. Surprise bi and ace representation! Well-developed, unapologetic, flawed heroine.

The not-so-good stuff: what the heck is up with this pacing? with this semi-directionless plot line? I understand to some extent because of the setting Jane can’t be proactive, only reactive, but the vague “I’m going to get back to Rose Hill someday” motivation doesn’t do much to carry the story forward or spur her decisions, because for most of the book she’s too busy trying to survive. And that return-home arc doesn’t even start until the second part, because in the first part, while she’s still at school, she doesn’t actively want to go home. She’s too busy there trying not to get kicked out, because graduating is necessary even if she hasn’t totally bought into the system.

For the whole 400+ page book, stuff just happens, and a lot of doesn’t really make sense. Most of the semi-mysterious goings-on at Summerland were never explained to my satisfaction–there had to be a huge fight with zombies, I guess, and the town had to be under threat from the looming horde, but why exactly where there giant breaches in the walls? That were repeatedly stated to be impossible to have been the result of zombies? But also there were never any explosions that I recall to account for them, and the town residents tearing holes in their own walls doesn’t make sense either, so all that danger in the final fact felt so incredibly contrived. Also its a big deal in the middle of the book that there are actually zombies inside the town for Reasons, but that doesn’t go anywhere. And everybody’s complaining about rations being cut as more families come to town, yet at the same time, townfolk are disappearing left and right, and only towards the end do we learn they’ve been turned, so they weren’t exactly collecting their food, right?

I had heard so often that this was amazing, so I’m mildly disappointed that I think it’s just good. It’s a solid historical-fantasy with lots of meaty, gory action. But it never achieved greatness for me, because it’s a string of zombie attacks held together with just enough world-building to make it work, and in the spaces that framework leaves, there’s a whole lot of typical villains, unsurprising “is this character dead or not” twists, and at the very end, our heroine revealing she’s more unreliable that I ever suspected, but not really in a way that made her or the story more interesting.

Some elements worked, some fell flat.

#149 – Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

  • Read: 10/13/20 – 10/14/20
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a spooky cover
  • Mount TBR: 128/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after chapter 3, page 58, over 25%. I will drop books as low as 10%, and after the first chapter I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be finishing this, but I stuck it out through two more to be sure.

The concept is, a bunch of people go to an extreme writing retreat, where they’re cut off from their lives the whole time in order to foster creativity. The three chapters I read have the same components: a few pages of “real” time, where the narrator (whose identity is not yet disclosed by the time I quit) tells us about weirdly-named characters with a narrow selection of highly repetitive details; a poem about one of the other characters that somehow explains their life situation before coming on the retreat; and a short story by that character.

The format is experimental, and I would dig it, probably, if it weren’t incredibly obvious that everything was written by the same person, the actual author of the book. There’s no differentiation between author and character voice anywhere. All three stories had basically the same tone–bitter at the failure of their lives not being what they “should” be–and dealt with nearly the same themes–mistakes that changed the course of their lives somehow.

I’d be okay with the stories being thematically similar, because who, as a person, is likely to attend such an extreme workshop? People who feel they’ve failed at life and think they need a radical attempt to alter course. But I don’t see any excuse for three different characters with wildly different background sounding precisely the same in their writing. They wouldn’t, if they were real, and they still shouldn’t, even if they’re fake.

I’m not going to read the next twenty characters also being bitter cynics with nothing to distinguish them from each other. I’m just not.

As for the style, well, that first chapter managed to include a lot of off-putting gore without actually being horror, and while I was grossed out, I was also cautiously impressed. Though this is my first attempt at reading Palahnuik, because this is the novel of his that happened to fall into my hands at a used book sale, I’ve been aware of him since watching Fight Club, which I enjoyed, and I’ve been curious since one “who do you write like?” website spit out his name when given a chapter of my writing. (I know they go by grammar and word ratios and sentence length, not content; but I was still curious.)

I’ve gathered that for many the author is a love-him-or-hate-him creator, but I haven’t read enough by DNFing this novel to know for sure. I like some of the concepts of this work while being sorely disappointed in its execution–I don’t think it’s an unfair ask for a novel built around the stories of twenty-three different writer-characters to have them all not sound like the same person. I think that’s a fundamental necessity for my suspension of disbelief, and I didn’t get it, so I’m not bothering with the rest.

#150 – The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch, illustrated by M.S. Corley

  • Read: 10/14/20 – 10/15/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to witches
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring witches or magic users
  • Mount TBR: 129/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

First, the best thing: I did not know there was such a thing as a “Kindle in Motion” book that has animated illustrations, so when I started this I was pleasantly surprised to find them, and I really loved the art style. Anytime I flicked a page over and found a new one, I was delighted.

Too bad I didn’t think the story deserved the effort, though. This plot did not need to be nearly 450 pages long, maybe 300 at most. The story moved at a glacially slow pace, because it often took a character an entire page to perform one simple action, and many conversations between different sets of characters retread information I, as a reader, already had. The prose was plodding and simplistic, and the author over-relied on epithets stylistically, even for characters who had names; though in fairness, many didn’t, “the devil” in particular. But why was “the hangman” or “the midwife” or “the hangman’s daughter” or “the physician’s son” so prevalent when we know their names are Jakob, Martha, Magdalena, and Simon?

In addition, the scenes jumped from character to character in different locations abruptly, often without any sort of scene break, which made the narrative difficult to follow in places. I would be following Simon along his tramping through the forest, then next paragraph, I’m with Sophie in her hiding place; this isn’t a movie, it’s a novel, smash cuts don’t work mid-scene without something to tell me I’ve changed locations, like a scene break.

Overall, the writing struck me as amateurish, and as historical fiction, more concerned with accuracy and detail as proof of research than it was with plot and character.

At halfway through, I made the decision to skim instead of fully read, and I don’t regret it.

As for the plot, it’s not complicated, witchcraft is a sensationalized smokescreen for what’s really going on, and several key points are fairly predictable, though I didn’t solve the overall “mystery” myself. (I’m not particularly torn up about my failure to, because I wasn’t deeply invested.) Also, I’m on record disliking this about several other books, and it’s equally true here–why is this titled “The Hangman’s Daughter” when she’s nearly the least important character? She’s barely in the book for the first half, and in the second half she’s mostly an object, for Simon to lust after, for Jakob to yell at, for the villains to kidnap. She’s not interesting, she’s not vital to the central plot, but she’s the title, for some reason.

I did not enjoy this, I do not recommend it, and I won’t be continuing the series.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #38)

#146 – Behold, Here’s Poison, by Georgette Heyer

  • Read: 10/2/20 – 10/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A mystery
  • Mount TBR: 125/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 127. It’s only partially the book’s fault, though.

I don’t enjoy mystery novels. Oddly enough, I do sometimes enjoy mystery movies, and I had my phase of watching investigative procedural shows with their mystery elements. But novels have always left me bored, frustrated, or bewildered.

This is no exception; but my dislike of the genre isn’t the fault of this particular book.

My yearly reading challenges, no matter the source or the year, always include somewhere “Read a mystery.” And I always put my game face on and try a new one, thinking “Maybe this time I’ll enjoy it.” And I never do. I should really stop trying.

So what portion of my disappointment with this is actually the book’s fault? It has a huge cast of characters that are uniformly obnoxious with very little in the way of differing personalities between them; the worst of upper-crust British society at the time, I guess, and so overdone to my sensibilities that if you told me this was satire I would believe you. The first seventy pages of the book were solely devoted to these dozen or so awful people constantly slinging accusations at each other and reiterating information that I, the reader, already knew; it was a slog, and I nearly gave up before the inspectors were even introduced. When I got that far, I gamely attempted two more chapters before throwing in the towel; the constant repetition of information in conversation between different characters was simply too exhausting, and the pace of the story was glacially slow.

I’m stating it now: I have no intention of ever reading any book whose primary genre is listed as “mystery” again. I never like them and I’m tired of trying to.

#147 – A Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Read: 10/4/20 – 10/8/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a bird on its cover
  • Mount TBR: 126/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

After a somewhat slow start that left me wondering (as I often do with GGK) how I would keep all the characters straight, this quickly became a story so compelling I didn’t want to put it down, yet sometimes I had to because emotion or inspiration overwhelmed me.

And I didn’t have trouble keeping track of everybody for long. I should really trust the author more by now, I’m most of the way through his catalog. His characters are never ambiguous or interchangeable.

While it’s inevitable for most readers, myself included, to compare this to Tigana, because of its similarities or because Tigana is often considered his best work or because, like me, it was the first GGK novel I read, I find the comparison favorable. So much of what I loved about Tigana is also present here; this is the work that reminds me most of it, in good ways. The complex layers of motivations to the characters, the emphasis on artistry, the nobleman-in-hiding, the way even minor characters are memorable many chapters later when they reappear to play some small but key role in the story. The only thing that felt missing was magic, which has a much smaller presence, but for this particular tale of love and grief and revenge and war, I found I didn’t mind.

I already want to read it again, and I think it will reward me when I do with extra insight and a deeper appreciation of how it balances large political forces against the small, pivotal actions of the individual, a characteristic of GGK’s writing that I don’t think I’ve found often from other authors. He takes the time to remind us that one person can still change a flow of events that otherwise seems inevitable, as well as taking the time to pause and really let us feel the emotions driving those characters.

Will it eventually unseat Tigana as my favorite GGK novel? I don’t know yet; it’s hardly fair to stack a first read against something I’ve reread at least half a dozen times. (Also, I should probably give River of Stars a chance as well, I adored it but also haven’t reread it yet.) But it’s the first novel since RoS that makes me feel like it might, given enough time and attention.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #36)

#138 – Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

  • Read: 9/18/20 – 9/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A medical thriller
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book from a genre you don’t usually read
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Disappointing. Honestly, when you line up the blurb with all the content warnings I’ve seen on friends’ reviews, this sounds like a dark and twisting ride through the worst humanity has to offer.

What it actually read like was a confusing mystery with a weak open ending and muddled character relationships.

I’m all for LGBT in YA, in books where romance isn’t the focus, and even in books without happy endings, as long as it doesn’t fall under Bury Your Gays or some other damaging trope. But the dynamics between Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are so messy they aren’t adequately covered by the subplot-level page space they’re allotted. Early on, the language used for the Hetty-Byatt relationship is so intense I though it was Byatt Hetty had a crush on, so imagine my confusion/surprise when it’s actually Reese, the loner girl who I thought was more of a figure of fear/adulation than love. It never seemed genuine, and especially as more and more of the plot relied on Hetty’s need to save Byatt, I was left to wonder why there was even a Hetty/Reese romance subplot at all. It didn’t add much to the story. And even after I knew Hetty was actually into Reese, Reese still sometimes appeared to be genuinely frightening to her.

But I guess that’s a function of the Tox making all these girls less than fully human?

Oh, the Tox. I wasn’t actually all that intrigued by the mystery surrounding it, and there’s so much left unexplained. I actually read most of the third act wondering what sort of ending was even possible for a plot line going down this road, because it certainly didn’t have time to sort itself out for a happy one. The ending was fitting but still disappointing; I wanted more answers, I wanted more resolution, and failing that, I actually wanted more hope. The Children of Men movie adaptation also ended in a grim situation with the main characters on a boat in open water, but it was perfect and brilliant and stuffed full of hope against the despairing tone of the rest of the story. This? This felt more like an intermission between now and a book we don’t have yet. Not a proper cliffhanger, not a proper ending.

I was prepared to let my stylistic complaints go if I liked the story, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the narrative is choppy in a lot of places. The author relies heavily on sentence fragments for description, stringing anywhere from two to five together in a paragraph whenever a character goes to a new place and has to observe what it’s like. Sparingly or in isolation, fine, but once you get whole paragraphs of them, I’m starved for verbs. After a while, it actually gets worse; a sentence will start with a clause that sounds just like those descriptive fragments, but then a complete sentence gets added on the end after a conjunction. It’s bad grammar, and while yes, you can break the rules for a reason, I don’t see that reason here. It’s just bad:

The emptiness of the horizon, and the hunger in my body, and how will we ever survive this if we can’t survive each other?

Why? What does it add to the story to string a bunch of unlike clauses together? Why is the second “, and” there instead of making them separate, a fragment and a full sentence? (I already returned my digital copy to the library so I didn’t even pick out a sentence myself–I skimmed the quotes listed here on Goodreads for an example, and sure enough, I found several. That’s how common this issue is.)

I try not to be a grammar pedant, but this book brought it right out of me, I wanted to take a red pen to a copy of it and play editor, because the errors happen far too often to be simple mistakes, so I have to conclude it’s a deliberate aspect of the style. And I happen to find it obnoxious.

#139 – And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

  • Read: 9/20/20 – 9/21/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book about an event or era in history taken from the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a diverse/own voices book
  • Mount TBR: 121/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This novel’s ambitious structure is a departure from the style I associate with Hosseini after loving his first two works: deep and introspective focus on only a few POV characters. Instead, Mountains chooses a sweeping narrative that dips through time and leaps from character to character, no two chapters alike. At first the jumps are small and easy to follow–the new character is generally still a family member of Abdullah and Pari, whom the tale is nominally about. Later on, the new characters and their relationships are harder to pin down, occasionally to the point where I was frustrated until halfway through the chapter or more.

I didn’t like this structure when I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest earlier this year, and I still don’t like it now. Personal preference, of course, but I feel this piecemeal approach does a decent job painting a picture of the larger world of the story, but leaves me feeling detached from the life within it. It doesn’t help that some of these characters are comparatively bland or stereotypical; we spent a great deal of time in Nila Wahdati’s orbit, learning about her from several sources, yet she never struck me as more than a standard “sexy French artist” type, with all the drinking and self-destructive tendencies to go along with it. And she’s by far the best-developed character in the book.

What has impressed me most in the past about Hosseini, especially A Thousand Splendid Suns, is that he’s the male author I trust most to handle female characters properly, with depth and sensitivity. Here, he hasn’t devolved into the worst of “men writing women”–he’s not actively harmful or disrespectful–but all the characters, male or female, lack the nuance I was expecting.

It’s not a bad novel, if you’re approaching it from a broader narrative standpoint. Not at all. But it’s also not at all what I was expecting from him, and I’m honestly disappointed by that.

#140 – The King’s Man, by Elizabeth Kingston

  • Read: 9/22/20 – 9/23/20
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book with a trope you love
  • Mount TBR: 122/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This fell flat for me throughout. I’m sold on some of its ideas–a misguided/evil man coming to terms with his past, an unattractive woman who pursued traditionally masculine pastimes reconciling with the feminine side of herself, the two of them becoming better people through their relationship with each other.

But none of it is executed well. Ranulf and Gwenllian have little chemistry, sexual or otherwise. He spends most of his time mocking her, which read well in the beginning when they were adversaries, but never gained the affectionate tone I expected of a romance hero who doesn’t know how to state his feelings honestly and thus continues to mock. He’s often cruel, even after he realizes his love for her.

Does it say something about me, that I’m more irritated with the hero for his mockery than I am with his long-ago murder of his foster father? Because a) he’s clearly struggling with guilt over that, where the mockery is just who he is; and b) his foster father was apparently a wife-abusing/killing piece of total garbage. I guess I’d rather have a murderer who was learning to be kind that an insecure one who still lashes out constantly at the woman he supposedly loves.

Gwenllian has strong characterization as an “ugly” woman who finds freedom in taking on a role usually denied to women–there’s a reason I see so many pictures of Brienne of Tarth from GoT in other reviews. But ultimately her internal conflict–which side of myself do I move forward with, the leader or the wife/mother–pushes her into an incredibly passive role in the story. Basically, after her marriage, she stops having agency. In the early days of her marriage she’s driven by lust, but as she fails to settle into her role as lady of the keep, she runs home to her mother, who’s plotting a rebellion against the king and wants to use Gwenllian as a figurehead to rally the people.

She spends the rest of the book paralyzed by indecision: she can’t stay and be a part of her mother’s plot, because she doesn’t believe in the cause and doesn’t want to be a traitor; she can’t return to her husband, because she’s not a real woman or lady and she’s overwhelmed by the combination of fear, failure, and love. So she sits around sulking, basically, until Ranulf comes for her and she decides she’ll try being a wife and mother again.

I’m just not sold on it. There are plenty of rich concepts here that could provide boundless interest to a reader, but none of it manifested for me. I was never invested, in the romance, in the politics, in Ranulf’s tortured past. It’s flat. It never hooked me.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #35)

#135 – This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples

  • Read: 9/10/20 – 9/11/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Read a book published in 2020
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new author [which I chose to interpret as “read a debut novel published this year” to define “new”]
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is so far outside my normal reading sphere that I’m having difficulty articulating what I liked about it. I’m always interested in LGBT+ stuff; I should be reading more indigenous authors; I’m okay with supernatural elements, slightly less comfortable with spiritual; but I almost never read crime novels.

It’s an odd mix, and it doesn’t always quite work, but overall it’s a strong debut. I felt for Marion, and his history is intertwined with that of his town/reservation, and some strange goings-on. I read this in just under a day; the pacing was definitely compelling enough to keep me going. I didn’t always like any of the other characters, though I found it interesting that Shannon’s POV chapters were generally written in second person, a framework of him talking to himself, because of his issues. Most writing advice tells us all to steer clear of 2nd, but I like it here as a mode of characterization, even if I didn’t necessary like Shannon at first. He comes around in the end, mostly.

The weakest aspect is definitely the many, many side POVs and the lack of clarity when switching to one of a) who our POV even is, and b) how they’re related (in the story, or in some cases, literally blood-related) to Marion. While I recognize much of the cultural content/history given in these vignettes was necessary to the story, I didn’t appreciate having my attention diverted in so many directions, or frequently waiting to get back to the present-day storyline. It’s a serious complaint, but not one that would prevent me from recommending the book to anyone interested in the subject matter–I picked this on a whim for a reading challenge and I’m surprised by how much I liked it, given its dissimilarities to my usual genres.

#136 – Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky

  • Read: 9/11/20 – 9/14/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose real name(s) you’re not quite sure how to pronounce
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book you picked because the title caught your attention
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Russia (or by a Russian author)
  • Mount TBR: 119/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I rarely read the introductions in any book that has one. I’d rather get to the actual content, and often I don’t have the academic grounding to understand half of what the introduction’s authors have to say.

This time, I went back and read it after. Counter-intuitive, I’m sure many people would say, but I was vindicated by Thirlwell mentioning Italo Calvino as a similar author, because I read The Complete Cosmicomics earlier this year and found Corpse to be strikingly reminiscent of it. The subject matter of any individual story between the two could be wildly different, but they all felt the same in their treatment of the “fantastic” as a blend of real, absurd, and academic.

Like my reaction to Cosmicomics, I’m left here with the feeling of “I wish I understood this better so I can appreciate it more.” I’m no student of philosophy, and while I have enough knowledge of Russian history to connect it to the dismal, censorious atmosphere of the stories in Corpse, beyond that I have no ground to stand on. I love absurdity in fiction; but this is high-minded, philosophical absurdity outside my ken. I always felt like I was grasping at the edges of what Krzhizanovsky was trying to say–I could see connections forming between identity, time, brokenness, and storytelling. I feel confident in stating his stories are mostly about some or all of those things, most of the time. But as with Calvino, deeper meaning eludes me; I value emotion most in my fiction, not philosophy. I would rather grapple with characters than concepts.

This is a challenging work that I’m glad I attempted, but not something I’d shout from the rooftops as a general recommendation. It’s weird and interesting, and I’m vaguely sad that this author was never recognized for his fiction in his lifetime because of censorship. Even if I can’t appreciate his work fully, clearly he deserved better than what he got.

#137 – At This Moment, by Karen Cimms

  • Read: 9/15/20 – 9/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 120/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This would be a decently compelling story if it were the novelization of a B-movie-level biopic of a famous musician. It’s only good if it’s about someone I already care about, or at least want to hear gossip about; as a piece of total fiction, it doesn’t do a great job getting me invested in characters this miserable.

As a “romance,” it’s alarmingly lackluster. There’s no romantic or sexual tension beyond Billy and Kate’s initial courtship in the first 10%–after that, they’re together and it’s a roller coaster of family problems, poverty, drinking, drug abuse, lying, manipulation, and eventually cheating and a half-assed cliffhanger where they’re happy but there’s a huge secret hanging over their head.

Nothing about it is what I want from my romances, even when I indulge in angsty/sexy New Adult titles. The tension I want–why aren’t they together yet, what obstacles are in their way–was entirely absent. The tension this story gave me–will they make it work–was far more about their lying and poor decision-making than it was about their love. They must be in love because they keep insisting they are, but they both treat each other like garbage, so I’m not convinced. Billy is abusive from the beginning and eventually acknowledges his anger issues but does little to move past them. Kate is a classic people-pleasing doormat who borrows most of her personality from her token gay best friend. I was never rooting for them, because they’re terrible together.

Even the supposedly central conflict of Billy’s career vs. his marriage–which pops up every few chapters to remind us he’s got dreams–is deeply flawed, because from where I’m sitting, it’s not his marriage holding him back from stardom, it’s his constant cycle of substance abuse and self-sabotage. I’m not rooting for him to succeed personally, either.

This never read like a romance to me. It’s a wandering tale of two messed-up people making each other worse for a few years and having some babies in the process. If the loose plot thread of Billy’s big screw-up is supposed to get me primed for reading the next book, it failed, because I’d rather Kate finds out he’s a cheater and dumps his ass.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#130 – Dirty, by Kylie Scott

  • Read: 9/3/20 – 9/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from your TBR/wishlist that you don’t recognize, recall putting there, or put there on a whim
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a female author or featuring a female main character
  • Mount TBR: 116/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

If you break this down to its component parts, everything you need for a functional romance novel is there. The hero and heroine have personal arcs related to the conflicts in their relationship. There are plans each have made that keep them apart, obstacles they almost choose not to face in order to stay together. There’s the big apology/reunion at the climax and a happy ending follows.

It’s all there. But none of it really grabbed me.

Some of my complaints are strictly a matter of taste–I think Lydia’s internal monologue could have been less crass, but given the title of the book, what should I have expected? She’s a fully realized character who happens to have a serious case of potty-mouth. And potty-brain. Vaughan is so laid back he’s almost bland in parts, but when drama goes down, he shows his passion, and I have to admit he knows when he did wrong and apologizes.

It’s just not setting me on fire.

I can even compliment how well the supporting cast is worked into the story. Often with series, especially in the first entry, it’s glaringly obvious who the next featured couple will be (or at least one of them, if both aren’t around yet.) But here, everyone has a clear purpose that’s not “I’ll be important in a later book,” to the point where I don’t know who’s got the lead role without looking. (If the author is going for a second-chance romance + baby plot for Nell and Pat, I’d believe it, but that subplot isn’t merely setup, it’s important to the story here, too. And I could be wrong.)

All that being said, do I want to keep going with the series? Not really. There’s nothing bad about this book from a technical standpoint, the sorts of glaring issues that make me give a book two stars, or one, or even DNF it. And I did read this in just over a day. But it didn’t wow me. I guess it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

#131 – Amethyst, by Lauren Royal

  • Read: 9/4/20 – 9/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 117/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Until I hit 75%, I was planning on giving this two stars. It wasn’t great, but it was readable; it was a bit of unrealistic historical fluff, but it was pleasant enough not to make me DNF it.

Then the main characters got married. Which should be a good thing. But there was still 25% to go, and it took FOREVER. It was the slowest, most drawn-out, unnecessary bloated “and this is how we handled the remaining subplots” epilogue. None of this needed to take up so much space, and the heroine still doubted whether the hero loved her! Repeatedly! I really struggled to stay motivated to finish it.

It was a fitting ending, in some ways, for an underdeveloped relationship based more on lust and circumstance than genuine emotion, and a story that placed so much emphasis on physical things: jewelry, clothing, wealth, the homes/castles/estates of its characters. I get that some of that is necessary to the setting, and the jewelry especially is necessary if the heroine is a jeweler by trade. But it often ran to excess, because I would have rather spent more of this book’s long run time examining the hearts and emotions of its characters rather than their finery.

#132 – The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

  • Read: 9/6/20 – 9/7/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A history or historical fiction
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader
  • Mount TBR: 118/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 167.

I know I read several Gregory novels in the late 2000’s, though when I set up my Goodreads account several years later, I couldn’t recall which ones exactly. This novel had just been made into a movie, and I’d just gotten a library card, so I checked out a few. I know that I read them cover to cover, and I seem to remember enjoying them, even if I’m not sure which ones they were all this time later.

So I may actually have read The Other Boleyn Girl already. The plot, as far as I got, didn’t seem familiar to me, but neither did the blurbs of the other novels I might have read.

I suppose the decade I’ve aged since, as well as the five years I’ve spent reading more widely and reviewing everything I read, have given me a lower tolerance for soap opera nonsense with flat characters and strange pacing. Because that’s what this reads like: a soap opera. All sex and intrigue and drama for the sake of drama, but with no honesty or emotion to back it up.

Mary is a spineless girl who does exactly as her family instructs–that doesn’t make for an interesting protagonist, nor do I believe she “loves” King Henry. Starstruck, sure. Love? Not a chance. Her more-famous-to-us sister Anne is a scheming, irritating, meddling know-it-all who, at the point where I quit reading, had just had a scheme fail spectacularly and wasn’t taking it well. Do I want to read five hundred more pages of these two?

And what of King Henry, who Mary views alternately as the most magnificent man to have ever lived, and the spoiled man-child half-raised by his older wife and queen? The cognitive dissonance between those two stances is remarkable, yet she has no trouble reconciling them. The narrative itself doesn’t do anything to show me that Henry is a great man, only the overgrown baby who needs constant entertainment.

Beyond my quibbles with the style, I’m aware I can’t take this seriously as historical fiction, that it’s riddled with inaccuracies for the sake of livening up the story. And if the story were better, I’d honestly be fine with that–if I want a real history, there’s plenty of nonfiction available on the era. But if I’m not getting the real history, and I don’t want the melodrama it offers, then what is there for me to enjoy about this book?

#133 – Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy

  • Read: 9/8/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with twenty or more letters in the title
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s always good to go into a self-help book understanding who it’s written by, and who it’s written for. This is a book for neurotypical business people, written by a business person who gives a particularly strong impression of being neurotypical. (I don’t know that for a fact, obviously, but he didn’t sound like someone who had ever struggled with a mental illness or neurodivergence that impaired his abilities.)

So this book is, quite literally, not for me. My primary job is not in any business/office/corporate setting; I was looking for concrete tips on how to work more productively on my second, at-home “job,” being a romance author. And I am not an NT person who’s easily capable of putting my butt in the chair and doing the work–which is what all his actionable tips eventually boil down to–because the lack-of-focus/hyperfocus pendulum in my brain is wonky.

But, because I’m aware of all this, I could plow through this tiny booklet of business jargon and extract the meat that was actually useful to me. Of his 21 specific actions, I was following the end-of-chapter worksheets until #6; after that most of them were squarely aimed at corporate types who have underlings/colleagues to shuffle other work onto, and I don’t. I can’t outsource any significant portion of my work, and much of the other advice simply doesn’t apply outside of an office setting.

The tone of this, overall, is disturbingly pro-capitalism, since it’s geared for office drones looking to get ahead. And as far as that goes, fine, I bet some of the stuff that didn’t apply to me is useful to them. But the constant mantra of “get there earlier, work harder, stay later” was indicative of the nose-to-the-grindstone attitude that I personally believe is harmful in the long run. There’s very little here about work/life balance other than “you’ll never get it quite right but keep trying.” The baseline attitude of “you need to be more productive per time unit because you will LITERALLY NEVER GET EVERYTHING DONE” may be true on a grand scale, but isn’t conducive to setting boundaries around what is “work” time and what is “life” time–especially when paired with the earlier/later mantra. Everything about this book made me think I was being shaped into a happy little worker bee, though I will give one anecdote credit–when someone doubled their productivity after working with her boss to restructure her job responsibilities, she apparently got double pay when she proved she could do it. (I mean, that reads like fiction, from everything I know about salary negotiation, but again, I’m not in that work environment. At least the anecdote acknowledges better work deserves more pay.)

All that being said, I did still come away from this quick read with new perspective and a few strategies to increase my productivity. Not 21 of them (the first six pretty much covered it) but not nothing, either. There are effective tips for time management here, once I stripped away the business-speak that didn’t help.

I don’t regret reading this, but I’m also glad I got it from the library.

#134 – Sleeping Beauty and the Demon, by Marina Myles

  • Read: 9/8/20 – 9/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Two books that are related to each other as a pair of binary opposites: Book #2
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Was I supposed to take any of this seriously? It’s a farce, completely ungrounded in reality, and no, I’m not talking about the magic. The magic is (mostly) fine. But the plot leaps from one ridiculous event to another with little causality.

Drago magically compels Rose to show up at his show, then hypnotizes her with the amulet. Okay, great, he starts the story as a lying manipulator, just what I love in my romantic heroes. /s

But she suspects his compulsion quickly, yet falls in love with him anyway? In the space of a few days? And I’m supposed to believe either a) that it’s genuine despite the compulsion, or b) that it’s not but she’s honestly okay with being manipulated?

Then they sleep together because she’s so swept away by lust, they run off and get married, and he immediately isolates her from everything she had in her life before him; her friends, adoptive family, her would-be beau, even her job, but that’s okay, because he gives her a new one.

I was all prepared to trash the silliness of how she got that reporter job, but a secret revealed at the end shows that it was all part of an evil plan, so it didn’t have to make sense as it was happening. That doesn’t really negate how unhealthy it is that Drago’s like, yeah, your boss literally wants you to spy on me and I can’t have that, so just be my assistant instead! Let me provide you with everything so you don’t need anyone or anything in your life other than me!

The story surprised me then by showing that his isolation of her–which included taking her on an extended “honeymoon” to another country–made them both miserable. She becomes increasingly suspicious of his strange behavior, so even after he’d agreed to take her home, she decides to pry into his magic and finds out he’s the demon that’s been killing a girl every year to maintain his immortality. She flees, because of course she does. This is an actual high point of the story morally, even if it’s a low point emotionally–actions have consequences and Drago isn’t good for her.

The rest of the story is a garble of everything the story told you before is wrong, and here’s what’s actually going on. Drago is a demon, but he’s not the killer. Rose’s aunt is also a demon, and has gone from “the one who put the original curse on her” to “no it was actually your mother” to “actually it was both of them, they both cursed you.” (I think? The history changed so many times as new information was revealed that I ended the story honestly unsure of how things went down.) Patrick betrayed them, because of course he did. Rose’s boss was evil and not himself all along.

And the very, very end finally addresses the actual “sleeping” part of this Sleeping Beauty retelling by having Rose’s sleep be a good thing, that’s Drago hiding her for a hundred years so they can start new lives together later. Which is honestly disappointing. I’m never terribly invested in fairy tale retellings, so I don’t usually care how much or little they bend the original plot, but this was so different it felt removed from the story altogether. And our Maleficient stand-in was a pretty weak and boring villain, so this was Sleeping Beauty for me in name only.

Drago would be an abusive monster even if he were human instead of demon, though the ending attempts to redeem him; but he’s repeatedly shown himself to be manipulative, untruthful, and violent. Rose is a flimsy heroine who can only stand up for herself for about ten seconds at a time before giving in to lust/love for Drago, and it’s telling that when she runs from him for what she believes is her own safety, it’s all a misunderstanding, and yeah, Drago is good actually? I don’t agree, but they get their happy ending, so all she did by fleeing him was put both of them in danger. Not a good look.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#127 – Heart Signs, by Cari Quinn

  • Read: 8/27/20 – 8/28/20
  • Mount TBR: 113/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I feel a little cheated. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it ended up being half as long as I expected it to be, because the end of the book is at 54% of the Kindle file. The rest? Promo material for other books.

It does feel like I read half a story. Sure, it’s got a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not at all long enough to cover what should be a complex topic–moving on from grief to start a new relationship. It doesn’t get explored with any real depth, and Sam especially gets shortchanged by the lack of nuance. I had glimpses of a story, and a hero, that I might have loved, only it was pared down to a sappy premise with a few semi-raunchy sex scenes and a tiny bit of actual dating.

The “baby solves everything” epilogue also left a sour taste in my mouth, even if it was set three years after the main story. Sam’s unborn children by his dead wife were a murky plot point at best–they seemed to be related to his problems with her before her death, but that was never explained to my satisfaction–and proving he got his happy ending by giving him a baby didn’t sit right with me. (Not that he couldn’t have ended up there in a more well-developed novel, but then there’d be more substance to back it up.)

#128 – One Dom to Love, by Shayla Black, Jenna Jacob, and Isabella LaPearl

  • Read: 8/28/20 – 8/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 114/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have a lot of problems with this.

I’m used to the clubs in BDSM fiction being ill-defined in setup or unrealistic–hey, it’s a fantasy, and even in real clubs I imagine there’s a lot of ways to make things work. But Shadows, the club in this novel, takes it to a whole new level, and a lot of my issues with it have implications for the story as a whole.

So…some people live in the club; at the very least, Hammer and Raine do permanently, and Liam does while he’s visiting town, I guess. Do other people live there? How does that interact with the club security and the scene where Hammer goes into the monitor room to watch what’s happening elsewhere? How does Hammer handle banning people who live there–was that stipulated in their lease when they moved in, that they could be evicted at any time for breaking club rules (a good thing) or if Hammer’s throwing a tantrum and kicking people out he doesn’t like (a bad thing)? What’s the rent like compared to club dues for non-residents? Are there tenant redress policies in place like other rentals would have? I have questions! This environment is full of holes and doesn’t make sense!

Next up, what are the club rules for play? Because the roles of the club submissives are ill-defined as well; they seem to be around for people to scene/have sex with, whenever they’re needed–do they live on site too? Some of Raine’s turmoil stems from not being considered a submissive for plot reasons, but she “works” for the club, basically as a maid/cook/gopher, as much as her actual duties are described. Do the other submissives also do menial labor? Or are they actual people with real lives outside the club who presumably pay a fee to be a member like real people do in real clubs? (And presumably some of the members here do, like Beck, who clearly has a life and career outside the club.) The club clearly has rules, because Liam knows how to claim Raine formally as a Master, and then later what to do for a formal collaring ceremony; no one reacts to these events like they’re out of the ordinary. But if there are accepted practices like that, which everyone seems to know, then why aren’t there simple, obvious safety procedures in place, like, oh, say, subs being allowed to negotiate contracts or impose hard limits? Because several plot points hinge on pushing Raine outside of her comfort zone, often publicly, and I was cringing every time because she was never allowed to set boundaries or even choose her own safe word. MAJOR RED FLAGS! THESE CHARACTERS ARE NOT PLAYING SAFE!

On to the actual story. This is the most imbalanced love/dominance triangle I’ve ever read, and yes, that’s saying something. I generally don’t care for the trope, often because it’s SO OBVIOUS who the better choice is that I simply can’t believe the character in the middle can’t see it. That’s the case here in spades. Liam isn’t perfect–he’s more manipulative than I care for and I found the meal scene where he’s using food as a reward/punishment scale disturbing (since hey, look, Raine never got to set boundaries so I don’t know if she’s okay with having food withheld from her or being forced to eat something she doesn’t like; all of that would be acceptable behavior for a Dom IF THE SUB HAS PREVIOUSLY AGREED TO IT but we skipped that part because it’s apparently not necessary here.) But even with my reservations, he’s miles and miles ahead of Hammer, who is stiff competition for the worst romantic hero I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. He’s secretive, manipulative (more than Liam,) prone to violent outbursts because of his obvious anger mismanagement, emotionally withdrawn, a heavy drinker. This man should not have power over anyone, sexually or otherwise. And he’s the freaking owner of the club! He’s the most spoiled man-child who pouts, sulks, drinks, and destroys things whenever he doesn’t get his way. He insists Liam “stole” Raine from him despite never doing a damn thing to “claim” her himself. He can’t, because he’s too dark and broody and he’ll ruin her life with his demands. Hey, guess what, I agree with you, Hammer, you would be terrible for her; but you don’t get to act like your favorite toy was taken away and try to ruin everything around you out of spite when someone else offers her what you’ve been deliberately withholding “for her own good.”

I bought this so long ago that I had forgotten (or possibly never knew) that it was not a complete story, and getting to that cliffhanger was a disappointment, because I was only hanging on to see Raine choose Liam unequivocally. Then I remembered, vaguely, that this series was about the three of them eventually finding happiness together, and I just want to throw it all in a lake. Hammer is the worst and does not deserve to be happy. I don’t care if he gets a redemption arc later, he’s sufficiently proven to me that he’s not worth my time, nor is the rest of this series.

P.S. – I haven’t even addressed how body-shaming this narrative gets–Raine’s primary female “rival,” if that’s even the right term, is terrible in action, but before we even get to see her being awful, she gets described in a way that equates any plastic surgery or other body enhancement to being a bad person. Raine is beautiful because she’s “real,” and Marlie is awful because she’s “fake.” Marlie’s words and actions do eventually bear out those assumptions, but none of that has to do with her body; she’d be just as horrible a person if she didn’t have a boob job or a spray tan or bleached blonde hair. Authors need to stop reaching for the toxic, low-hanging fruit, because the plastic surgery = bad person trope is overplayed and gross.

#129 – Insomnia, by Stephen King

  • Read: 8/30/20 – 9/3/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Two books that are related to each other as a pair of binary opposites: Book #1
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with a white or mostly white cover
  • Mount TBR: 115/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The best parts of this story were maybe three stars–ultimately I did really like Ralph as a protagonist–but the worst were dragging, slogging, mind-numbing half a star or worse passages that took up far too much time.

This work is slow and rambling and repetitive. It held my hand when I didn’t need it, stressing the importance of the physical objects stolen by a certain evil gremlin; but then when I wanted more explanation (the entire rooftop scene with the good “doctors”) I felt like I was deliberately being run around in pointless circles, and not just because vital information was being withheld from the characters. I felt like after hiking through more than 400 pages of old-people problems I deserved more than half-assed metaphysical nonsense.

I can’t even like this for its association with The Dark Tower series, because the ultimate point of this book is related to it, but in such a narrow way that I had to look up one of the characters involved, and even when I did, I didn’t remember him. (Not the Crimson King, who is a much bigger deal and far more memorable. Yeah, I read the entire TDT series three years ago, and I didn’t like most of the second half, but I didn’t even remember the significance of the crossover character here.)

So this starts, not strong exactly, but interesting. As I said, Ralph is pretty darn likable, and it’s rare in my experience to read a book with an elderly protagonist that isn’t obviously a self-insert for the author. (King does that in other ways in other books, but I never once thought Ralph was meant to represent him here. I’m thinking more along the lines of The Bridges of Madison County and similar self-indulgent Old Man tales.)

But by page 250 I was still, in some sense, waiting for the story to show up. I’d been introduced to a lot of characters and there was a lot of background noise (the abortion “debate” and town drama was not a particularly satisfying backdrop to the main plot) but I didn’t have a sense of what the story meant itself to be. It felt directionless. The sagging, repetitive, expository-but-unsatisfying middle made that directionlessness worse, even as it should have been solidifying the plot. Even when Clotho and Lachesis (yay, Greek mythology in a story where it doesn’t really belong) literally explain what’s going on to Ralph and Lois, I still didn’t see where the story was headed, because there were too many unknowns.

At that point, I realized the underlying problem of the novel; Ralph is likable, sure, but he’s incredibly passive. Things happen to him or around him, and he reacts. He gets told he has to Do a Thing, so he agrees to do it, even though he doesn’t understand how–and yes, I’ve just described a stereotypical Call to Action from a hero’s journey arc, only his happens more than halfway through the story.

The final act does jerk him around some more, and the supernatural nonsense leads him by the nose to what he’s supposed to do. He does display some remarkable agency in making a deal with C+L that he’s not really supposed to make, and eventually that brings the novel to a close in the epilogue, completing his story in a semi-satisfying way fitting with his character. The big blowout action scenes that precede it, ending the main plot, are so crazy as to be nearly unbelievable, and again rely on some of the worst aspects of storytelling this book has to offer–excessive repetition and hand-holding.

I can’t recommend it as a true standalone to readers who haven’t touched TDT–I think the frequent references to it would be frustrating and nonsensical. But I don’t really recommend it to TDT readers either, unless they’re deep fandom nerds who want to trudge through 800 pages to find out the “origin” story of a minor TDT character. (And I say that with love, because I am a deep fandom nerd of other things, so I understand the impulse even if I don’t have it here. I was not satisfied; I am too casual a TDT fan.)

Do I regret reading it, though? No. Even if the book gave me nothing else, it explored a likable elderly protagonist in depth, giving him a quest and a new love and putting him through hell in the process. I think that was a valuable experience for me, even if it was sometimes a tedious one.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #33)

#122 – Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

  • Read: 8/20/20 – 8/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 109/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a book by an author in their 20s
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Africa
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it’s so well-researched and -crafted.

Given what others have said about this book, I expected not to like it as much as I did. I’m all about character-driven stories, especially but not limited to romance. This is no romance, and the characters aren’t explored in any great depth. It’s a sweeping epic of a generational saga, following a new protagonist every chapter, laying out two parallel families over 300 years.

Honestly, I should probably dislike it for being so far from what I usually value in a story. But I don’t. I love it.

I love it because it’s so successful at what it sets out to do. Okay, maybe the meaning of the ending is a little murky to me, but it’s a reunion, a meeting of the sagas we’ve been alternating between for nearly as many pages as years. Even if it’s not directly acknowledged, it carries a small sense of satisfaction for me (though as per other reviewers, clearly your mileage may vary.)

But this story sets its premise at the beginning clearly and never deviates from the terrible beauty of it. Nearly every type of harm that can befall a person happens to someone in this story: rape, whippings, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment and forced labor, limb loss, drug addiction, and more I’m forgetting the specifics of because there’s just so much suffering. But there is still always hope, somewhere, in each vignette. Until the end, there is always a new generation, a child to carry forth the torch into what could be a better world. Yes, there are still challenges, there are still wrongs done to the characters and by the characters. But for all the misery, this book never actually felt depressing to me. Awful and plain-spoken, factual and dark, but never grim. Never hopeless.

Even allowing for the difference between my usual tastes and this book’s style, I still see some flaws. I found the opening chapters more compelling than the final ones; something about them felt like checking off boxes of American civil rights history, they seemed flatter and more rushed. But that didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of it, nor do I think it’s relevant to the larger point of the work. Would this be “better” if it were longer and spent more time developing the characters as individuals, rather than viewpoints for a certain social issue or segment of history? Maybe, but not necessarily. This work was never trying to be a character study, and I know that, so why criticize it for lacking what it never promised to have?

#123 – Dragonsong: A Short Story, by Audrey Rose B.

  • Read: 8/25/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Mount TBR: 110/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It is, above all things, cute. Which I find to be both its strength and its weakness.

Sometimes the cuteness is fantastic. Arlyn the dragon is a joy throughout, especially considering he can’t talk. But my favorite cuteness isn’t even a direct part of Rynn and Elanthia’s romance, as I’d expect it to be–it’s the silliness of the “human mysteries” they’re forced to explain to the faeries during their captivity. I could have read a dozen more pages of that, it was a brilliant way to handle a species/culture clash and bonus, it was hilarious.

But that cuteness extends its fingers through everything, including the “war” that is the foundational reason for any of the plot happening. There’s a war prophesied; there’s a marriage alliance proposed to prevent it; but the princess doesn’t want that marriage (who can blame her in this case) and goes out to find her own way. But it’s superficial. It’s set dressing. Rynn and Elanthia’s reunion near the end was so “cute” it completely spoiled the gravity of the situation–or at least, it would have if there was any gravity. There wasn’t. The war is a vague, far-off thing, an excuse to have a cute love story between two ladies from different fantasy cultures. I think including something as grim and destructive as war is a tonal mismatch for a bite-size story clearly meant to be sweet, romantic fluff. Which it is, and should be allowed to be, without having a completely de-fanged version of war hovering on the horizon.

So I liked the romantic aspect of the ending, while completely disliking the light, almost dismissive tone of how it treats a subject as serious as large-scale human conflict.

The world has promise and I would love to see it better-developed in future works, should that ever happen. The writing style…eh? It was easy to read, not particularly challenging, which is fine for cute fluff. But I tired quickly of how often the only descriptor for something was its color. It seemed crucial to the author that I knew what color literally everything was, but I prefer more variety in description so that it doesn’t feel monotonous.

It’s cute. And if you’re looking for cute, queer fantasy-romance, this will brighten up your afternoon. I’d like a little more substance, but it delivers on what it promises.

#124 – From the Roof of My Mouth, by Reese Weston

  • Read: 8/25/20 – 8/26/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I don’t like “romances” based on miscommunication, spite, and outright lying. I thought I was getting a slow-burn about two queer guys with history and personal issues, but it was more like a perpetual motion machine of angst and misery and distrust.

While I’m not the most qualified to discuss racial issues in fiction, many aspects of this left a bad taste in my mouth. Most important characters are stated to be of a particular race or skin color, but not all of them, so in the cases where I wasn’t told, I was left wondering if that meant I was supposed to assume they were white. A big deal is made of Ryan and Jet being rich white boys, generally in the most derogatory sense of the term, so that made me question the assumption, and it turns out I was right to–“Dice,” the roommate whose ethnicity I either missed early on or it was never specified, turned out to be named “Aarav Parikh,” which is definitely not a white name; he later calls himself “an Indian nerd.” I would have liked to have known that earlier, since it’s such a big deal that Ryan is white and Nakoa is part Native (his mother is stated to be Ojibwe, though if we ever get details on the rest of his birth family, I missed that too.) Also, I was always uncomfortable with the narrative being “rich white guy slums it to save his Native addict love interest.” Alcoholism and drug addiction is a real problem in Native American communities, and treating Nakoa’s vices like something Ryan can “save” him from, for the purpose of creating an angst-fest for a messed-up toxic romance plot, simply feels wrong to me, even if I’m not a part of the community being drawn upon.

Wrapped up in that is also my dissatisfaction about Ryan’s job subplot, where he takes a job for a nonprofit aimed at helping queer teens, but constantly blows it off to deal with Nakoa’s problems. A) Why on earth is he so valuable to the organization that Chloe and Jet let him get away with that, I would have fired him half a dozen times; B) what does he actually do, because his “work” is never described enough for me to get a sense of what his job actually entails; and C) it further reinforces the white-savior privileged complex that Ryan has, that he can skate by half-assing his single job because he has his family’s money while Nakoa works three different menial jobs and still barely gets by. Yes, part of that is Nakoa’s addictions being a drain on his cash flow, and that’s not Ryan’s fault, but constantly bringing up how Ryan covers his rent and food most of the time only makes this dynamic worse.

From me, that probably sounds like a one-star review, and I’ll admit, I considered it. We’ll split the difference and call this 1.5 stars. But I do think this story does some things successfully. As queer rep, well, nearly everyone in it is somewhere under the umbrella, and that’s great. I also think there is a place for darker stories in queer lit, that not everything should be sunshine and roses and Perfect Queer People who don’t have major flaws. Especially when balanced with the happy, functional side character Chloe getting her lesbian dream wedding, it’s okay to have dysfunctional people who also are queer take center stage sometimes. They’re not messed up because they’re queer, they just happen to be both.

I’m less happy about the missing b-word, because Nakoa is often implied to be attracted to women as well as men, but Ryan refers to them as a “gay” couple, the few times he uses a term at all. The few times Nakoa describes himself, which only happen in the context of him defying his father’s attitude, he uses “queer,” which I won’t argue with as a catch-all term. But I’d always rather see bisexuality validated clearly when it’s present, because it gets danced around all too often. And if Nakoa’s not meant to be interpreted as bi- or pansexual, then maybe don’t keep bringing up Ryan being jealous of any attention Nakoa pays to women…?

#125 – Highlander’s Desire, by Joanne Wadsworth

  • Read: 8/26/20 – 8/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 111/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is one of the most repetitive pieces of fiction writing I’ve encountered since I started reviewing books. No, I don’t say that lightly.

The prologue is an exposition dump through dialogue of everything the blurb already told me: bear shifters, prophecy, time travel, fated matings. Everything is laid out so clearly I felt an instant lack of trust that I, as a reader, had the intelligence to connect any dots on my own.

The first chapter jumps forward a thousand years to the present day and tells it all to me again, through two different characters talking to each other about stuff that one or both of them already know AND ALSO I ALREADY KNOW IT TOO, IT WAS JUST IN THE PROLOGUE.

As the story goes on, this extends down to the smallest details as well as the main plot. When Iain gets dressed I’m treated to a complete list of his clothing, so I know he’s wearing black leather pants and a “silver-threaded” cotton tee shirt; when Isla meets up with him later (after a scene break) she has to observe what he’s wearing and tell us again that he’s wearing black leather pants and a silver cotton shirt. It was only two pages ago! I haven’t forgotten!

Iain and Isla’s dialogue is so repetitive, and so oddly formal, that for me it whizzed through “bad” right back around to “good” by way of being hilarious. Like, these two horny bear shifters are rubbing their bodies together to bathe in each other’s scent, letting those animal instincts out, but they’re being super-precious verbally about feelings and boundaries and consent. I laughed so hard, and I know I wasn’t supposed to be laughing. This is honestly the reason I bothered finished the “novel”–which at 150 pages is a glorified novella. If an editor had stripped out the repetition I doubt this has enough story to break 100 pages.

I’m so, so glad that I got this for free on a whim. I actually have one of the later books as well, acquired the same way, but I don’t feel bad at all about ditching it unread. This was, quite literally, laughably bad writing.

#126 – War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

  • Read: 8/16/20 – 8/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A classic book you’ve always meant to read
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in two or more parts
  • Mount TBR: 112/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after Chapter 20 (page 86, or about 10%.)

This is the most epic case of “It’s not you, it’s me,” that I’ve ever had for a book.

I knew this was going to be a challenge. I knew it might not always be fun, though I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

This book, however, is not for me, because I want to care about the characters and not just watch them dance in and out of the narrative on the epic stage Tolstoy has created. I haven’t even gotten to the “war” part yet, which means some people will think I’ve given up too early; but I wasn’t enjoying myself, or the process of note-taking to make sure I was keeping the already-huge cast of characters straight.

When I read, I want to experience the story with the characters instead of feeling like I’m at a play where they’re simply performing their actions for me. I want to know their inner lives and feel their emotions. I can’t have that here–at the scale Tolstoy aims for, that kind of individual attention isn’t possible, and I constantly felt its lack. I could make myself wade through the rest to learn his larger perspective on war and peace and life in general, but I’d be miserable the whole time at how remote and inaccessible the characters felt to me.

I can see why others praise this so. I understand why it’s considered great, because in many ways, I do think it is, even if it wasn’t giving me what I personally want from my reading. Even in the opening 10% that I managed, there’s a lot that’s noteworthy. But this book was never going to be for me, and I won’t put myself through the rest of it.