This Week, I Read… (2021 #29)

#82 – Puck Aholic, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

“And they were roommates” isn’t my favorite trope, but I don’t hate it, either. I think this isn’t the best example, because they were already attracted to each other before they moved in together and they start sleeping together really quickly, so there’s no time to savor any unresolved sexual tension.

Diana is annoying, but in a way that feels too real and hits a little too close to home. Her pessimism regarding men in general and her love life in specific isn’t something I relate to, but her feelings of being a crazy messy burden on anyone who might care for her, I get. Deeply. So I do understand her resolve to swear off men and dating, though I think “until I feel better about myself” would be a more interesting conflict for the story than her deadline of “forever.”

Tanner is… well, as a boyfriend, he’s pretty much perfect, and that’s a bit of the problem. Sure, he and Diana fight like wildcats in the very beginning, but my brain read all those altercations as Diana deliberately provoking him until she got him to take the bait, so I’m not going to hold that against him. The rest of the problem is that his personal conflict arc–ADHD and his career–has very little to do with Diana at any point. Occasionally the narrative takes a stab at linking them, like “oh, I can’t handle a girlfriend on top of this, she’ll be a distraction,” but that’s undermined by two things: Diana’s clearly a distraction just as a roommate, even if she never did become Tanner’s girlfriend, and also once they do get together, Tanner starts skating better, to the point where his teammates notice and approve.

While I’m not disappointed with Tanner as book boyfriend material, I am unhappy with the way his neurodivergence is treated, because his ADHD gets ignored for large parts of the book. In the beginning, he sort of hedges around it in his POV chapters, sure, fine, we’re building up to the reveal. But once it’s revealed, he only displays any of his supposedly regular coping behaviors when the plot needs him to, not the rest of the time, and certainly none of them were foreshadowed with any significance. If he lives by the to-do list he keeps on his phone, why don’t we know about it until at least halfway through the book? Why does his summer hiatus seem completely unscheduled? Because whenever Diana pisses him off he just goes back to the gym at the drop of a hat. Were all those gym sessions on the list, or did he really not have anything else planned for that day? Why is he never obviously nervous about being late to something or deviating from his routine? Why is there not even much evidence that he even has a routine?

Don’t get me wrong, I want more romance heroes to be dealing with mental illness or neurodivergence as characters, because men’s mental health in the real world is something society tries really hard to sweep under the rug. But this just feels shallow. (Except for the scene where Diana helps Tanner with his phobia, because that is well established from the team’s prank wars, and also echoes a scene with Wanda the pig earlier in the book. So that was actually really good. But the ADHD rep, not so much. Also, Wanda was pretty cute, and I’ll grant that having the pet be a pig instead of something more ordinary has a certain charm to it, as does Chloe’s hedgehog at the end of the book. Hedgehogs are lovely.)

Okay, I’ve aired my grievances, but this was still funny to me, as the earlier novels were, I’m still going on with the series, though I’m hoping I get plots that are better-realized again soon, like the first book.

#83 – Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams

  • Mount TBR: 69/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Cover features your favorite color prominently
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that was a slog.

So I have a history with this piece of intellectual property. I was introduced to Williams as an author in college (1998) because several of the friends I made my first year were big fantasy nerds–no surprise there–and I was perfectly ready to move on from my high-school-era love of less sophisticated fantasy authors. I borrowed The Dragonbone Chair from one of those friends and off I went.

So in 2001 when news about Williams writing an online serial went around, and I saw the $15 price tag…well, I was a perpetually almost-broke college student still, and sure I spent money on books, but that was a high gateway, because a) I didn’t own my own computer yet, I was borrowing friends’ or using the computer lab to write papers and such; and b) sure, a chunky fantasy novel might be $7 or $8 in paperback, but it was portable, easy to reread whenever, and nobody had tablets or smartphones or e-readers yet, so an online serial publication was definitely not portable. Even fifteen dollars seemed like too much for the inconvenience of a book I could only read sitting at a computer, and couldn’t read all of at once.

I was genuinely angry about this shift away from the paradigm, and much like Williams vowing this serial was online only and would never be published traditionally (which I distinctly remember but don’t actually have a source for) I too vowed that I would never read it.

I held out much longer than he did, if my memory of that claim is even true. But I’m wishing now that I hadn’t bothered.

This is bad. Not even close to the level of quality I expect from Williams, based on the earlier Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, as well as War of the Flowers–which was weird but I enjoyed it–and the Otherland series, which was even weirder and not always good, but yeah, I still enjoyed that too, for the most part.

Who am I supposed to care about in this book? I’m no stranger to multiple protagonists, but there are simply too many here, meaning none of them get the development time they would need to be interesting. I’m trying to wean myself from the complaint that protagonists need to be “likable,” because a character can be a jerk and still be interesting, but few of these protagonists are particularly likable either!

1. Barrick is a whiny jerk who folds under pressure and abdicates responsibility to his sister, and then makes a spectacularly bad decision for no reason other than to set up some tension at the end, and his future arc. If it’s because he’s “mad,” bad plot reason, and if it’s because he’s affected by the more general shadow-madness, well, I guess he could be vulnerable to it like anyone else, but that’s pretty flimsy too.
2. Briony is a fairly standard “if only I weren’t a woman, people would take me seriously” princess who doesn’t fold as much under pressure but is dealt a really raw deal. I’ll give her credit, she does legitimately try her best to rule her lands, but she’s also kind of a whiny jerk like her brother, too.
3. Quinnitan is…pointless. Sure, I see how the end of her arc in this book echoes those of the Eddon twins, but there is no direct connection between her plot and anyone else’s. And I mean that literally, if there’s anything that ties her story to any other single part of the book, I simply do not see it, it’s buried in lore or foreshadowing that was lost on me amid the sheer weight of nearly 800 pages of plodding narrative. I read all of her scenes constantly wondering why I should care, and the fact that her arc is a very basic harem plot, “I don’t want to be a token wife but really what choice do I have?” sort of thing, doesn’t help, because on its own it’s incredibly unoriginal.
4. Chert is marginally likable, because he’s arguably got the most defined personality and most personal growth in the book, as a person of a “little” race who is distinctly not human–I get a mix of gnome and dwarf, with a faint whiff of Podling from The Dark Crystal–and who deals with an unexpected foundling by taking him into his family and trying to make it work, even when that foundling is really a big blank space in the story who still manages to get into trouble.
5. Captain Vansen gets points from me for being the guardsman deep in unrequited love, which is a trope I would absolutely eat up with a spoon. The problem is, the object of that love is a protagonist I don’t care for (Briony,) leading me to question what the eff he’s thinking that he can even admire her from a distance, let alone be in infatuation/love. And his plot arc is mostly “something goes wrong that’s not really has fault but everyone blames him anyway.” Which got dull.

Chert and Vansen are most of the reason this book gets a second star*, honestly. Chert’s scenes with the Rooftoppers are generally pretty excellent, even if they’re mostly tied to a plot arc that I don’t care for.

The other thing that’s getting me about this is that it feels like a deliberately grim-dark retread of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. You’ve got a castle that’s the seat of current government but used to belong to the enemy–the enemy that no one is sure even exists anymore, that lives in a land far enough away to feel distant but also somehow close enough to be threatening, once people believe in them again. That castle is perched upon magically important ruins/caverns, and that enemy has forms of magic/communication that affect humans and can cause or appear symptomatic of madness. There’s a race of small likable people who aren’t quite dwarves or any other “standard” fantasy race, but are still somehow cute/appealing. There’s a crippled prince who’s not really well-liked. One of the primary female protagonists is a young woman who laments the limitations of her womanhood under the patriarchal feudal system of the world.

And to someone who’s never read either of these series, that list of similarities could mostly read like fairly common fantasy tropes, and I forgive anyone who reads this review and thinks that. But I’ve read MSaT probably ten times all the way through in the twenty-plus years since I was introduced to it, and I feel like I’ve just been handed the same story again, with a thick coat of gray paint slathered on it and a few details changed–and those changes are basically always for the worse. No one in this story can be said to be a direct equivalent to Simon, who gets a very clear hero’s journey, but if I’m supposed to slot Barrick in as a Simon/Josua mashup (that crippled prince problem) then it takes the entire book to get Barrick out of his comfort zone and on his journey, where Simon got booted from the castle at the end of the first act of the first book.

And that gets at the underlying problem that is at least partially fueling all other problems–this book is clearly just the first act of the larger story, and yes i know! that is what first books do! but this also doesn’t have a lot of forward motion on its own, and it doesn’t resolve anything aside from the mystery of a single murder at that happens near the beginning. Seriously, all other plot threads get kicked down the road with the “and now they’re exiles” theme that the ending has assigned to most of the protagonists. Chert doesn’t suffer that fate, but the ending of his story line–also the end of the book itself–is the foundling reasserting that he doesn’t know who he is, which is not new information. We’ve literally not known who he is the whole time, except that we do find out who his mother is, but don’t find out how he was taken or why he apparently hasn’t aged as much as he should have or what the Qar intended by sending him back “home.” The identity of his mother is basically the least important question surrounding him.

I truly feel like I just read a 750-page prologue, and that is not a good feeling.

*Yeah, I told myself this was a two-star book, but by the time I wrote the whole review, it’s not and I can’t pretend I still believe that. This is a one-star book. This is so bad I don’t want to go on with the series, even though it almost has to get better, now that most of our protagonists are out on their journeys. And because it could hardly get worse, right? But this already took up so much of my time (I had to take a week-long break in the middle to binge some romances, as a relief from all this grimdark toil) and even though I’ve managed to collect secondhand copies of the rest of the series, and they’ve been sitting on my shelves for a few years waiting for me to invest my energy into them…I’m giving up. Not worth it.

#84 – The Glittering Court, by Richelle Mead

  • Mount TBR: 70/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What did I like about this? It was digestible. Having just come off a heavy, plodding, disappointing fantasy read, the easy YA tell-don’t-show narrative style went down smooth like a slushie on a hot day.

And that’s the best thing I can say about the whole book–it read fast and easy.

What didn’t I like?

1. The fact that this touts itself as fantasy when it’s not in the least bit fantastical. I don’t require my fantasy to have magic or creatures or zombies or anything, but if you’re going to call something “fantasy” it should at least be about fictional cultures that the author has invented. This is just England colonizing the Americas with the names changed. The only thing that could be said to be “fantasy” is that the population they’re displacing in the process isn’t an indigenous one, it was established by previous outcasts from their own country–though that wasn’t clear to me until the first time we met them and they were white, blond, and used woad as decoration. So they’re not supposed to be Native American analogues, they’re supposed to be displaced Picts?

2. Either way, it’s still racist and pro-colonization, because even if the Icori aren’t meant to represent an indigenous people, they’re still clearly Other, and constantly labeled as “savages” in order to justify taking their land, which all of our protagonists are participating in, in some form. Does it matter what color this fictional group of people is, if the narrative is parroting real history and real racism?

3. The second half of the plot feels, at best, tenuously related to the first half. The change in fortune for our protagonists that happens at the midpoint struck me as so flimsy and unbelievable that it was hard to take the rest of the book seriously, and that made it more obvious to me who the real villain was, despite whatever weak red herrings were planted along the way. Seriously–the first half of the story is The Bridgertons but the second turns into Little House on the Prairie. It’s too big a genre shift to make the transition seem natural.

4. There were times when I was approaching a reasonable level of sympathy for our heroine, despite her many flaws, but every time the story had a chance to explore those flaws and perhaps let the character do some work on them…well, she just kept being headstrong and selfish and whiny, right up until the LHotP section where after a single pep talk from the hero, she’s completely changed, resolved to her new station in life with a determination that seemed half-delusional and certainly out of character. She didn’t work for it, so it didn’t seem real.

5. I did not know, having picked up this book in isolation, that the rest of the “series” is actually the same time period from the perspective of one of the other girls, specifically the two best friends of the heroine. Now that I do know that, the giant blank spaces in this story where Mira and Tamsin constantly fall out of it without explanation–or with the pointedly obvious lampshade “it’s not my business so I’m not going to ask”–make sense structurally. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw, because these holes are constant and irritating. For a while in the middle of the book, it felt like every time I turned two pages, the heroine was asking out loud, “Where’s Mira?” And pretty quickly I knew that question wouldn’t be answered in this book, so why keep asking?

6. I never found Cedric compelling enough a hero to justify the constant sacrifices that Adelaide made for him. I don’t think he’s a terrible character, and I enjoyed some of their banter and their occasional fights, but I’m also not about to add him to my book-boyfriend list, so it was hard to imagine myself, or anyone for that matter, doing as much for him as Adelaide did.

7. Religion. Woooo boy. I guess this part is the “fantasy” I was lamenting the lack of earlier, because if the accepted and heretic forms of this fictional religion are supposed to correspond to real-world counterparts, I didn’t pick up on it with enough certainty to tell. But my problem is that it’s suddenly a Very Big Deal that one character is a heretic, when religion had played such a small part in the story leading up to that revelation that I was mostly operating on the assumption that the main religion was socially performative, and that no one in the story was especially devout. Adelaide certainly doesn’t seem to be. But since this heresy becomes central to the conflict later on, I wish it had been better established in the beginning, because (again) the second half of the book seems wildly different than the first, and this was another aspect that made it hard to take seriously.

8. Heteronormative AF. There’s one token queer person who has a minor role, showing up just long enough for Adelaide to realize other women/cultures don’t abide by her society’s rigid norms and to feel briefly uncomfortable about it. But there’s no follow-up, no depth, no opportunity for Adelaide to grow beyond what she’s been taught. To some extent, I’m okay with that–not every story has room for fighting LGBT+ battles, and even more simply put, stories are allowed to be about other things. But parading just that one wlw character out for a moment, and making her a foreigner to reinforce her otherness, strikes me as a really poor choice if the story didn’t actually want to fight that battle. Why bring it up at all? Especially as this is supposed to be fantasy, why couldn’t the Glittering Court be an institution that provides marriage candidates to both men and women? If the candidate pool was both male and female, and so was the clientele, then many forms of queerness would be covered by it without having to dig into specifics about each character. (It doesn’t directly address ace/aro people, but presumably they’d be less interested in a marriage mart anyway, on either side, and self-select out of it.) I mean, I know why, because that would mean that in the New World there would have to be women in positions of power who needed husbands (or wives, yes, but this wrinkle is about men.) And there’s no shortage of men in the colonies, so that doesn’t track logically the same way the actual setup does. But again, if this is supposed to be fantasy….

This Week, I Read… (2021 #27)

#73 – The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

  • Mount TBR: 68/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Based on non-Greek/Roman mythology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In many ways, mostly good ones, this reminded me strongly of Juliet Marillier’s work–basically, what if Marillier wrote about Russian mythology instead of Irish? Both authors are working in the same space, where the old clashes with the new, expressed through fantasy and fairy tale.

But however much I liked the setting and the little fae creatures and even Morozko himself, I disliked the extremely slow pacing, unnecessary history-tangents about characters who stop being important less than a third of the way through the book, and the lack of character development for anyone in the story besides Vasya.

There’s also this pervasive aura of dread throughout the entire story–though it’s for different reasons at different times–that I don’t feel like the ending fully paid off. I’m not all that satisfied by the climax of the story, the “battle” against the Bear–I think partially because he never felt like the primary antagonist, even though he was clearly supposed to be. He had to share the spotlight, though, with the priest, and also Morozko. The priest is the center of a lot of that dread, because he was just enough crazy to be slightly unpredictable and I was never sure when/if he was going to go mad, and what would happen if he did. And Morozko was sitting directly on top of the “is he a villain or is he a romantic hero” fence. He does a lot to aid Vasya, and the wispy bits of maybe-romance aren’t strong, and aren’t resolved, but the whole time he remains a dangerous, menacing figure as well. So the Bear almost struck me as incidental to the plot, which isn’t great when he’s half of the title.

The other half was one of the underdeveloped characters as well–Solovey is cool for what he is, a horse who is also somehow a nightingale, and I dig that! But he’s just there, and since I have no idea what his deal is because I don’t already know the story this is based on, I was waiting for an explanation I never got, or something more to him than “I am a really cool bird-horse who you just met but I will be instantly loyal and awesome for no obvious reason.” Which is a very, very fairy-tale trope to have, the amazing mythical beast companion, and I’m not knocking those in general. I just wish Solovey had any depth (or really that anyone other than Vasya had any depth, she’s surrounded by stereotypes.)

While in theory I’m all for the message of the very end of the book–screw the patriarchy, let’s have adventures–I’m finding myself not all that interested in finding out what those adventures actually are. Since I’m not on fire to read the next book after finishing this one, I probably won’t ever bother.

#74 – Act Like It, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’d had this book on my TBR for quite a while, but then recently a friend recommended the author to me, and I said, wait, that name sounds familiar. Since the audiobook turned up on Hoopla, and I’ve been knitting a lot lately and audiobooks are ideal for that, I took a break from my regularly scheduled reading and listened to all of this in a single day.

It’s not perfect–I have some plot issues–but it’s very, very good, and the narrator is lovely.

At first I wasn’t sure our dour, grumpy hero could be redeemed from his absolutely dickish behavior, and surprisingly by the end, he really hadn’t been–he was notably less of a jerk to the heroine, for obvious reasons, though they still bickered very charmingly. But he was still at least mostly a dour grumpy person to everyone else. I’m kind of mixed on this–it would be fake to have him do a 180 and be sunshine and roses all the time, and it’s good that being in love changed him, but not too much. On the other hand, he is still kind of an arrogant ass, and that’s not my favorite hero type. It’s a delicate balance, and it won’t necessarily be for everyone.

Our heroine is witty and not at all spineless, which I love about her. On one hand, I almost hate that my bar for good heroines is so low that I’m impressed when one isn’t a total pushover, but here we are, modern romance heroines are so often wishy-washy pushovers that it’s notable when one isn’t.

My sticking points are in the plot escalation. I have no problems with the early romance obstacles, or even the pace at which the two lovebirds realize that they don’t actually hate each other, that’s all fine. Even the “must protect girlfriend from lecherous but powerful old man” scene was foreshadowed properly. You know what wasn’t? An actually life-threatening situation which provides the final cathartic reunion between our two leads after their fight. I don’t think it was set up properly, and sure I was happy that everyone lived, but I don’t feel like the danger was earned because it felt so random. A seemingly throwaway line near the beginning about how their theater was old, and the presence of some construction crew immediately before the disaster, wasn’t really enough for me to believe this turn of events. And since the hero putting himself in danger deliberately was in service to the misunderstanding he had about how much “ex” the heroine’s ex was, it got tied into the jealousy subplot which was probably my least favorite aspect of the book.

All that being said, I still enjoyed it immensely, listened to it all in a single day, and look forward to going on with the series.

#75 – Sexy Motherpucker, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a letdown compared to my experience with the first book in the series. Call it 3.5 stars.

The humor is still there–I clearly jive with the style. And I’m totally down for a good single-parent romance, especially when the kid isn’t a perfect, unrealistic angel child that never causes a single plot disruption. Chloe sounds like a wonderful kid in most respects, but clearly isn’t perfect, and her presence does cause friction in some places.

Our hero, however, is not the greatest. He’s not a complete trash fire like I sometimes run into, when I seriously question how anyone could possibly find the sort of on-page behavior those heroes engage in acceptable, let alone attractive–but let’s face it, Brendan is a user. A user who is partially aware of it, and does have deep-down good intentions because it’s for his kid, but a user nonetheless. And he’s pretty terrible at respecting boundaries, which is certainly a flaw carried all the way through the story–the flashpoint at the climax is a natural extension of that.

He may be handsome, he may be the sexiest thing between two hotel sheets, he may even be sweet in some ways. But he’s a user, and it makes him harder to like than I prefer my romantic heroes to be. When he screws up and inevitably apologizes, those apologies are sincere, but only bring him back to square one in terms of reasonable behavior.

It doesn’t help that Laura, who seemed like such a firebrand as a supporting character in the first book, has devolved into an “I’m so in love with this apparently unattainable man that I’ll completely enable his user behavior while calling it friendship” pushover. As paired flawed characters, these two line up perfectly, and I see why the plot happened exactly the way it did–I’m not slamming the structure, just questioning what happened to turn Laura from wise and self-possessed older sister to simpering fool.

Okay, this is starting to sound like a less-than-three-star review. Yes, I’m less than happy about some aspects of the characters and that made some of the plot conflicts seem both predictable and frustrating. But I did still like the book overall! I was laughing my ass off at several scenes, because the banter is either adorable or hilarious or cheesy as the mood calls for. I was even laughing at the “naked mole rats” scene that I see other reviewers generally cringing over, because I, too, have said incredibly random/stupid things when under the influence of mind-altering substances, so I get that it’s weird and kind of gross, but that’s why it was so funny to me! (As always, humor is deeply personal and I’m not criticizing anyone who didn’t enjoy that bit–I see you, I get it. But I was cackling, myself.) And Chloe was cute, Diana was an excellent new supporting character, as were Brendan’s in-laws from his first marriage. Libby and Justin were great in their limited roles as former leads who are still friends/siblings with our current main characters. The sex scenes were still graphic, and the whole story was still full of swearing, and I am still totally okay with both of those things.

I’m willing to forgive a lot in a rom-com that I actually find funny, so while this didn’t live up to the five-star ticker tape parade of a review I gave the first book, it’s a stumble, not an unforgivable drop off a cliff into the pits of despair. Still moving forward with the series.

#76 – The Billionaire’s Wake-Up-Call Girl, by Annika Martin

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 76%. This book fell off such an amazingly steep cliff that I actually went back and read my review of the first book in the series to make sure I was remembering the right story, that yes, I did actually enjoy it and didn’t mistakenly continue a series I meant to abandon. But no, I gave the first book 4 stars then couldn’t bring myself to finish this one.

First up, I didn’t care for the female narrator, who had this weird tendency to end the last sentence of a scene or chapter on a rising tone, which meant it always felt like there was more she was going to say, but then there wasn’t, just a pause and then “Chapter [whatever].” I noticed no such problems with the male narrator. Also, I didn’t care for her accent (which I peg as SoCal but could be wrong, it’s those hard, elongated R’s that stick out like speed bumps) and definitely did not care for her exaggerated “girly” delivery of the conversations held via text.

But whatever issues I have with the audio presentation, it’s only icing on the cake, after all. The underlying cake of the story is terrible.

I did have a problem with the premise of the first book, for the very beginning. I had a problem with the premise of this book the whole time, it never went away. I never felt the hero’s behavior was appropriate to the situation–the jump from “I’m angry at this wake-up-call operator” to “I’m actively going to seduce her until this is just phone sex” came very early and with very little buildup…and she just goes with it! I sat through that scene chanting in my head “she’s being harassed, when is she going to notice she’s being harassed, a real employee of this type of business would have hung up and terminated this client’s contract, she’s being harassed.” But no, she masturbates. And yes, she’s not really doing this for a job, but I would think that engaging in phone sex in this situation would be a dead giveaway that she’s a fake.

The premise continued to be unrealistic well beyond my ability/willingness to suspend my disbelief.

But the sham doesn’t last forever, and the parts where the hero was trying to figure out how to contact her weren’t terrible, in terms of solving a mystery. They were, however, terrible in that it’s awful creepy stalker behavior to want to track down a woman you only know over the phone, who is paid to provide a completely nonsexual service to you. Am I supposed to like Theo? Because I hate him. There’s no good side shown to his controlling personality, he’s just an a-hole the entire time.

I gave up because the story actually gets worse after they meet up in person. The tension is completely gone, the sex scenes are laughably cringe-worthy, and the new conflict is apparently supposed to be “hero must convince heroine not to move out of the city,” and I’m actually offended on her behalf, because given the financial trouble she’s in because of her backstory, her plan for getting back on her feet seems incredibly sensible to me. Like, let her concentrate on her business? Which she clearly cares about? But since the hero is Super Rich, I’m willing to bet he’s going to continue to solve her problems with his money, and that’s way less interesting. I’m not going to say the heroine has it easy–the whole book is about how she doesn’t–but the whole book is also about her hard work in solving her own problems, so him throwing money at her isn’t a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m inferring the wrong thing, well, then I’m wrong, but at the point I gave up he’s already paid off her immediate loan shark debt, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t keep paying (somehow) to keep her around, which does make the whole thing very Wake-Up Call Girl.

Yuck.

#77 – Sophie, by Abigail Barnette

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A happy and mostly triumphant ending to a series that I (and many others) feel has stumbled a bit along the way. We can’t seem to agree on what those stumbles are, specifically, because so much has happened over the course of several in-universe years and seven other books. And the major problem that causes is that this sometimes didn’t feel like a story, it felt like a to-do list of getting closure for the many, many plot threads.

Which, yes, is what endings are for. But in covering everything that’s ever happened in the story, that drags up a lot of the things that feel like dead weight. I wasn’t a fan of the idea to give Sophie a baby she didn’t birth by killing off its parents in a car accident; I felt it undermined Sophie’s determination not to be a mother. So now, in every book since, she’s had to do a mental dance of “I’m a caregiver, not a mother” even when she’s clearly performing parental duties and experiencing something at least adjacent to a maternal sort of love. And this book addresses that, actually in more depth (or at least more consistently) than I recall other books doing, by exploring her dynamic with El-Mudad’s children, who were long out of babyhood when they came into Sophie’s life. So I won’t say that cognitive dissonance isn’t recognized and discussed, only that I wish it had never had to happen in the first place.

But the list goes on. Some readers apparently dislike El-Mudad (not me, I adore him.) So they’re going to be unhappy he’s even around, let alone getting a happy ending with Neil and Sophie. Holli and Deja and Penny all have to show up–and man, even though I’d read the first two of Penny’s spin-off novels back when they came out, I’d managed to forget she was a character at all, it’s been so long. It’s been long enough that I’d also forgotten, when Sophie runs into Ian at a party, that she slept with him and his ex-wife back in their collective swinging days. As for me, I didn’t really like The Sister that much (relatively speaking to the other novels) so I was forced to sit through Molly half-heartedly being important to the plot again, and the only-sort-of-resolved issue of Sophie in denial about her diabetes. I don’t particularly feel like either plot thread enriches the story, and even the tiny subplot with Molly and Amal, cute in isolation, felt like a complication that we didn’t really need on top of everything else we already have to speed-run through.

If there can be said to be a “main” plot of this novel on its own, it’s certainly the Laurence/Valerie/Olivia family tangle, and that, I do feel was handled well. The issues were foreshadowed, the complications laid out and entangled with subplots in great detail, and the resolution satisfying. Given that Valerie has been a thorn in our main characters’ collective side for the entire run of the series, I would have been disappointed if she didn’t still have a major role to play at the end, and as far as that goes, I got what I wanted.

I just also had to wade through a lot of flotsam that I wish could have been left behind.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#70 – The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #23)

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#64 – Skin Hunger, by Eli Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#56 – Hot as Puck, by Lili Valente

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#57 – Next to You, by Daisy Prescott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#59 – Bend, by Kivrin Wilson

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

DNF @ 85%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#60 – Goodbye Paradise, by Sarina Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #20)

#53 – The Falconer, by Elizabeth May

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s dry as hell.

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#51 – Deliver Me, by Farrah Rochon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#52 – Broken Harbor, by Tana French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #18)

#48 – The Vagrant, by Peter Newman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #17)

#47 – The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2021 #16)

#44 – Decidedly Off Limits, by Stina Lindenblatt

  • Mount TBR: 42/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Not terrible, but definitely underwhelming. My list of complaints:

1. It’s overkill to have the main characters be double-off-limits to each other by both being best friends with the other’s sibling. It takes so much explanation at every point where the conflict is on their minds to say “Not only would love interest’s sibling murder me for this, so would my own sibling.” I don’t think it adds anything to the story to have the forbidden aspect, such as it is, coming from both sides.

2. Subtly LGBTQ+ unfriendly. Sure, an incredibly minor character is gay and has a boyfriend who shows up briefly in a clear display of tokenism, but sprinkled throughout the narrative are really small digs at the idea of a straight character possibly being queer. None of those jokes landed and all of them annoyed me. Worse than that, Kelsey turns down a potential date by blurting out that she’s a lesbian, and later that bites her in the ass because the guy she turned down tries to set her up with his cousin. I could not have rolled my eyes harder.

3. Little major character development. The core conflict–the forbidden aspect of their relationship–doesn’t require them to grow as people to overcome, basically they just have to stop letting it matter. (Ideally it shouldn’t matter, they’re adults, so on and so forth, but I’ve definitely known people to whom this kind of thing does matter, so I’m not knocking the subgenre as a whole.) The individual character arcs are the same–both leads find a fulfilling hobby. Which isn’t exactly deep, and I think has drastically different results in their two cases: Kelsey magically becomes good at photography almost overnight and lands a swanky freelancing gig based on no portfolio to speak of, just the few shots in a steamy calendar shoot that was a major (and majorly silly) plot point in the middle of the story. I think this is bad, because the growth felt artificial and her victory was just handed to her. Whereas Trent decides to take a cooking class to spend time with Kelsey (her first foray into finding a hobby) and is surprised both by how comfortable he feels with it (even before he’s “good” at it) and how much he enjoys it. He spends the rest of the book quietly cooking for himself and occasionally others, and that growth arc caps off with the much more realistic “win” of hosting a huge family Thanksgiving. I really, really like this arc, minor as it is, because it’s such a domestic thing for this workaholic man to find himself enjoying, and only once is there an incredibly small joke about how it might threaten his masculinity. He’s just allowed to enjoy it, and it doesn’t have to give him new career opportunities or fix his self-worth or anything. (But it is so good relative to his counterpart that it makes her personal arc look even worse by comparison.)

4. Too many silly plot points. Did we really need so many romance standards crammed into a single book? The cooking lesson. Kelsey’s female friends giving her a sexy confidence makeover. The sexy photo shoot. The switcheroo shenanigans at the vacation house. The charity date auction. This book was definitely longer than it needed to be overall, but I would have rather had some time devoted to better character development than shoehorn in one more dramatic plot event.

5. Unnecessary jealousy subplots. Trent possibly ending up with Holly instead of Kelsey in the beginning felt integral to the plot, even if I think it went on too long–and did the two leads really need to hide their fling from yet another person, when they were already hiding it from both their potentially murderous siblings? But it made far more sense than the late-game “will Kelsey go back to Owen” fakeout that felt out of place, slowed down the pace of an already beleaguered climax, and came off as entirely ridiculous when Kelsey had to put her old engagement ring back on for yet another “we’re not really dating but we have to pretend” twist on this plot.

I’ve made enough complaints that I’m wondering why my gut says two stars and not just the one, but while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it–it just didn’t impress me. And it’s not substantially worse that other recent books I’ve rated two stars, so I’ll roll with it. Either way, I don’t recommend this.

#45 – Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Mount TBR: 43/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Chapter title page has art (illustrated by the author, no less)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t had an experience quite like that since I first read Les Miserables in eighth grade. It took me just over a month of steady, dogged reading, and I carried that book with me everywhere–to every class in school, every time I was sitting in the backseat of the car while running errands with my parents, every time I read before bed.

Vanity Fair reminds me a lot of Les Mis, not in tone or subject matter, but in my sheer determination to get through it, even when it’s slow going. Because I started this book in February. The wit and charm and lively characters carried me through the first two hundred pages fairly easily, but then I began to lose steam. I took what I thought was a short break to read something else before going on, and when I went back, suddenly it was hard to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I told myself to keep going. After all, I was still enjoying it–it wasn’t the same feeling of epic struggle to stay interested that I had with War and Peace last year. I liked this book, yet somehow, I couldn’t motivate myself to read it.

Pretty soon it became clear the problem wasn’t Vanity Fair itself, or at least, not mostly. I was just in the worst reading slump of my adult life, because nothing I read could hold my attention long. I took almost an entire month off reading, but when the mood struck to try again, I’d either try a new book and set it down after five pages, or nibble at the edges of Vanity Fair. When I declared (to myself) that my reading slump was over, I was just past 400 pages in.

Like magic, once I’d warmed up with a few light reads, the pages began to fly by again. I could finish several chapters in a sitting, and genuinely want to read more.

But this is a book review, right? Not the story of my reading slump. So what was it that was giving me difficulty, specifically, about this work?

The names. Formal name etiquette in British high society is just the pits. Our main character, Rebecca, probably showed up in the text under about a dozen different names or epithets throughout the course of the story, because she’s got her first name, her full name, her nickname, her married name both formally as Mrs. Husband’s Name and Becky/Rebecca Husband’s Name, and of course any given description posing as a person that Thackeray wanted to attach to her. Eventually at the very end she’s mostly Mrs. Becky, which I didn’t recall being used much before. On top of that, there were other instances when a change of status caused me some confusion, because first we have Pitt Crawley, no title attached, son of Sir Pitt Crawley, but when the elder Crawley dies, of course Pitt becomes Sir Pitt because the title passes on, even though that’s also the name of the now-dead character. Any male character in the military might be referred to by his rank rather than his name, and when multiple military figures are in the same paragraph (as they often are) they are all referred to by an inconsistent mix of their names and ranks.

And all of this is happening constantly through the entire nearly-700-pages of the novel. It’s exhausting.

When this was published, I have no doubt this was common enough that readers had little issue with it. Now? I often had to stop to parse who was who because of the constant flux of designations.

If I could strip that stylistic inconsistency out, that would fix a lot of my problems with reading this right away. However, there were still others. While the core cast of characters is relatively small compared to some epic classics of this length, Thackeray does like to veer off on tangents frequently and spend a chapter or three detailing the life and situation of a minor character. That’s something I remember loving in Les Mis, which, again, is the thing I have read that is most like this book; but here, somehow I was never as fascinated by these little portraits as I was when Hugo did it. Here I was invested in Becky and Amelia and William Dobbin (in fact, the resolution of his story is the primary reason I finished this book at all–I was hanging on for that happy ending.) But I did not find myself particularly interested in Lord Steyne or Mrs. Major O’Dowd or the Gaunt family. The minor characters were not completely without charm to me, as I particularly liked the single-page tale of Becky’s little French maid abandoning her. What the girl took, what became of her, how she fared after Becky’s tyranny, that was all grand. But it was also short, and seeing as it came immediately after we read of Becky’s downfall, it felt timely and appropriate. Many of the other, larger tangents from the main story line left me scratching my head about why I was suddenly learning new names or jumping to a different country. I admit to skimming some of the side bits that seemed less relevant or interesting, in order to get back to the “good” parts.

How do I feel three months later now that I’m finally done? It was a long walk to that happy ending I was 95% sure was coming. I’m pleased to be finished but not particularly eager to try any other Thackeray works, because while I liked many things about his style–the wit and humor, the insertion of himself as narrator into the story (occasionally) as a character, the biting satire–there’s also simply too much dead weight to carry in order to get to all of that. I’m glad I read it, but I never need to reread it. It’s rare for me to find myself finishing a classic novel without either loving it to pieces (My Antonia, Les Mis, Jane Eyre) or hating it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (too many to name.) But I found this book simply good–not great, not terrible.

#46 – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Mount TBR: 44/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 72, just past 10%, as per my usual cutoff.

I read Kostova’s The Swan Thieves several years ago, long enough that I had to remind myself from my review what I thought about it, but I actually picked up The Historian only a year or so after I read it, I’m still so backlogged. I gave Thieves three stars and said of it (briefly paraphrasing) “The mystery was dull but I liked the way she talked about art and artists, and that carried me through.”

I found no similar luck with this novel. Even viewing it as a sort of fantasy work rather than historical fiction, I found it plodding and frustrating. (So did the unknown person who began annotating my secondhand copy–the first sixty pages are full of questions and notes and exclamations, but then they begin to thin out, and I leafed through to see how long they last. They’re completely absent after page 150 or so, and I can’t find any indication the previous reader finished the book, either.)

There’s one central failure that’s most responsible for hampering my interest. I thought I was prepared for Kostova’s wordy style, having read another of her novels, if a later one where she might have refined her prose somewhat. But this is verbose to the point of preciousness, especially in Rossi’s letters, one of our three parallel narratives. The other two–Paul and his daughter Siena–are also pedantic narrators, but the letters are full of dire melodrama and ostentatious phrasing. (I guess to make them sound like they’re old, but I found it more irritating than archaic.) Setting that aside, I also wish Paul and Siena hadn’t basically sounded like the same person, not because I had any trouble differentiating their chapters from each other–the content usually made that clear very quickly–but because I think a middle-aged father and his teenage daughter (or her older self in some cases) shouldn’t speak or write exactly alike. I feel like that’s a basic ask from an author, to make separate narrators sound like different people.

If the mystery had been more compelling or the pace of the plot quicker, I might have been able to grit my teeth and deal with these issues, but in putting all those problems together, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll enjoy the next six hundred pages any more than I did the first seventy-two.