This Week, I Read… (2020 #7)

26 - Kitchens of the Great Midwest

#26 – Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

  • Read: 2/11/20 – 2/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 26/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with more than twenty letters in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a recipe
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Ultimately, it’s too cute.

I like the ideas behind it more than the actual execution of it. Have a woman’s life described mostly in her absence, by the people around her, by people increasingly far from her, sounds like a great high concept, especially if the woman the story is about is a wildly popular but mostly reclusive celebrity chef. And the food item that titles each chapter is part of the story of her life, as well.

But I hated the ending. There, I said it. I read the whole book and saw the stories of why these foods were important to her, and then they’re on the menu for the dinner her long-lost mother gets to attend, and look how pretty and cute and meaningful it all is! Look at how well-constructed! But it’s so obvious, so artificial, and and it doesn’t really finish the story at all. By ending with the arrogant self-satisfaction of Cindy, who is just happy she birthed an incredible daughter even if she had nothing to do with her raising…that’s just not motherhood, and it’s not a happy or satisfying ending to me. It smacked me in the face with how obnoxious this book was at its worst.

At its best, though, it captures beautifully the slices of the Midwest that are strange and incomprehensible to outsiders. I saw some of my own childhood in this, and I had to laugh about how perfectly the Norwegian Minnesotans were depicted, not because they’re my people, but because I have a relative by marriage from that pocket of the Midwest and absolutely everything the book said, I’d heard from stories about her family and community.

So the central strength of the book–using a succession of different POV characters to capture as much of the Midwestern food traditions as possible–also becomes its central weakness, because it’s all in service of a narrative and ending that don’t really mean much.

27 - The Return of the Black Widowers

#27 – The Return of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov

  • Read: 2/15/20 – 2/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 27/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: An anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Waaaay back in high school, I did a term paper on Asimov for my American Lit course, but it was entirely focused on his science fiction. I didn’t know he wrote mysteries at all until I found this tucked away on a low shelf at a used book sale. Of course I bought it.

The wit and precision I remember from his other work is present here, and the cleverness, too. As individual stories, I have few real complaints, despite generally disliking mystery. These are much more puzzlers than they are whodunits, and most of the stories resolved with a ending, a revelation, that I found satisfactory. (I say most because some of them are highly academic, and you don’t have a chance of figuring it out if you aren’t familiar with the exact same canon of knowledge as the author.)

The problem I have with this is that putting together this many stories in an anthology is that it shows clearly how formulaic they are. The details repeat in a way that would make sense of stories published over months and years, but are completely redundant when read back to back. The structure of each story is brutally identical, and despite the small idiosyncracies of each man in the Widowers, they all speak with the same high-handed posh manner that made me think they’re British, even though a) this is set in the US, and b) they use none of the British slang that I would expect from male-only rich-people puzzle-solving dinners. They’re all horribly elitist, and it’s grating.

So what it really boils down to is that I like the style of the puzzles, they’re the sparkling gemstones in a terrible setting that detracts from their beauty. I can admire the wit and cleverness while hating that this is an old white boy’s club that makes it a point never to admit women.

28 - Fiona's Flame

#28 – Fiona’s Flame, by Rachael Herron

  • Read: 2/18/20 – 2/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 28/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The longer this went on, the less I liked it. In the first half, I was still thinking this could be a four- or even a five-star read, if it stuck the landing, but it all fell apart so disastrously by the end.

I have so much to complain about that I’m not even sure I can put together a review with coherent flow. Bullet point time!

The Good:

  • Even without having read the first four books in the series, Cypress Hollow is a town with a lot of personality, and this work felt very different from other “small town” romances I’ve read. Points for originality.
  • Both Abe and Fiona start out as quirky but believable characters, and believably compatible. There was a reason I was on board with this story early on, and it’s because they do have real chemistry at first. There are cute moments, and I did like Abe at the beginning, though it didn’t last.

The Bad:

  • Abe is hung up on his ex who left him at the altar eleven years ago, to the point where the first time he hops into bed with Fiona he calls her the wrong name. I’m not annoyed about this because it makes him a jerk, I’m annoyed with the author because it’s really stretching. Eleven years ago? Is he still pining for her or not?
  • Fiona is ALSO hung up on Abe’s ex, because when she’s prettied up apparently she looks enough like the ex to draw comparisons from random townsfolk. Which sends her off into an inferiority spiral that is just exhausting to read.
  • Abe’s ex then manages to get herself cheated on by her husband, the man she left Abe for, and in retaliation she blatantly tries to seduce Abe, but that plot line never goes anywhere, and no character ever seems to acknowledge her behavior. Abe doesn’t fall for it but also doesn’t call her on it, and Fiona, despite the inferiority complex she’s developed, is mildly annoyed at the time but never brings it up again, EVEN WHEN THE WOMAN LATER BEFRIENDS HER. Really, Abe’s ex just takes up way too much of the story.
  • Fiona’s intermittent “swearing” using entirely nonsense words isn’t cute and quirky, it’s just dumb. It makes her sound like a child learning to talk badly. They’re not even the same words, it’s a new one every time and they’re all awful. They chipped away at what liking I had for Fiona every time they appeared.

The Ugly:

  • The first time Fiona nearly died was understandable because of a semi-heroic rescue attempt and some extenuating circumstances. The second time? Definitely Too Stupid To Live Syndrome. And why does she need to nearly die twice? Isn’t that excessive? Is nearly killing Fiona again really the only way to erase the idiocy (see my point below) of the final conflict?
  • The central conflict that sets up Abe and Fiona talking–should we save the lighthouse or tear it down–is ignored for most of the book while they deal with more personal issues of personality, Abe’s ex, family drama, etc. Then at the very end it’s trotted back out for one last showdown where BOTH leads act like irredeemable idiots, no better than viciously mean children, and I’m supposed to believe a) they got that worked up over the lighthouse only to have it not matter at all to them anymore after Fiona nearly gets killed again, and b) that either of them can forgive the horrible things they said to each other in front of half the town?
  • Knitting is a central theme of this series, and I’m keenly aware of this because many, many years ago when I was a die-hard knitter and was much more involved in the online knitting community, I “knew” the author as a knit blogger. When I saw this book available for free and recognized the name, I grabbed it on that strength alone, because her blog was charming and personable and I got kind replies the few times I left comments. But this book has NOTHING to do with knitting, until very late in the story when someone tries to make Fiona learn to knit again after doing poorly at it as a child, so the constant chapter-intro knitting quotes from the fictional town’s fictional knitting goddess supreme felt wildly out of place. Had I read the first four books I doubt I would feel as strongly about this, but when the individual books are designed to be able to be read as stand-alones, this kind of tonal clash doesn’t work, and can’t be carried on the backs of the other books being more knitting-related. This one isn’t. This one barely has a thing to do with knitting for 95% of the story and that five percent that touches on it can’t support the weight of cutesy thematic chapter openings.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #6)

23 - A Secret Affair

#23 – A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh

  • Read: 2/5/20 – 2/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 23/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a three-word title
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book that includes a romance
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What started off with an interesting and original-to-me premise became bogged down in stilted repetition and the stifling confines of Regency propriety, the endless litany of who is where and who is riding in whose carriage and who is attending what ball and who is related to whom.

This is my third Balogh novel and definitely my last. They’ve all gotten two stars from me, and despite how much this author has been recommended to me in the past, clearly we’re not gelling.

I did have higher hopes for this one, based on concept. I’ve never really seen the “it’s just a fling” trope in a Regency setting before. But once the lovers hop into bed together, it all goes downhill, and I’m not saying that as a sex-starved reader who just wants smut and should probably be reading NA romances instead of Regency.

I’m saying it because all the sex scenes after that were either short and summarized, or glossed over with a fade-out from the scene, or in one case, interrupted. If the primary vehicle that these two lovers have to get to know each other is lust, because they’re lovers but not in love, why isn’t there much lust?

So of course, with this trope, the point is that eventually they realize they’ve caught feelings. That definitely happens here. But the banter it should be happening through also gets less present and less interesting as the novel slowly wends its way along. It takes both characters multiple chapters and repeated internal monologue to convince themselves/admit to themselves that they’re falling in love. Both characters use precisely the same language in the process, both suffer the same doubts, and both have the same qualms about admitting their growing feelings to each other.

Essentially, for all their seeming differences of gender, power, social standing, and personality, the narrative treats them for a good chunk of the book like they’re the exact same person.

That isn’t the only place where the story suffers from excessive repetition, either. During the climax, when the fate of the romance hinges (seemingly) on the outcome of a judge’s ruling on the sentence for a mentally handicapped thief, the story of what the thief did is told by one character to another several times in a chain of “I know this but now I’m telling it to you,” and the story is almost word-for-word each time. They should be similar, yes, but not exact, not when one factors in things like character voice, and the Telephone effect of words or small details changing. The author is clearly aware of how a tale can grow and change in the telling–it’s referenced in gossip among the ton but not in this little tale, which everyone has memorized word-perfect, and I have to read about six times over ten pages.

I KNOW! I KNOW WHAT HE DID! STOP TELLING ME BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO INFORM OTHER CHARACTERS! SUMMARIZE IT OR GLOSS OVER IT OR SOMETHING!

Thanks to used book sales and the number of times Balogh was recommended to me, I do actually own one more book of hers, but I’ll be donating it back to my library’s book sale room unread, because after three bland and mediocre reads, I think it’s safe to say I’m unimpressed with this author.

Pantomime

#24 – Pantomime, by Laura Lam

  • Read: 2/7/20 – 2/10/20
  • Mount TBR: 24/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book I mean to read in 2019
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

In looking to other reviews to help me gather my thoughts, I completely missed the boat on the “twist” that, when the book was newer, thought was either brilliant or the worst thing to happen in the LGBTQIA+ sphere ever. (Though my copy is secondhand and from the original printing, so I have the nonsense misleading blurb on the back, and boy howdy, it’s bad.)

I can’t know for sure what my experience would have been if I had started the book not already knowing that Micah and Gene were the same person. I’ve always known this book was about an intersex protagonist, because once the hype started for it, that’s usually the leading reason for recommendation–the representation. We just don’t get a lot of books about intersex people.

But I hope I would have figured it out long before the narrative states it plainly. The mere fact that Gene’s chapters are all clearly marked “Spring” in the header, while Micah’s are “Summer,” should be a huge clue that Gene’s chapters happen first and aren’t necessarily going to intersect with Micah’s as if they were two separate people. And about a dozen smaller things, but that was the super-obvious one for me.

All that aside, what did I think of the book knowing the big secret ahead of time? It’s a really mixed bag. I appreciate all the care and delicacy that went into crafting Micah/Gene and his experience living as both genders. It was a quick read that didn’t ever get snagged on anything confusing or befuddling. But the setting was bland “generically magical circus vs. fantasy aristocracy with obviously Victorian social values.” Hey, guess what, I’ve seen that before, quite a bit actually, and the incredibly small hints of magic and mythology that should have made this world more interesting were few and far between.

Worse, I have issues with the weak love triangle. Using love interests of different genders is a great way to have Micah explore what living as male means to him and if/how that affects his attraction to others, when as Gene (s)he was only supposed to be attracted to and eventually marry a boy. So I can appreciate that. But at the same time, setting up a love triangle as a choice between genders does play into some negative stereotypes about bisexuality, and Micah is clearly attracted to both Aenea and Drystan; while that’s understandable for Micah, it’s also part of a pattern I’ve seen in YA where bisexual leads face that same love triangle because it’s an easy way to show they’re bi, even while it also reinforces the ideas that bisexual people are indecisive and might drop their love interest to be with someone of the other binary gender simply because. I can see that’s not the case here, but as part of that larger pattern I can’t exactly be happy about it.

Also I generally don’t like love triangles, and this one ending with the death of one of the love interests means Micah didn’t have to choose, the choice was made for him, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The cliffhanger ending raised the stakes a huge amount in very short space, a leap in pacing and tension that I don’t feel the rest of the book prepared us for. Micah is in very little danger for a very long time, and then having the biggest threat to both his chosen way of life and his actual life come from inside the circus basically without warning, rather than the outside threat we’ve been expecting, doesn’t really feel right to me. The foreshadowing for Bil and Frit is pretty weak, so the climax was less of an inevitable surprise as it was being sucker-punched with a plot twist out of almost nowhere.

I’m giving this its third star completely out of respect for its sensitivity in portraying an intersex YA protagonist, but the rest of the book is two stars at best.

25 - Beauty is a Wound

#25 – Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan

  • Read: 2/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 25/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in the southern hemisphere
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a great first line
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with four words in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 90.

I picked this up because, hey, Indonesia! I’ve never read anything about Indonesia or by an Indonesian author! Won’t this be fun! And I definitely want to be a better world reader. But this is not the book for me.

I wasn’t put off at first by the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” quoted on the book flap because I dig absurdist humor and allegory, so the idea of grotesqueness was okay…until I actually started to read it. In those first 90 pages, there’s more rapes than I can list, more bestiality than I wanted or expected, and some light incest thrown in for extra flavor.

Even if this is all integral to the plot, deeply important to the symbolism, I simply don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read about a man sexually abusing sheep and chickens. I don’t want to have basically every female character I’ve met raped, even if the scenes aren’t graphic. In some ways, having them raped in a single declarative sentence is worse, because it’s so mundane, so every-day, that it doesn’t even need to be described. And every woman (so far) is mostly characterized by how available for sex she is, and nothing much else. Every male character is mostly characterized by who or what he has sex with…so I guess that’s equally awful?

In the end, even though I find all of that distasteful to read, the real failure of this work for me is the absolute lack of character development. By telling this in a magical-realism style with a fairy-tale-thin characters, I can’t connect with anyone enough to care, certainly not enough to sit through the “gleefully grotesque hyperbole” that saturates every page.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #5)

17 - The Secret

#17 – The Secret, by Elizabeth Hunter

  • Read: 1/29/20 – 1/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 17/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Your favorite prompt from a past PSRC (the next book in a series you’re already reading)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’d give this an actual rating of 3.5 stars, because I do feel it’s better than The Singer, which I gave three, but overall I don’t feel like it’s a four-star read.

It’s complicated.

I love that Ava and Malachi are back together and working on sorting themselves out–they’re a power couple again, in some senses literally, and their banter and occasional arguments and making up are fun, sweet, and occasionally epic.

But the politicking is just as present and just as complicated, and really I don’t feel like the first book (much as I adore it) did enough groundwork to set up and support this intricate a tale of political maneuvering. The second book felt like a complete stylistic departure in its subject matter–the main reason that I didn’t like it nearly as much–and this book is a synthesis of the romance of the first and the sociopolitical mess of the second. So it’s better because we get the romance back, and I like that, but it’s still a whole lot of people yelling at each other a lot about change and enemies and how their society should work in the future. Which isn’t bad, but kind of isn’t what I thought I was signing up for when I started the trilogy.

I’ll be honest–I wanted more of what we got in the first book and less of the epic angel battles and politics. That being said, of course the epilogue is centered on Ava telling Malachi she’s pregnant. Surprise! It might be to him but I saw it coming a mile away. And while it does make sense in this context, it’s a style of happily-ever-after ending that I’m honestly tired of seeing, because the taint it carries from all the times I’ve read it before on stupid books has poisoned me somewhat against it. Not the book’s fault, my personal bias and I’ll own that, but it was a letdown.

So I don’t think this book is bad, I think it’s just not really enough of what I actually wanted from it.

18 - Breakaway

#18 – Breakaway, by Catherine Gayle

  • Read: 1/30/20 – 1/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 18/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a main character in their 20s
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There are a lot of things I truly enjoyed about this book, and a lot of things I think were weak and deserved better treatment. They’re all tangled together, though, so this is going to be a bumpy ride review.

First, the premise. A hockey-playing girl is gang-raped after one of her games, and years later, after nearly every kind of therapy she can reasonably try, she’s recommended by her doctors to try a sex therapist who will both counsel her and also sleep with her, in the name of helping her past her trauma.

So…are those really a thing? I’m almost afraid to research and find out. The idea is very, very squicky to me, and I’m on board with the idea that Dana should not see one of these “therapists.” Instead, she goes to Eric, one of her childhood friends. Her brother’s best friend. (Hey, free trope squeezed in!) And she asks him to fill that role for her.

Eric turns out to be a great guy, one of the best things about this book. After initial, understandable reluctance, and real concern that this isn’t the best thing for her even if it’s with someone she already knows and can trust (him,) he agrees to her plan. And as far as I can stretch my disbelief to accept the premise at all, I’m okay with that. It seems at the beginning that he doesn’t really think she’ll be able to “go all the way” with him, so it’s clear he’s not using her for potential sex down the road and that he honestly cares about her. As things progress between them, he has to push her away sometimes because he’s terrified he won’t be able to keep himself in check and he’ll end up hurting her–which he accidentally does at a few points, though the severity of her reaction varies, and he feels incredibly torn up about it when it does happen.

So I like that. I’m all about thoughtful, caring, respectful heroes.

What I don’t like? I have really mixed feelings about the anxiety representation, and they’re difficult to unpack properly. Dana experiences trauma-triggered panic attacks, and a lot of her attack symptoms line up with my own experience–which is good and feels authentic. But on the flip side, the incredible severity of her attacks, and how often she has them, is almost unbelievable. If they’re that prevalent in her life, or if she’s deliberately exposing herself to her triggers and constantly getting that reaction…well, then, her meds aren’t working for her and need to be adjusted, or yeah, hero, you’re right and she’s really not ready for this yet. I mean, her attacks are constant and debilitating, and yes, that does happen to people even if that’s not my experience, but I don’t think it’s at all realistic to show someone suffering this level of mental illness “curing” herself though exposure to her triggers. And that’s the heart of the story, Dana retraining her body to accept that touch can be good.

Which is so freaking sweet and sad and heartwarming and I love it, even though I don’t think it’s done well. But if her anxiety weren’t so debilitating, so that her journey out of it is more believable, then would it be serious enough that she needs this “therapy” at all? It’s a conundrum.

But here’s the other problem I have with this book: it’s a hockey romance and it absolutely does not need to be. There’s too much hockey. Hockey, in fact, actually interferes with the pacing of the story, because Dana, a hockey player herself, should have known that dropping this in Eric’s lap during the run-up to the playoffs was the worst possible timing. (Even I know that, and I’m not a sports person AT ALL.) So there are long chapters of nothing but Eric on the ice during a game with the narrative doing a play-by-play, and that has nothing at all to do with the romance. If the reader is a hockey fan, great, maybe they’re getting something out of it, but if they’re not (like me) they’re skimming past that because it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. Also, even though I know almost nothing about how to run a sports team of any kind, I found it way past my suspension of disbelief that a) Dana would be okay with literally everyone on the team and staff knowing about her sex life (in that she’s attempting to be able to have one someday) in order to travel with the team so that she wouldn’t be separated from Eric; and b) I can’t believe the team management would go along with that, because it screams UNPROFESSIONAL on every possible level.

Dana’s fear turning to growing confidence is beautiful. Eric’s concern and tenderness are amazing. Of course the two of them are going to fall in love as they go through this strange and intimate experience together, especially since they were halfway there already because of leftover childhood feelings they never got to act on. For that part of the story, I’m 100% on board.

But everything external that should have been a conflict to their relationship, every real-world concern, had to get minimized or dismissed so that the entire focus could be on the huge, whopping, internal conflict of Dana’s own trauma. Even her brother showing up and disapproving of the situation (as brother’s best friend romances usually have to have them do at some point) doesn’t really make a dent in the story, because he can’t object too much or it might be a threat to Dana’s recovery. And it’s just silly how much a struggling NHL hockey team bends over backwards to make this plot line work.

19 - Barefoot with a Bodyguard

#19 – Barefoot with a Bodyguard, by Roxanne St. Claire

  • Read: 1/21/20 – 2/1/20
  • Mount TBR: 19/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a 4-star rating on Goodreads
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Oh, I am such a sucker for a good bodyguard dynamic. And this one doubled down by having him posing as a bodyguard for his own cover story! The tension! The drama!

But in all seriousness, romantic suspense is not my genre, I’ve tried it before and generally been unimpressed, so I didn’t have high expectations when I dug this old (acquired for free) romance up on my Kindle.

Here I am to say how pleasantly surprised I was. Both leads have semi-tragic backstories, both have issues, and both grow with each other through those issues in ways that made me not want to put the book down. The situations they get into posing as newlyweds for their cover identities were awesome, squirm-inducing, and occasionally hysterically funny. I was delighted.

A heroine who needs to learn trust, and a hero who needs to learn tenderness. I AM SO HERE FOR THIS.

Though, again, romantic suspense not being my genre, I was annoyed every time the POV switched to one of the supporting characters in order to advance the suspense plot. On top of that, a very large portion of Gabe’s POV seemed devoted to setting up an unrelated plot for the next book, which seems to be about his sister. DON’T CARE GIVE ME MORE OF KATE AND ALEC. Which is why this doesn’t get a fifth star despite me being about half in love with Alec myself.

20 - Picking Up the Pieces

#20 – Picking Up the Pieces, by Jessica Prince

  • Read: 2/1/20 – 2/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 20/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, this is the worst romance I’ve read this year.

The “hero” is a man who ghosted the girl he loved for eight years, so that she couldn’t reach him to tell him she was pregnant with his kid after he took her virginity then left town two days later. When, at 70%, he finds out that she was pregnant after he left town, his first question is “Who got you pregnant?” presumably so he could go find the guy and tear him limb from limb for touching “his” girl–you know, the one he deliberately cut off contact with for eight years. When she tells him he was the father, he immediately yells, “Where’s my kid?” and threatens to take her to court if she gave up “his” baby for adoption. Yeah, the baby he didn’t know about because he left town and cut off contact with the mother for eight years.

Well, the baby died, and the hero’s a piece of absolute and utter trash. He is irredeemable in my eyes, if not for life, then at least for this heroine, who should shove him out the door like the toxic garbage fire that he is.

But with 30% to go until that magical happy ending that seemed increasingly less possible with every page, I kept reading.

She basically forgives him for no reason! He whines about how he deliberately hurt her then so he wouldn’t end up hurting her worse in the future, because he’s got daddy issues, and that’s supposed to negate all the suffering he caused her by leaving her, not being there for the pregnancy he helped to cause, not being there for their child’s failed birth, not being there for her grieving process, and then waltzing back into town and immediately trying to pick up where he left off like nothing had happened, all the while ignoring her boundaries at every turn: kissing her without consent, pressuring her into sex, trying to go bareback until she makes him stop because she’s not on the pill (but oh wait he does that exact same thing in the epilogue because “I want a family with you” and she lets him because she always tries to stand up for herself then ends up being a doormat) and actually handcuffs them together during the ending so that she can’t get away from him until he’s mansplained his pain to her and she forgives him.

Consent? What’s that? Boundaries? What are those for? Respect? Never heard of it.

And if the plot weren’t bad enough on its own, I could also write a treatise on how terrible the writing style is. Everyone speaks in the same false, over-the-top, drama-laden voice. Everyone has serious anger issues and will cause a scene over anything, anywhere, anytime–even the heroine in the place of business she owns will start a screaming match in front of her customers, and once she just leaves her staff (it’s not clear how many people are there working with her, so who knows if she’s just left her business in trouble or not) to drive the hero to the hospital to deal with his issues, instead of being a responsible adult and BUSINESS OWNER and staying on site to do her freaking job. I mean, emergencies are emergencies, but him finding out his mother is in the hospital but okay is not really the “drop everything and drive him there” type of emergency. He could have calmed down for a few minutes and taken himself, but then the heroine wouldn’t have gotten the scene with his mom, that apparently needed to happen. It’s all so stupid and immature and real life simply doesn’t work that way.

Also, new “friends” are introduced by name several chapters in with no description of who they are or what they look like or in some cases, even how the hero/heroine know them, they just are names that get dropped and I’m supposed to assume they’re friends instead of faceless dream people who speak in the same juvenile, profanity-heavy, melodramatic voice as literally everyone else.

Me: Who is Lizzy? Was there a “Lizzy” before?

Me, three sentences later: Oh, Stacia is Gavin’s girlfriend. But who’s Gavin? I don’t remember a Gavin.

Me, on the next page: Well, I guess they all know each other because they’re all hanging out.

Also there’s fat-shaming and slut-shaming, and all the guys insult each other with female terms like bitch and chick and “growing a vagina,” so let’s add misogyny to the pile, also guess what, the women are misogynists too. There’s so much girl-on-girl cattiness and spite and downright hate, it’s gross and harmful. Yeah, the hero is a bona fide garbage fire, but in a lot of ways the heroine isn’t that great either. I mean, she got all the suffering of the narrative loaded on to her by the plot, but she’s a pretty terrible person too, at the end of the day.

This book was just so, so very bad.

21 - From a Buick 8

#21 – From a Buick 8, by Stephen King

  • Read: 2/2/20 – 2/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 21/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a mode of transportation on the cover
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by an author who has written more than twenty books
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Thank goodness this wasn’t any longer.

I will always rank King among my favorite authors because his best books are some of my favorites, but across a career as long and as varied as his, there are always going to be some clunkers. This, for me, is one of them.

I can appreciate what it’s trying to do from a literary standpoint, proclaiming that not all stories are neat and have tidy endings, that not everything can be or will be answered. I don’t think writing a horror-lite novel with that as the premise is necessarily setting up a successful work, but I can stand by the idea of it.

But King doesn’t commit to it. After rambling for 300 pages across many POV characters with an incredibly basic, dull, “and then this happened” story structure, the big moment comes when the narrative makes its declaration of the novel’s thesis statement. After that? We get a real ending.

What? I thought we weren’t supposed to know what the Buick was. I thought the book wasn’t going to explain, and then it did, and I was disappointed–not just in the explanation, which is little more than confirmation of everything that was laid out and easily guessable before, but also the fact that we actually got an explanation.

You can’t write a story about how stories don’t always have neat endings, and then spoil your own story with a neat ending. It weakens the entire novel.

22 - Make Him Wild

#22 – Make Him Wild, by Christie Ridgway

  • Read: 2/4/20 – 2/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 22/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in the month of your birthday
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I knew this book wasn’t really working for me when I was more invested in the romantic subplot than the main romance.

Alessandra should be a young woman emerging from the shell of her grief to open herself to love again, and instead she’s a caricature, a horny little Italian beauty (and yes, the narrative calls her “exotic” at one point,) who jumps the first out-of-towner she meets who doesn’t know her tragic past and doesn’t think of her as the Nun of Napa Valley.

Penn is a problem because the story can’t decide if he’s a good guy or not. Alessandra figuring out he’s “nice” midway through is supposed to be some revelation, but they’re both so fake, so concerned with appearances (hers as the PR face of the family winery, his as a home-remodeling-show celebrity) that they’re constantly at odds, misjudging each other, misreading true intentions, and Penn usually comes out of that looking poorly.

Sure, they might have physical attraction and chemistry, because the story goes to great lengths to make them both horny on main, but as often happens, the “love” is rushed and unfulfilling and not entirely believable.

It might not have seemed so bad if the secondary love story, Clare and Gil, hadn’t been so delightful and compelling. At first I was like, why is Alessandra’s friend getting her own love plot? Shouldn’t that be a different book? But then I realized that it’s her wedding that’s being thrown at the winery and we have to watch in slow motion while her relationship with her fiance Jordan disintegrates, all the while seeing how in love with her Gil, her best friend, has always been. Now, they don’t have the full setup they deserve–it is a subplot, after all–but even in the smaller space they get, their romance is much more fully fleshed out than the main one.

So I can’t give this book just a single star, since I loved Clare and Gil so much, but it’s a pretty serious problem for the book than the supporting players completely upstaged the main attraction.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #3)

8 - The Age of Innocence

#8 – The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  • Read: 1/14/20 – 1/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 8/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed
  • The Reading Frenzy: read a book set in New York City
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF around page 90. I skimmed a bit farther, but that was really where I stopped paying full attention.

When I started, I was immediately enchanted by Wharton’s wit and snarkiness. I was aware the book wasn’t full-on satire of the time period, but that it was critical of the social structure and ideals and unwritten rules of the idle rich of New York City. And as far as that went, I was on board–her observations were sharp and amusing. That’s why I gave this a second star despite not finishing it.

But I was bored. It took me three days to read those ninety pages, because I would tell myself I was going to read, sit down, read a chapter or maybe two, and come out the other side exhausted and wanting to do anything else but read. The endless details about who was related to whom, about the sorts of furniture and china they had or the food they served, the number of times Newland intercepted a “look” from May and instantly decoded it to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean. I’ll give the man credit for being a sort of proto-feminist who has high ideals for the rights of women and recognizes his gut reaction as wrong, when he tries to apply them to May and finds himself disgusted. On one level he despises the society around him, yet it’s also granted him a great deal of privilege that he doesn’t do anything to reject. He could have been a truly interesting character and I wish I’d been able to slog my way through the tedium to find out.

But at the rate I was going it was going to take me another two weeks to finish and I just don’t care that much. Too much of it bored me to keep reading for those small slivers of great language and wittiness.

9 - Break the Rules

#9 – Break the Rules, by Claire Boston

  • Read: 1/17/20 – 1/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 9/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I know I sometimes ding “office” romances for basically never having their characters be at work, but this book proves it’s possible to err in the other direction.

They’re always working or talking about work. Near the beginning sometimes they’re talking about scuba diving instead, and then after they get together they take breaks from talking about work long enough to have some sex, and then sometimes an external conflict comes up in the form of his brother and her best friend being impulsive and inconsiderate jackasses. Oh, and the tedious and heavy-handed foster-sister setup to briefly raise awareness for the political and social strife in many Central American countries, which is true but so out of place in context with the rest of the book, where it doesn’t inform anything about the plot or even do all that much to give Bridget personality as her backstory.

But 75% of the book is about being a safety manager at an oil refinery. I signed up for a romance, thanks, could you give me a real romance? Because this isn’t one. There’s attraction that gets their relationship started, sure. Then the realization that he’s her new boss cools things down, but he gets pushy (which I did not like!) about making a relationship happen anyway. Finally, somewhere around midway through, he accepts “no” for an answer and they agree to remain friends. (Which absolutely should have happened earlier if I wasn’t supposed to think Jack was a jerk. And he was mostly nice other than that, so I think he was not supposed to be a jerk.) But then Bridget almost immediately goes back on her decision, and then circumstances force them to move in together, and then disaster happens at the plant and Bridget proves herself capable and saves the day. Which was the real climax of the story, not the culmination of the thin romance. Have I ever leveled the criticism at a romance that I think it needs more sex scenes? I think that’s a first, but I do want more sex scenes, because every time the scene cut away from or glossed over their sexy times, I was denied an opportunity to see how they treated each other, how they connected. Because it wasn’t happening at work, where they were trying to play it cool for everyone else’s benefit.

This is a “romance” where the personal vindication/validation arc of the heroine took over the entire book and left very little room for actual romance, or anything else, really. Though I do question why she’s best friends with Tanya who never seems to do anything worthy of having friends, and is a constant source of irritation for Bridget, from the big stuff like “oops I got married and I’m moving out so I guess you should live with your boss” to the little “this is my party so you have to wear the dress I pick out and have your hair straightened because I say so even though I know you hate sitting in salons doing nothing for hours, do it for meeeee.” Tanya isn’t a person, she’s three external conflicts in a trench coat.

10 - The Black Tides of Heaven

#10 – The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang

  • Read: 1/18/20 – 1/20/20
  • Mount TBR: 10/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by a trans or nonbinary author
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I am underwhelmed.

I don’t think this story knows what it wants to be when it grows up, because in the small space it’s allowed, it takes on so many weighty topics that none of them get the serious treatment they deserve. If it’s about gender identity, then why weren’t the consequences and potential difficulties of “choosing” a gender after being raised gender-neutral as children explored in any depth? If it’s about politics, then why is the rebellion only in latter half of the story, barely explained, and foreshadowed by nothing? If it’s about this cool world that the author has built to accommodate a society that raises their kids gender-free and uses elemental manipulation magic, why is all the world-building so bare-bones that I literally don’t understand half of it? If it’s a personal story about Akeha’s journey through life, why so we skip so many years of it and then pick up at a different age without making any attempt to fill in the gaps and show us why he is the way he turns out to be? If it’s about his moral victory over his mother/the Protector, well, then why is she the lamest, most mustache-twirling “evil because the story says so” villain I’ve seen recently?

This novella is attempting to do way too much in far too small a space to get any of it right. Any of the things I mentioned could be the central focus of a story, but in trying to do it all at once, every aspect is left half-finished, and I’m just here with a giant cartoon question mark floating over my head, wondering what the point was.

11 - Station Eleven

#11 – Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Read: 1/20/20 – 1/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 11/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book set in a place or time that you wouldn’t want to live
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in a country beginning with “C”
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a green spine
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it and think highly of it despite some flaws.

Most impressive to me was how seamless, how effortless, the time-jumping was. I was flung between pre- and post-apocalyptic scenes, interviews, character changes, everything, and never once was I confused about where I landed or why I was sent there from where I started. One of the things I hate most as a reader is being confused by anything I feel should be clear right away, and I will ditch books that handle their structure poorly on this front. Station Eleven, in that sense, is an absolute masterpiece.

I found the tone and atmosphere unusual and captivating. This is a very quiet, peaceful apocalypse compared to others I’ve read. It can be most directly contrasted in my experience with The Stand, because both use a super-flu style virus to wipe out 99% of humanity, but Stephen King focused a lot of narrative time on the immediate and often violent fallout of “the aftermath,” those deaths that came not from the pandemic but from the collapse of society immediately following it. Mandel chooses to do little with this time, even glossing over it in some of her character’s memories. What we do see of it, in Clark’s POV, is perhaps the most genteel end-of-the-world possible. It isn’t that she does not acknowledge violence happens–the knife tattoos, the guns in the hands of the prophet’s people and what that results in–but it’s mostly off-screen, distant. That heightens the little violence we do see, a simple but effective tactic to make us care for the characters involved.

If anything, though, that’s where this falls short of absolutely perfect for me. I never quite engaged with the characters as much as I wanted to, perhaps because so much of this was focused on the world and not the people in it. There’s a great reverence for objects, for things, especially the ones that tie the various timelines together (the comic books, the paperweight, airplanes) but I sometimes felt like the narrative preferred those over the characters. One example is the tendency to reference members of the Traveling Symphony by their instruments–at first I thought it was a clever way to have the large ancillary cast such an outfit would require, without burdening the reader with too many names. And it is. But it’s also a wedge driven into the story that creates artificial distance. Most of the Symphony members who are crucial to the story do have names, except, eventually, the clarinet, who given her importance in the end probably deserved to have one as well. Another more pervasive example is that we spend a great deal of time following Arthur’s life–his final night bookends the story–but I never felt all that attached to him, and of the characters within his sphere, I liked Miranda far better, and Kirsten is our main avatar of the new world, so why don’t we spend more time getting to know her?

The other minor flaw is that it did, at times, strain my suspension of disbelief. Not with the seeming coincidences that pepper the story–all the questions I had about “how does that happen” got explained eventually through character actions in the past–but usually with simple logistics. How likely is it truly, that every single person stranded in the airport in Severn City is free from the virus? I can accept that the airport itself wasn’t contaminated, it’s not a major transport hub. I can accept the lamp-shaded “this is how lucky Clark was to survive” section. But everyone else from all the other planes that got diverted there? None of them had been exposed at that point?

So with those strengths and those flaws, it sounds like I’ve written a nice, balanced three-star review, but I still love this book and give it five. I love the way it made me feel while I was reading it. I love how unusual a take it gave me on the end of the world, and how a need for entertainment and community survived, and how beautifully sad it was in parts and how beautifully hopeful it was in others.

12 - Sing Your Heart Out

#12 – Sing Your Heart Out, by Crystal Kaswell

  • Read: 1/23/20 – 1/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 12/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

For a while this looked like it was going to be interesting, a cut above your usual college/New Adult smut romance, but the wheels fell off around 60% and it was just fight, sex, fight, sex, fight, sex, make up, happy ending.

Listen, I know NA romance is supposed to have a lot of sex, it’s all about the smut, but this was still excessive. Up to a certain point in the story, the sex meant something. It showed Meg and Miles connecting emotionally even though they had agreed this was a friends with benefits scenario. And the reason I thought it was interesting was that it was clearly Miles, not Meg, who was catching feelings first–this setup usually leans heavily on the heroine falling love with the distant, closed-off hero and eventually getting him to admit he’s invested too.

But not Miles. Miles is the best boyfriend-who-won’t-use-that-term ever. He’s depicted for most of the book as a real standup guy, compared to his caught-in-the-act introduction to the heroine. He’s not flawless–he does keep a big secret from Meg, and his need to have someone rely on him for support while not sharing equally of himself is definitely messed up–but he’s generally more of a person and less of a horrible mess than Meg.

Meg, who is the worst part of this story. She’s so smart that it’s her last name, thank you, very clever. But she’s only a brilliant bookworm whenever the plot demands that she use studying as an excuse to avoid Miles (which is far too frequently, might I add, that got repetitive fast) and the rest of the time she’s a hopeless ditz with no common sense, no real emotional depth, a tragic backstory that was a substitute for a personality, and no backbone. Miles, for all his flaws, is generally very clear on what he wants and what he’s going to do to get it; Meg changes her mind constantly about everything except her desire to get into medical school. When she tries not to get involved with Miles in the first place, he’s so hot and so into her that she caves; when they’re fighting and she tries to shut the door on their relationship for more than five minutes, she caves. She goes from virgin to practical sex addict in no time at all, and she allows her libido to make bad decisions for her constantly. The last third of the book is a train wreck of constant orgasms instead of plot.

At one point this was looking to be a three-star book, despite its many flaws. It didn’t take long to drop to two, and the final act puts it solidly at one. It’s bad and I don’t recommend it to anyone, even smut lovers, because honestly after a while even the sex scenes were boring.

 

This Week, I Read… (2020 #2)

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#5 – Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 1/9/20 – 1/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 5/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that you are prompted to read because of something you read in 2019
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

How can a book where so little major happens in the plot be so good?

Things do happen. The betrothal and alliance with the Outislanders nearly falls through and is salvaged only by a challenge issued for a grand quest–which, even though that was basically the midpoint of this novel, was clearly not happening until the third book. Dutiful gets his Skill coterie, albeit an unusual one and in an unusual way. The first major overtures towards peace with Witted folk are pursued, as well as the introduction of Bingtown/Rain Wild folk to the arena of Six Duchies politics, bringing characters from the previous trilogy into Fitz’s story line.

Things do happen. But even viewing all this as setup for the culmination in book three of however many plots we’re juggling at this point, this book is still so much more.

Every assumption I could make as a reader, in keeping with Fitz’s assumptions about his own life, was challenged somehow in this book. Buckkeep is not what he remembered and he cannot seem to find his place in it, and when he tries to fall back on old relationships and old ways, he finds them absent or altered. What begins as a sad but inevitable decline of Chade as a mentor becomes his renewed magical vigor and previously-unknown ambition. The Queen proves herself to be as cunning a political manipulator as anyone else, even out-thinking Chade at one point. Hap, the good country boy, falls into bad romantic company and pays for it, even as Dutiful, who seemed like he would be a difficult boy to trust and to teach, turns out to live up to his name. Fitz loses the safe harbor he had in Jinna because, in the end, she can’t accept him for who he is, even though she seemed far more likely to than Starling, who truly does know him better and wishes him well, even if she is otherwise blatantly self-absorbed.

And most heart-rendingly of all, Fitz breaks his relationship with the Fool almost beyond the point of repair, because in the mother of all irony, between the two of them Fitz is the one who cannot fully accept what the Fool is, and all that encompasses, and stubbornly wants to put him back in the box that he can understand.

[So I wasn’t wrong in my last review that the Fool has romantic feelings for Fitz. This is not necessarily the way I would want to see my foresight justified, though. Fitz’s disgust at the thought of a homosexual relationship is off-putting to me by modern standards, and even though this book is from the early 2000’s, there were other high fantasy writers at the time who challenged patriarchal and homophobic attitudes in their world-building, while Hobb has created the Six Duchies to be as “traditional” as any medieval-informed, male-dominated society. Which is disappointing. But if I had been following the series from its start, if I had read this back in 2003 when it was published and when I still identified as straight, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at any of this. It was just the way things were, to most people I knew. It’s more of a shock to me that until the story needed Lord Golden to be a dissolute pervert as a plot point, the attitudes of their society about non-straight relationships simply didn’t matter, as those relationships didn’t seem to exist. So then when a hint of one appeared, it was reviled. At the same time, the Fool is also clearly an exploration, to what degree I do not yet know, of a genderfluid character. While Fitz has always known him as male, Amber was clearly female in presentation and lifestyle, and it’s not at all clear at this point what he “really is.” Which is to say, both, or neither. I’m sure we’ll get more on this later.]

6 - Next Year in Havana.jpg

#6 – Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton

  • Read: 1/13/20 – 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 6/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a pink cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a cover featuring a skyline
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 98. I could have stopped as early as 10%, back around page 36, but so many people have said so many good things about this book that I was hoping it just had a rough beginning.

It did not get better.

The prose is overwritten and poorly edited. If I quoted specific examples we’d be here all day, so instead I’ll sum up the problems: overuse of ten-dollar vocabulary words, overuse of adjectives, repetition of many words or phrases too close together or simply too many times overall (“my gaze,” “the wind/breeze blowing through my/his hair”,) chaining descriptive clauses to the ends of sentences that don’t actually describe the subject of the sentence, comma splices everywhere, and a few choice sentences that simply didn’t make realistic sense if you read the words in the order they’re on the page. I’m not kidding–one of the love interests, at one point, is wearing both his pants and his shirt on his legs, if you don’t transpose a few things in your head when you read his description.

It’s bad. Bad enough that I wanted to quit pretty early on. But the story still sounded interesting, and like I said, I still had hope it would improve.

But both romances are instalove, or damn close to it. I stopped just under a third of the way through the story and Elisa, the heroine of the past, is already throwing the word “love” around in her head after meeting the guy twice and exchanging one letter with him. The modern-day romance is also cheesy as hell in spots–he’s staring up at you in the window while he plays the saxophone? Really? I laughed hard at that, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to.

I could have even forgiven that, to some extent, if the stuff about Cuba’s history, revolution, and the musings on Marisol’s conflict about her Cuban-American identity were good. But here, again, it falls flat. The characters lecture each other on history (or current events, in the past plot line) and I honestly feel like I’d be better off reading nonfiction about it. There is one, just one, moment where I was moved and sympathetic to Marisol’s struggle for identity, but out of nearly a hundred pages, that’s not enough to keep me reading any more.

7 - So I'm a Spider Vol. 1.jpg

#7 – So I’m a Spider, So What? Vol. 1, by Okina Baba and Asahiro Kakashi

  • Read: 1/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 7/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read the first unread book you find on the highest shelf of your bookcase
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s cute. In fact, it’s freaking adorable. It doesn’t do anything for the isekai genre that at least a few other properties haven’t done already–even the “I got reincarnated as a very small, basic monster” idea starts off That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. (Which, to be fair, I don’t know if predates this or not, I saw that anime before I read this manga. And it goes in a strange direction quickly–I doubt this little spider is going to end up ruling her own empire.)

But she’s a tiny pink tarantula! Tarantulas are adorable! I want her to survive and succeed and kill the basilisks!

The main reason this manga doesn’t get five stars is that the art was not always the easiest to decipher during major action sequences. More veteran manga readers might disagree with me, but I watch anime far more than I read manga, so I’m not as comfortable with the common conventions of how they depict action.

I’m probably not going to keep reading because manga volumes are hella expensive and this is getting an anime adaptation this year, but if it weren’t, I probably would treat myself to the next volume every so often, because tiny pink tarantula.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #1)

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#1 – Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

  • Read: 1/1/20 – 1/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 1/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book without the letters A, T, or Y in the title
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new-to-you author
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is, perhaps, the most unconventional story about vampires I’ve ever read/watched/experienced.

It’s an alliance between a human and a vampire, but it’s not a romance, at least not in the traditional sense: it’s got a few confused elements of romance, but it’s far more about developing a deep bond with someone that isn’t romantic or sexual or even familial. Sunshine and Con save each other’s lives so often she stops being able to keep accurate track.

I’m there for that bond. I’m there for the mutual suffering that leads to closeness, and the cultural misunderstandings (if vampire can be said to be a different “culture” rather than a different species) that cause the rifts between them that need to be healed through discussion and the kind of tentative reaching-out that is all people who have been burned too often can manage. This books hurts, at the same time it feels so good. This kind of intense relationship is one we don’t usually get as readers without attaching sex or romance to it, or dressing it up in military garb and pinning some patriotism on it. It’s two warriors who will always, always have each other’s backs, even if they didn’t start that way. And that’s a great story.

But as much as I love the emotional guts of it, and I do, it’s overly indulgent in its style and world-building. Now, the world-building is great, the problem is is that there’s too much of it. Sunshine goes on pages-long tangents explaining some aspect of wards or some obscure fact about vampire-related fiction or some detail about their world’s computers, and five minutes later when it’s over I’ve completely forgotten what was being said in the middle of the conversation she zoned out of to tell me about the world she lives in. And this happens constantly. It’s not that any one piece of information isn’t interesting or something I probably would have wanted to know, but as an aggregate, did I really need all of it? Wasn’t there anything that could be cut without sacrificing clarity in order to move the story along faster?

In addition to that, I had to keep reminding myself that Sunshine was in her mid-twenties. The constant whining (often justified but definitely not always,) the tendency to lose focus and go on a tangent at the drop of a hat, the mental inability to use certain words or phrases and leave the reader to fill them in at the “…” at the end of her sentences–all of these together contrived to make her sound like a younger narrator than she is. Yes, she lives alone and has a steady job and a steady boyfriend and she’s not just independent but semi-distant from her family (despite the fact they all work together) and all sorts of other markers of adulthood, so I know she’s an adult, but most of the time she sounds like a teenager. It’s not a deal-breaker but I did sometimes find it irritating.

2 - Bound to Be a Bride

#2 – Bound to Be a Bride, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 1/4/20 – 1/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 2/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were aspects of this that were fun enough to keep me reading–Javi and Isabella’s banter being the key one–but most of it was a little too rushed, a little too contrived, a little too inconsistent. Since I know absolutely nothing about this part of history, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I will say that Isabella’s time at the convent teaching her hard work is believable, but the survival skills, not so much.

Good thing the runaway bride meets up with her runaway husband almost immediately so he and his companions can look after her.

This is interesting, in a way, though, as an example of a narrative style that keeps everything snappy and interesting even when the plot or the characters fall apart the second you examine them closely. Isabella is an inconsistent mess of wantonness and sudden shyness; Javi is hell-bent on being a revolutionary and not a husband, until he gets a sweet little thing who likes to be tied up, and then he’s fine with staying in Spain and being himself again for a while. (Actually, now that I type that out, his character arc does make a fair bit of sense in context, it’s just very rushed. Isabella’s still a flip-floppy nightmare.) The entire point of the novella, two people running away from their own marriage only to find each other anyway, is ridiculous to the point where you can almost appreciate it just for its brazenness as a romance plot. So this is bad, yet somehow still really fun? Usually when I rate something this low by a new-to-me author, I’ll ditch whatever other books of theirs I have on my TBR, but the first Regency Reimagined novel, which I also own, sounds a lot like this–kinky fun without being worried too much about making sense. I’m surprisingly okay with that.

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#3 – Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

  • Read: 1/5/20 – 1/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 3/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose last name is one syllable
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast or online book club
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a story collection that holds a mirror up to you as the reader and asks, “What would you do?”

Usually when I review an anthology I have to say, well, they’re tough to rate because the stories are all so different, and I liked some better than others. Though in most cases I don’t take the time to do a story-by-story breakdown, especially when there are a lot of stories. But here there’s only four novellas, with the bonus short story in my paperback edition. So it’s far easier to say “I loved these three and didn’t care so much for this one but I see how it fits into the book’s overriding theme.”

Which is what I feel. The one that sticks out to me is “Big Driver,” but mostly because I’m always wary of a male author writing about the experience of rape from a woman’s perspective. In that story, I wasn’t so much looking in the metaphorical mirror and asking, “What would I do if I were her?” I was constantly thinking, “Is this how I would feel if I were her? Does this sound right to me?” It didn’t seem as authentic as the others, though I still appreciate the message it sent.

“1922” was terrifying, and had the strongest supernatural elements of any of them, though it can be interpreted as the narrator’s mind coming loose from its moorings, rather than actual otherworldly happenings, if a reader chooses. I certainly read it that way, though there’s room for interpretation. But as an opening story it’s a solid introduction to the bigger picture. “Big Driver” does carry on that picture, though as I said, it’s not as strong for me. “Fair Extension” surprised me with its apparent lack of closure–Dave Streeter makes his deal with the devil and just gets away with it? It’s rare to approach that sort of tale that way. But the best story, by far, was “A Good Marriage.” That was the clearest moment of “holy hell, what would I do? How on earth could I deal with that?”

As for the bonus story, “Under the Weather,” I actually didn’t like it at all, and I had it figured out almost instantly, and wading through the boring minutiae of the main character’s job to find out if I was right about my suspicions wasn’t tense or interesting, but plodding and dull. That was a swing and a miss for me. But it’s so short, and it’s not in all editions of the book, so I’m not really counting it in my rating.

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#4 – Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

  • Read: 1/8/20 – 1/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 4/150
  • Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that starts with “A”
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 60%. I know I didn’t have much more to go, page-count-wise, but I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

This book is a mess and I don’t think any of its messages are clear.

On the level of societal commentary, tackling health care issues via patent law and piracy makes it appear to some extent anti-capitalist, but it’s really just anti-monopolist, because mostly everyone is still out to make money. We live in a society, and all that. As an American I’m used to medical dystopias revolving around insurance, rather than drug prices/availability, though this future doesn’t seem to have medical insurance at all, so I guess Big Pharma is the only enemy in that regard. It’s interesting from that perspective, but this story does little to establish the state of the world beyond its level of science and technology. There’s vague reference to “the Collapse” which apparently altered the world to the point of complete political and social restructuring–people can be indentured or enslaved and that’s normal, citizenship is a commodity, the maps would look incredibly different if any were included, I’m sure–but it’s all “this is how the world is now” without much “this is how it got that way.”

On the level of interpersonal relationships, how does this literally get everything wrong, from my perspective, about positive representation? The bisexual main character is shown throughout her life to fall into bed with anyone at the drop of a hat. The nonbinary character is a robot. The man in love with the robot is homophobic to the point where he doesn’t “have sex” with the robot until “she” reveals “she’s” discovered her human brain came from a woman, and changes her pronouns to match, not because “she” cares either way but because it will make him feel more comfortable with “her.” All of these things are harmful tropes or stereotypes.

And what’s more, even if the (cough) “romances” in this story weren’t harmful or degrading, they take up so much space on the page that there’s no tension in the chase between the pirate and her pursuers. At all. The pace is plodding. She has a chapter where there’s a lot of science talk, maybe a flashback about her past, maybe there’s some implied off-screen sex with the dude she rescued at the beginning who is waaaaay younger than her and she’s basically keeping around as a sex toy even though she wants to get rid of him for practical life purposes. (I’m not even going to stop to unpack all that, because it’s also gross and I don’t want to.) Then we switch POVs to the nonbinary robot, who is some ways is actually rather charming in his/her attempts (I’m using both pronouns because both are used in the story at one point or another) to learn and process human behavior. I would have been much happier if the entire book were just Paladin figuring him/herself out in the world of humans, even though I know that’s not a very original story concept; Paladin is by far the most interesting character of this cast. But his/her chapters focus so much on that (and his/her exploration of and research into what robot-human sexual relationships would be like, and eventually are, when “she” and Eliasz finally sleep together, which was a bizarre scene that made no physical sense) that the chasing of the bad guy is a subplot at best when it actually should be the main story line linking these characters together.

Also, am I supposed to feel sympathetic to Jack? She’s a drug pirate, fighting Big Pharma to bring cheap and necessary drugs to the masses who can’t otherwise afford them. That’s Robin-Hood-esque, in a sci-fi kind of way, but her mistake in distributing an addictive drug that’s getting people killed doesn’t hold up well in that light. The drug wasn’t medically necessary to anyone–it’s a stimulant to make doing your job more pleasant–and she wasn’t exactly handling it responsibly, reverse-engineering something that wasn’t yet fully tested or available for public distribution. If she’s so altruistic, shouldn’t she have been making useful things like insulin or anti-cancer meds or basically anything else? It’s lampshaded in the story as not-stupid by saying “well people on [this drug] are more likely to get hired or keep their jobs because they enjoy working, so people without it are at a disadvantage.” Except…it’s not in large-scale distribution yet, so has anyone actually lost their jobs at that point because they don’t have access to the drug?

Jack comes across as a pretty cold, unfeeling person who, past and present, uses sex to manipulate people, justifies her not-life-saving drug-running by saying she’s sticking it to Big Pharma, then screws up royally and gets people killed. Her attempts to “fix” that, even at 60% where I gave up out of annoyance, don’t amount to much at all, which is another reason there’s no tension in this story. She’s not on the verge of some drastic breakthrough to create a drug to counteract the bad one, only pursuit is hot on her heels. Pursuit is too busy falling into bed with each other and drowning in homophobic angst to bother doing their jobs properly.

Even if I only had a little over a hundred more pages to find out how this story turns out, I could not make myself go on any farther. It’s a mess and I just don’t need to know how it ends.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #54)

Yes, I know, it’s 2020 now, but these are the last books I read in 2019 and I haven’t finished my first 2020 read yet! It’s only been two days and it’s a big fantasy novel! More on that next week.

So, let’s wrap up last year.

Spellbinder

#168 – Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn

  • Read: 12/26/19 – 12/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (110/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 159. I’m bored.

The most fundamental problem is that none of the things I expect from a Melanie Rawn novel are present here. My teenage and college years were spent reading the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, and rereading them quite frequently. I loved the first two books of the Exiles series, and like many fans, became somewhat resentful when it was made clear that Rawn was never going to go back and write the third book, giving us both the ending it deserved and the closure we needed. I wasn’t involved in the boycott of her later work directly, because I didn’t even know about the fandom drama until years later when I looked up “is the Exiles series ever getting finished” after I saw my two lonely books sitting together on the shelf one day. But I did not know about Spellbinder until several years after it was published, and I was annoyed enough that I didn’t give it a try until now, when I found it at a used book sale and thought, “Rawn may have disappointed me with Exiles, but her other work is so good. What if I’m missing out by not reading this?”

Well, now I know I wasn’t. Her big fantasy series were a tangle of romance, magic, dragons, and most of all, family. You could boil down the central themes of all eight of those books I loved across all three of those series to family bonds are one of the most important things in the world, no matter what that world happens to be. And that’s simply not present here. It’s a gaping hole in my expectations, and maybe I could forgive that, because that’s on me and not Rawn, at least not directly.

But I just can’t get invested in these snarky, glib characters. Everyone is snapping at each other all the time, be they friends or lovers or found family. And it does seem like “found family” is supposed to be a trope here–Holly has her fellow witches and some of them are honorary uncles and such–but those bonds aren’t forged strongly enough to believe in them. And all that fighting is just irritating, not cute, when I don’t believe these characters care about each other.

And all that fighting is the entirety of the plot so far. I gave up at 40% and I have only faint clues what the central conflict of the book is going to be. The prologue introduces the villain first–at least I’m assuming she’s the big bad of the book, but if she is I’m already disappointed because she’s a flimsy construction of three evil witch tropes in a trench coat–and then, a handful of short and confusing, disjointed scenes introduces Holly and her entire coven and presumably sets up the core conflict. In the prologue. But…it’s that a bad witch is bad and pissed off at the main cast for being good and trying to put a limit on her power? If that’s the point, why have I read 40% of the book and it’s almost entirely about the romantic subplot between Holly and Evan? And it’s not even a good romance because they flip-flop constantly between being sickeningly cute with each other and being slammed-doors, storming-out pissed at each other? None of it reads as believable, and it’s tiresome because it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the main plot. Whatever that is.

I can predict at this point that Holly and Evan are going to break up, because they’re already engaged at 40%, so what else can even happen to keep them apart so that the climax involves their satisfying reunion and declaration of love? And then while they’re estranged, I guess the evil witch is going to a) try to seduce Evan; b) put him in direct physical/magical danger; or c), both of the above. Again, so if that’s the point, why hasn’t the story done anything to show me the evil witch is at all dangerous (she’s kind of ridiculous) or to make me care about Evan (he’s mostly a jerk) or to prove that he and Holly actually care about each other (they’re usually snapping at each other, then having sex, then throwing some sort of cultural pissing contest about which one of them is more Irish)–why should I care?

The only reason I can tell this is a Melanie Rawn novel is because her name is on the cover. This could have come from any two-bit “hop on the urban fantasy train” author who produces utterly dismissable work today, and I wouldn’t know the difference, because nothing about what makes the other Rawn books great is here. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen an author change (abandon?) their own signature style so completely as this.

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#169 – Music of the Heart, by Katie Ashley

  • Read: 12/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (111/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At one point, in one of her many proud, take-no-crap moments, the heroine of this story says she needs a chiropractor for the emotional whiplash the hero has been inflicting on her.

I’m right there with you, sister, but for the entire book, not just his behavior. Every time you stood up for yourself against a douchebag or a jerkwad, I was cheering for you, but then you just keep giving your emotionally crippled hero chance after chance after chance when he treats you like garbage.

Now, when I grabbed this romance ages ago, either free or deeply discounted because the blurb sounded vaguely interesting, I had not fully realized our heroine was a Christian virgin whose three older brothers comprised a Christian rock band. I am not Christian and through repeated exposure generally find Christian romances to be bland or bad or even intolerable. So color me surprised that Abby ended up being my favorite character in the book (though that’s not actually saying much because of all the flaws this story had) and the underlying message, that of forgiveness, was clearly a Christian one but not via Bible-thumping or excessive preachiness. Which I appreciate. In reality, her Christian background strikes me more as a all-in-one reason for her to be the angelic virgin counterpoint to the bad-boy rock star, more than this actually constituting a “Christian” romance as they usually are.

Jake is a needy mess and the underlying message of forgiveness translates effectively to “Don’t give up on this jackass no matter how bad he treats you, because forgiveness is good and yeah sure stand up for yourself but only so far.” I would have left Jake and stayed gone long before the end of the book. Also, his final try at pushing her away was one of the most fake things I’ve ever read in my life–very very few people are that bad and say such awful things, especially when it’s a 180 from their previous behavior. But when she storms off because he’s a horrible person and it’s the last straw, she forgives him when he changes his mind and chases after her. Because of course she does, and then they can live happily ever after.

So there are aspects of this that I like–mostly Abby when she sticks up for herself, and to a lesser extent, how AJ, one of the other band members, becomes her friend after he realizes he’s got no shot with her because of Jake and actually is a pretty decent friend. But the things I didn’t like far outweigh that–how the message nearly exonerates Jake from all of his bad behavior, how everyone follows all their assigned tropes and gender roles to perfection without a single interesting deviation, how poorly edited it is (missing or misplaced punctuation abounds, and quite a few times the author uses common phrases incorrectly, and there are some obvious typos a spellcheck would not catch.) I don’t like how fast Jake and Abby go from disgust/hate/annoyance to love. I don’t like how small children ended up being used as props in one scene to make Jake sexier to Abby, because “aww, look at the man with the baby, my ovaries just exploded.” Not cool.

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#170 – Vivian’s List, by Haleigh Lovell

  • Read: 12/30/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (112/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All sex and no plot. Very little conflict aside from the beginning, when the hero is trying to convince the heroine that her boyfriend is psychologically abusive. He is, but the hero spends literal pages talking down to the heroine about it like he’s lecturing her on the topic. I buy that he’s concerned and that it’s a tough issue for him because his mom was similarly abused by his dad, but it was like wading through the preachiest pamphlet ever: “Ten Signs Your Partner is an Abusive Jerk.”

Once that’s past, though, the pair falls into bed together on an accelerated schedule (he’s shipping back to Iraq in a week! Let’s shoehorn in some commentary on America’s perpetual state of war!) and it’s all sunshine and lollipops after that. The whole time I was like, “is the only conflict driving the rest of the story that this is supposed to be a fling and they’re clearly catching feelings?” Because that’s a good single source of conflict in a romance, but it’s awfully thin to base an entire book around without anything deeper to go with it.

I was still thinking that right up until the unexpected cliffhanger. Yeah, this is half a story, padded out to reasonable novel-length with truly excessive amounts of repetitive, cringey, cheesy sex scenes. If this is supposed to be a romance, it needs more story. If this is supposed to be straight-up erotica, it needs better sex. Splitting the difference to try to make this sail as an erotic romance leaves it stranded in the middle without the better aspects of either.

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#171 – When You Got a Good Thing, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 12/30/19 – 12/31/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (113/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is less of a romance than it is a story about personal growth and proving yourself to your family. This was the Kennedy Reynolds show, with everyone else–including her love interest Xander–getting very little development. Her sisters are all one-note supporting players (this one’s the angry one, this one’s more sympathetic, and so on) and the central conflict of the story is not “will the lovebirds get together,” it’s “can we save our house from the bank so our nearly-adopted sister doesn’t get kicked back into the system?”

Which is a fundamentally good story at its heart, don’t get me wrong. I’m still giving this three stars. But this is really more of a women’s-fiction-type tale, a story of a woman and her sisters and their family legacy, and there’s a flat, simple romance grafted on to it. Xander and Kennedy spend a fair bit of time shouting at each other about the ten years they missed in their second-chance romance, but not all that much time doing anything to convince the reader that they’re still in love. It’s chemistry, sure, you guys banged like bunnies as teenagers apparently, but is it love? Does it have time to develop into love around all these external obstacles? Because there are no internal conflicts worth mentioning. Neither of them really examines or questions if getting back together is a good idea for more than a few minutes, and they barely even acknowledge that they’re different people now than they were when she left (at least in the romance arc, Kennedy’s family arc is entirely about how she’s changed.)

So in the end, I did enjoy this story overall, but I feel like billing it as a romance is, to some degree, false advertising. The romance is less than half the plot and by far the weakest aspect of it.