This Week, I Read… (2022 #9)

#24 – Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca, translated by Richard Mott Gummere

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is not a review of the philosophy of Stoicism, which I am still interested in learning about.

This is a review of Seneca’s incredibly long, dry, repetitive presentation of his views on Stoicism, which I could not force myself to read at a pace more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time before I became incredibly frustrated by his pedantic style. DNF @ roughly 50%, and I’m honestly amazed I stuck with it that long.

I started the book full of enthusiasm and vigor, highlighting a scattering of sentences here and there that stood out as particularly brilliant among the fluff of him addressing Lucilius (and obvious future readers) directly, making small talk about presumably famous figures of the time that I’ve never heard of because I’m not a classicist, and repeating himself several times after he makes a strong point. I chugged along for the first hour or so in one sitting, feeling proud of myself for how much I was getting out of it. That’s when I noticed I’d read about 6% of the book. That was discouraging, because I was already feeling like I was panning for gold in muddy waters, and that’s when my pace slowed considerably.

Not too long after that, I reached the letter that basically admonished me directly for trying to distill any study of philosophy into single important sentences, ie, it must be studied as whole. Um, no thanks, Seneca, you badly needed an editor, because you frequently take eight to ten pages to make a one-paragraph point. I don’t see the need to treat your every word as equally valid and important, especially when I have to discard anything you say about women, because you came from a rigidly sexist society. Whatever infrequent noise you make about equality–and your views on slavery, as I understand them, are somewhat radical for the time–you still show an amazing amount of gender bias. I can separate the tenets of Stoicism from your inherent sexism and judge them independently of that in a modern context, but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read, as a woman, that philosophy is a boys’ club, and your view of a woman’s place is essentially, to use a modern phrase, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

As the letters went on, I began to notice that the repetition was extending from the micro to the macro level–I was already used to his rambling within a letter, but then multiple letters on similar topics began to show up in batches. How many times was it really necessary to write only the most minor variations on the topic of impending death? I’m sure a glance at the table of contents would reveal my hyperbole, but towards the middle of the book it felt like at least 70% of the letters were Seneca navel-gazing about his own mortality, and how amazing it was that he had figured out how to look death in the face and not flinch. Yes, it’s an uncomfortable topic for me, not because I’m at an age when death could reasonably come at any time, but because my parents are elderly and having various health problems, so losing them is something I may have to face soon. (Or they may bounce back and live another twenty years–impossible to know for sure, just as I could have an aneurysm or get hit by a truck tomorrow.) But even trying to be Stoic and read about death without having a wild emotional reaction, I didn’t find much useful in Seneca’s treatment of the topic, because it was very much personal, about himself, and eventually took on a tone of self-aggrandizement, no matter how much he purported to be self-effacing about his own accomplishments in philosophy, no matter how much he denigrated others who sought attention and acclaim through philosophy.

I just got tired of it all.

This is only my first foray into the classics of Stoicism, and I’ll take a break to recover, but I’m not giving up. Modern works on Modern Stoicism are of interest to me too, if I can sift through the enormous amount of them to find the good ones that don’t just look like thin, slickly packaged self-help screeds trying to make a buck; unfortunately there seem to be a lot of those.

#25 – The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Because Goodreads has no half stars, call this a 3.5 rating.

It’s good. I’m not abandoning the series after the first book like I did last year with Shadowmarch, which was an incredible disappointment. But this did feel a little lackluster.

It’s big, it’s complex, it’s intricately plotted and I see where some of the plot threads are (possibly) headed in the future. All those things were true of the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. But here I feel like it was almost needlessly complex, with far more POV characters than necessary, and far too few things resolved. More than any other Williams novel-from-a-series I’ve read, even the Otherland novels, this feels like it’s only setup, that very little actually happens and nothing of any import is resolved. Yes, it’s only the first book. But there’s not even the smallest sense of closure to make it feel like a story in its own right, rather than merely the opening to a larger tale.

So that’s one major problem I have. The other is that for all the familiar names on these pages, I feel like I don’t recognize these characters. Count Eolair and Binabik are the only ones who feel like natural extensions of who they were–Binabik is basically unchanged, despite the thirty years that have passed, and Eolair is still fundamentally the same person, with the added perspective and exhaustion of his years. But Simon and Miriamele, the main characters and now the High King and Queen, are nothing like I expected them to be; they’re constantly quarreling, fretting, or having sex. Sex was not absent from the original trilogy, and neither here nor there was it ever romance-novel-style explicit sex, but I was honestly surprised at how often important conversations between our monarchs needed to happen in bed; do they not see each other anywhere else besides formal audiences? It felt strange and repetitive.

As for the new characters, they’re all over the place. Because there are so many and they need to share page time with the returning characters, some of them may not have gotten enough development (yet) to make them shine; because I don’t know where all these newly established plot threads are going, I may appreciate their associated characters more after the story continues. I don’t dislike any of the individual characters or their subplots in the same way I hated a few from Shadowmarch, but there are only a few I feel truly invested in, primarily Tzoja, Nezeru, and Jarnulf. I wanted to either like, or at least be more interested in, our princeling Morgan, but even once the plot kicks him in the pants, he’s still a remarkably spoiled brat, and he doesn’t get his “oh shit now I’m alone and in danger” moment until the end of the book, where Simon had to go through that (thus starting his resulting growth arc) comparatively much sooner. I was getting impatient for Morgan to grow up, and that apparently doesn’t start until the next book.

I’m complaining a lot, I know, but this had really big shoes to fill. It’s entirely possible I’ll like it better once we have the whole thing; on the other hand, I loved The Dragonbone Chair unreservedly from the start, so as good as this is and might someday be with added context, it’s not quite the smashing return to Osten Ard I was hoping for.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #8)

#22 – The Wicker King, by K. Ancrum

  • Forgotten YA Gems BOTM
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

February’s pick for one of my book clubs, and I just managed to squeeze it in. This wasn’t at all on my radar before, and I don’t know that I would have chosen to read it on my own, but I’m glad I did.

However, I got the audiobook from my library because that’s what was available to me quickly; because I didn’t know anything about the work beforehand, it’s only now that I’m engaging with other reviews that I discovered I’d missed out on the mixed-media aspect of it. Would I have liked this better if I had access to all its content, rather than just the text? I’ll never know for sure, but probably. For that reason, I don’t recommend to others to listen to the audiobook unless that’s a necessary format for them personally.

This is a book that defies the cookie-cutter “good” representation that so many of us (myself included) have been trained by recent discourse to demand from our fictional media. Jack and August are bisexual, even if it takes most of the book for August to understand that about himself. By the end of the story, they’re poly as well, which is just not something that sees the light of day very often, and I appreciate that. These relationships are core to who they are, not shallow additions to make the story edgy, or marketable to a target audience hungry to see themselves on the page.

At the same time, pretty much everyone in this story and everything about it is just fucked up. There’s so much toxicity, so many small instances of abuse, and a romanticization of co-dependency that I find disturbing, even though I see the author making it very clear that Jack and August aren’t role models for creating and maintaining healthy relationships. How do you balance “co-dependency is bad” with “but they still get together in the end” and not create some conflicting feelings in your readers? I’m a romance author and heavily a romance reader, so coming at it from that angle, this work has some serious issues–but it’s not presented as a traditional romance and I’m pleased to see that few of the total readers on Goodreads have classified it as such. Since it’s not intended to be a romance novel, I shouldn’t treat it as one–it’s primarily about mental health. The romance subplot is not incidental, but it is also just one element of a complex story.

Still, it’s hard to root for these two boys and their girl, when getting together is their happy ending after so much trauma, when they’re all carrying so much baggage. Yes, the ending is hopeful, they are maybe all moving on to better things for themselves, but it’s bittersweet at best when those relationships were so fraught to begin with. A part of me still wants to shake these three by the shoulders and tell them to run, to get out before something goes horribly wrong.

Content aside, I had some other issues. The pacing was so tight and the scenes so short that it felt scattered, though I admit this issue may have been exacerbated by the format; the bite-size scenes, each led off by a word or short phrase that I didn’t even realize at first were a sort of chapter heading, were disconcertingly abrupt when listening to them. Even if I had been reading on a page at my own pace, though, with the extra materials I missed out on, this extreme focus on small snippets of the characters’ lives came off as shallow, despite the subject matter being so dark and deep; I wanted a little more time with them, to get into their heads, or to have their behavior shown to me in patterns, to allow me to draw some conclusions for myself about how they interacted. This work relied on telling rather than showing, and I no longer feel a reactionary, blanket disapproval for that as I once did–but I still prefer being allowed to discover at least some things for myself, and there wasn’t much opportunity for that here.

Did I like it? Ultimately, yes. It’s strange and challenging and at times incredibly dark, and it’s a minefield of sensitive trigger issues that might blow up in your face at any moment, but it’s interesting. It made me think, and it was worth my time.

#23 – Leviathan Falls, by James S.A. Corey

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s over, and it’s not perfect, but I’m happy with it.

Yes, there was some bloat and repetition in this story. It probably could have been fifty pages shorter easily, or perhaps eighty with a more ruthless hand. But I never felt any one section was a slog more so than the others, and there was no plot point or POV character I feel needed to be cut in entirely.

I usually don’t care about spoilers in reviews, but this one I’m going to go entirely spoiler-free. I do think the setup surrounding the Final Boss of the series was good, even if the secondary antagonist below it was a little simplistic. I enjoyed the presence of the new major POV character added, and don’t agree with some other reviews I’ve read that found her pointless–I thought her character arc was solid and her role in the larger story worthwhile.

I’m mostly pleased with the way our favorite long-running characters are treated and how their dynamic has changed (or not) over the years and changes in circumstance. The major change that happened to a core character in book eight was addressed and expanded upon to my satisfaction, though again, I see other people don’t agree with me on that.

What kept this from being five stars for me was the combination of slightly more text to read than the story needed, a sort of excessive maudlin tone to one character’s POV in particular that I did not enjoy, and the wish that the proximate goal of the story (stop the secondary antagonist to hopefully thwart the primary one) had been either a little more complex, or a little better executed in its simplicity. However, overall I think this stuck the landing. Am I too used to being disappointed by the endings of major media properties? Because this isn’t the end of Mass Effect 3, here, it’s far more narratively and thematically cohesive than that pile of turds.


Note from your blogger: This should have gone up at the end of February and didn’t, despite the reviews being written already, because of sudden and unexpected real life happenings I won’t get into here. I am fine, everyone else is fine, but for a few weeks I had no mental bandwidth to spare for book reviews, blogging, and to some extent even reading–I’m pushing “publish” on this on March 22nd, and I’ve read two and a half books this whole month. Today, I wrote a review for one of them; tomorrow I hope to write another, to slowly get myself back into this. Ideally there will be a new, on-time set of book reviews this Friday, but if my reading time continues to be a low priority, the posting schedule may continue to be spotty for a while until I get other things sorted out.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #7)

#16 – 99 Percent Mine, by Sally Thorne

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Because I really enjoyed The Hating Game and Thorne’s other novels were sitting right there on Hoopla while I had borrows available, I went ahead and binged, grabbing them both and reading this one next.

Sadly, this is a massive disappointment. The quality simply isn’t there–underdeveloped characters, skimpy plot, nonsensical relationships, disjointed narrative that doesn’t always make clear who is speaking or how one action bridges to the next. (Seriously, there are some really confusing and amateur mistakes in here that I can’t believe made it past an editor.)

I’m here for the childhood-friend trope, but I was never clear on what the conflict of them being in a relationship was supposed to be, because there were too many to choose from, and they didn’t all mesh well. Tom and Darcy can’t be together because: a) she’s an impulsive commitment-phobe who travels at the drop of a hat; b) her twin brother has basically forbidden it because he doesn’t want the additional complication, and/or he thinks Darcy is a loser who doesn’t deserve Tom; c) she spends a good chunk of the story believing he’s in a committed relationship with someone else, but he’s not and doesn’t tell her for longer than was probably a good idea; d) she’s put him on a weird pedestal in her mind and created an image of him as the perfect man and protector, but that’s not real and he can’t live up to it; e) Darcy is also Tom’s boss, in the sense that it’s her shared inherited house that he’s in charge of renovating, but also kind of his employee, in that she insists on working on the reno with him, and that muddies the waters considerably.

That’s five things. Pick one. Or maybe two. And then make those work, instead of simply piling on more complications like layers of paint.

I also don’t understand the relationship between Darcy and her twin. Jamie spends most of the story as a menacing off-page presence who is mad at Darcy and but still best friends with Tom, despite also being his boss on the renovation. Darcy is jealous and doesn’t feel like she’s ever been allowed to be as close to Tom as she wanted to be (hence the title, because Tom started off as “one percent mine.”) I really thought for most of the book that the twins did not have a good relationship, and that Tom had been suffering all this time as the bone these two were fighting like dogs over; but then at the end, after a single explosive fight, all’s forgiven and everybody’s cool again. The “get Tom back” phase at the end is a rushed-through explanation of how the twins have been working on bettering themselves and their relationship, and it just rings so false.

Tom is bland. He’s nice, and he’s muscular (Thorne really seems to like heroes with Big Muscles, but I only have two data points for this so far,) and the only real thing we find out about him is that he’s determined to make his business succeed while also being terrified it’s going to fail. Which is all fine, that’s a solid basis for a character, but it never goes farther than that, because if you couldn’t tell from my dissection of the relationship conflicts and my confusion about the twins, this story is leaning heavily on being about Darcy and Darcy’s problems, so there just isn’t room to elaborate on Tom’s inner life.

Darcy and Tom ultimately don’t feel like a good couple to me. I wasn’t expecting their banter to be as pointed and witty as anything from The Hating Game, because this is a different story with a different premise, but I was expecting a similar level of overall quality (or at least something approaching it, not every sophomore release is going to be as good as a stellar first novel.) This doesn’t even feel like it was written by the same author.

#17 – Second First Impressions, by Sally Thorne

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Much, much better than 99 Percent Mine, but not as good as The Hating Game.

After how bad 99 was, I wouldn’t have bothered to read this if I hadn’t already checked it out from the library, and even then I promised myself I was allowed to DNF if it looked like it was going to be another train wreck. But it wasn’t, and I finished it.

It did have many of the same issues with the style of the writing as 99 did, notably moments of disjointed narrative where I had to read the same sentence or paragraph multiple times in order to parse its meaning, because A didn’t clearly flow to B, or a dialogue tag was missing, or some other easily fixable editorial issue. They weren’t as prevalent, so this didn’t feel like such a rush job, but there were still enough to bother me.

As for the actual story, it’s weird, and it’s weird in a way that feels like I personally should like it, while also displaying a sort of hyper-specificity about quirkiness. Every single character in this novel is Quirky (TM), so that even while their individual personalities could hardly be more different, they are all also kind of the same. It’s hard to explain–it’s less about the characters themselves than how the author treats them, like they’re all baked from the same recipe that says “three good personality traits, one flaw, and at least two Weird Things that others can’t help but notice.”

Yes, even “normal” people in real life are usually “weird” to someone else in some aspect of their life (odd hobbies or mannerisms, unusual upbringing, etc.) But all that Quirkiness isn’t usually on display at the same time, to everyone, in public.

I genuinely liked Teddy, because he’s a classic Cinnamon Roll (or Teddy Bear, if you prefer, but that was so obvious I groaned at his name.) He’s blithely charming and pretty and sweet-spirited. His One Flaw is that he’s a shiftless mooch, and that’s a big flaw, and a believable one. Early on I despaired that he would mature enough to be a reasonable romantic partner for anyone (let alone Ruthie) but he managed it.

Ruthie…oh, Ruthie. I just didn’t really understand you. Nothing about your backstory made me feel like you would turn out to be the person you are at the start of the story. Who isn’t a bad person, but a bland one. And not bland in the way that allows me the reader to easily self-insert and pretend I’m the heroine Teddy is blatantly trying to win over–no, you’re just bland and timid and boring. Sorry. I wish you hadn’t been.

As a supporting character, Melanie gets points for being snappy and weird while simultaneously doing her best to be a good friend even with her odd judgmental streak. I’m not sure I would want to be friends with her, but she was a fun character.

It’s the Parloni ladies that really have me conflicted, because on the one hand, I figured out their secret long before the reveal and it’s just so cute and sweet. On the other hand, they are the most outrageously inappropriate and Beyond Quirky old ladies who do really questionable things throughout the story that made it difficult to like them in the moment, no matter that I liked their overall arc.

I finally got around to giving this author a try and exhausted her current catalog in a week, but nothing even came close to her first novel, so in the future, I’m going to give whatever else comes along a pass.

#18 – Sweep in Peace, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Better, and darker, than the first novel, but still not great.

Part of the charm of a world set up like this is that there’s freedom to introduce literally any sort of alien being the author pleases, which is how we get my favorite new character, Orro the oversized hedgehog chef. Much like Caldenia before, he’s a breath of welcome hilarity in the middle of the huge stakes this story sets up.

Some of the other “new” characters actually aren’t new at all–good thing I read The Edge series before this, though it was long enough ago that it took me maybe a few pages too long to recognize the names. I’m torn here between being glad that the younger generation of Edgers have gotten more development, disappointment overall in what that development is (George, you are such an asshole now,) and a mild annoyance that this series even asked me to remember these characters from another property that I haven’t read more than once, and not for a while. Like, at this point I think in sheer number of books Ilona Andrews is probably my most-read author (if it’s not Stephen King, which I suppose it still could be, darn you GR for taking that feature away) so in one sense I’m a super-fan, but in another, I’m not, because I haven’t read any of her books more than once, SINCE THERE ARE SO MANY. I wouldn’t call these obscure characters, but if I hadn’t read their series at all, or I hadn’t read it even semi-recently, then their presence in the story would be full of weird holes.

I think I like Sean better now that he’s a little more world-wise (or should it be universe-wise in this case?) and a little less cocky, but I didn’t love that the war zone he spent time in ran on an artificially fast timeline, in a clear attempt to allow him extra time to “catch up” to Dina in terms of his understanding of the worlds beyond Earth, to give them more equal footing for their romance. It was so obvious that that’s the only reason it was truly necessary for Nexus to run faster than everywhere else.

On the other hand, the fact that Sean needed that extra development at all means he’s clearly endgame for Dina and we got to downgrade Arland to flirty side-man. Which isn’t to say I don’t like Arland, I do, but I don’t like love triangles, so I’m glad that’s basically over.

It’s a better novel than its predecessor, and it’s better enough that I’m going to keep going with the series.

#19 – One Fell Sweep, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked this about the same as the one before it, which is to say, better than the series opener but still not nearly as good as most other IA books in other series.

While I like how this book makes it even clearer that Arland is no longer a romantic prospect for Dina, utterly abolishing the love triangle established in the first book, the main plot is darker even than the second book, and the stakes have yet again been raised, to the point where I question how the series can keep escalating threats while still having Dina and her inn Gertrude Hunt be capable of handling them. This one is such a doozy.

The B-plot of Maud and Helen is actually excellent and I have basically no complaints. Great new characters.

Even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the main plot, I do like how it ended, and how the romance progressed. I think what I might be struggling with in this series is how minor the romance arc is. Yes, in Kate Daniels it took a while to get going, but once it was established the payoff was huge. In The Edge, the series was comprised of individual romance novels telling a cohesive story together. Hidden Legacy might be the best marriage of worldbuilding and romance I’ve seen in the genre as a whole. So this? This just feels lackluster by comparison. I thought I’d be getting more romance, and it’s just so tame.

#20 – Sweep of the Blade, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

The best of the series so far, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence I like it better because there’s more cohesive world-building as we dive deeper into vampire culture, and more romance, since this is functionally a spin-off where we have one book to get Maud and Arland together, rather than stretching it out over the course of a series.

I like Maud better than Dina as a protagonist, because she’s got more going on than the constant refrain of “make the inn happy, but also someday maybe find my parents,” which is certainly a reasonable goal but not a very exciting one because nothing ever happens to further it, it’s always just hanging over her head as a mystery. Maud, on the other hand, has a half-vampire daughter to raise and decisions to make about how best to do that, which give her much more immediate goals to pursue.

And also puts Arland in her way as a romantic hero. I’ve always liked him; in fact early on, when it still seemed he was one choice in a love triangle, I actually liked him better than Sean, who fortunately has grown on me since. But Arland shines here in his element as a leader of his people, as a skilled combatant, and as a stellar candidate for a step-dad. His budding relationship with Maud is tense and uncertain at first, and when she tosses barbs at him, he gives as good as he gets.

This wraps up their part in the larger story pretty neatly, and I doubt we’ll see more of them, but I’m glad we got this at all–I see a lot of other reviewers weren’t happy at the series going off on apparent tangent, but I think this was the best bit yet.

#21 – Sweep with Me, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A return to Earth and the inn and Dina coincides with a drop in how much I like it, but we’re back down to the level of the first book, not its follow-ups. This was thin, and I was never able to engage much with either the Space Chicken plot (though I did very much like the illustration of one of them, and I did find them funny as occasional comic relief) or the “main” plot involving the Drifan. Either I missed something, or something that would have made the arc of her plot clearer needed to be included, because I just didn’t ever get what was going on there. Sure, she’s human, she misses Earth, I’m fine with her personality as a character, but why does she have to meet her uncle again and what are the stakes here? The motives behind the action didn’t track for me, and without that, the climax wasn’t particularly satisfying.

This is so short, as well, and romance in the main series plot is so incidental, that I didn’t even feel much at Sean becoming an Innkeeper and living and working with Dina. I should be happier for them, but there just wasn’t much meat to any of this, so I had nothing to sink my teeth into.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #6)

#14 – Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

It causes me almost physical pain to do this, but DNF @ 33%. This is the first Stephenson novel I’ve ever given up on.

Okay, I did bounce off Anathem at first, I had to wait a little bit and start that one over, but that was more because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I started it for something even more esoteric than his usual fare. With Reamde, I’m honestly just bored.

How has a promising beginning about the complex ecosystem surrounding a MMORPG designed from its base level to support gold farmers and money laundering degenerate into a jaw-grindingly bland and bloated action-movie script so quickly? Why are there suddenly Muslim terrorists introduced? Let me be clear, I’m aware of when this was published and I didn’t give it a try until ten years later, but I was already exhausted by the ever-present Muslim terrorist plot by 2011, so it’s not like I would have enjoyed it then, either. I don’t want to read something that relies on that overdone antagonist, and I especially don’t want to read Stephenson’s version of it.

I’m also already tired of Zula as the damsel in distress. When I decided to give up, I leafed randomly through some of the later pages looking for hints about what I was missing, and yeah, everybody is still trying to save Zula very late into the book. I’m not interested. I don’t even dislike her as a character, as much as I’ve seen her–she’s obviously intelligent, and is always trying to think of when/how to escape, how not to get herself killed, how to minimize the harm her captors are doing to others. She’s a good person. But at this point she’s the only major female character, as Yuxia is clearly a minor one and I only just got past the introduction to the MI6 spy who accidentally gets caught up in this hullabaloo, so I don’t know if she’s going to be major or not. (Though the sudden divergence from the plot we already know into her backstory and setup actually revived my flagging interest for a bit, because that’s one of the things I do love about Stephenson, the unpredictability of what he thinks is going to capture our attention. But it wasn’t enough.)

There’s a possibility I’ll go back for this someday, like I did with Anathem, but probably only if my husband (also a lifelong Stephenson fan) reads it and tells me it’s worth my time after all. I’ll move the copy to his shelf, and we’ll see what happens in the future, but for the moment it’s time for me to move on.

#15 – The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Well, that was fun.

Enemies-to-lovers sometimes falls flat with me when the war is either too vicious, or not vicious enough. They’re not really enemies if the barbs thrown couldn’t be hurtful, but too hurtful doesn’t leave a lot of plausibility for forgiveness, let alone love.

I don’t love everything about this story, but I do think it hit the right balance with its level of conflict. By framing the leads’ dislike of each other as a game, one they’re both shown to play vigorously and enjoy immensely, it leaves the door open for their relationship to change.

And since I’m a total sucker for guys who are stoic or even cold on the outside but charmingly vulnerable teddy bears underneath, I liked Josh quite a lot, even when he was saying things that, in other situations, I would find unattractive. Again, because it’s a game, and also because Lucy is being just as awful, Josh’s meanness doesn’t disqualify him as a good romantic hero, to me.

I finally got around to reading this when the giveaway for the movie tie-in edition popped up in my feed–I’d been meaning to get this from the library for ages and never quite getting to it. For all the romances I read, I generally don’t actually watch rom-coms, but if the movie doesn’t mess with the quality of banter in this story, I think it’s definitely got potential and I might even watch it someday.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #5)

#12 – The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, by Sharon Shinn

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A beautiful narrative style that’s soft, lyrical, and comforting; a lackluster story.

I can’t say there’s nothing about this book that I enjoyed, but there was far more that troubled me. As much as I liked the ideas about the magic of the Truth Tellers and Safe Keepers, both roles come with moral challenges that the story only partially addresses. When Fiona realizes that her mother has to keep secrets that are deeply hurtful in some way, like those about abuse or other crimes, she suffers pangs of conscience and an anger that her mother can’t/isn’t doing anything about those harmful situations. I thought that was great, and later on was glad to see that she skirted the edges of her own Safe Keeper position in order to help someone in need without betraying the secret directly; but even if Fiona “saved” the girl in trouble, there was no justice for her, as the trouble she was in went unpunished, and the girl’s mother seemed very blithely uncaring that her husband might go on to molest other young girls, the implication being that they don’t matter because they’re not family. And I’m not okay with that.

Another issue is the incredibly ableist attitudes of most of the characters, which I found surprising and disturbing. At this point I’ve read most of Shinn’s catalog of works, with only some of the most recently published that haven’t crossed my path yet. And I genuinely don’t remember any of them being this ableist. One of the minor characters is described as weak and frail due to an accident when she was younger. Her fiance marries her anyway, despite her telling him she doesn’t believe she could ever bear children, because of her health–he insists he marries her for love and will live with the disappointment of not having children. When truths and secrets come out later in the story, it becomes clear that a) she probably could have safely had kids, and b) having a kid was the husband’s deepest wish. So everybody in that marriage was suffering, and fair enough, but the blame is laid entirely on the disabled wife for her selfishness and frailness. Everyone who knows them sees the husband as the nobly suffering victim of his situation, while ignoring the actual physical pain of the wife, and whatever presumable emotional trauma she dealt with from being branded as the disappointing wife who the husband so nobly endures. Fiona, our main character, immediately hates the wife because of this situation and says some pretty awful things about her. I thought at first that it would be a character flaw of hers that got resolved somehow later, but no, everybody else goes along with it, and the ending makes it very clear that the wife was in the wrong.

Which, in a larger sense, is also pretty misogynistic, because the story definitely looks down on a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother. Yes, apparently she lied about her ability to be one and that’s not great, but since the couple’s childlessness is the source of the husband’s suffering and that’s treated more seriously by the narrative that the wife’s actual pain…yuck. Just yuck, all around.

There are other problems with the ending, too. I figured out some of the secrets revealed, but not all of them–I’m not convinced that one in particular wasn’t a total ass-pull that would have been impossible to determine ahead of time. But despite all these dreams being granted and all this secret knowledge shared, somehow the ending still feels incomplete, and the preview chapter for the next book seems to be dealing with entirely new characters, so I’m not sure any further resolution would be forthcoming if I kept reading. I don’t think I will.

#13 – Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s rare for me to wish a novella were longer, but here we are. I loved a lot about this, and a lot of what it clearly wanted to do and say, but I think the basis of most of the problems I felt it has is that it’s too short.

While I understand the gist of how this universe categorizes its magical alternate worlds, and several characters are actively working on refining this system, I wish there had been more depth, more explanation. There were many example worlds mentioned and roughly categorized, but those efforts were complicated by some students not fully sharing (or understanding) their experiences with their “home” worlds, which meant others could only speculate about them. I understand why the story is better suited to an emerging organizational structure rather than a rigidly defined one, but I still think within that framework there was room for improvement.

To some extent this same complaint applies to the characters. There are many of them, and some are noticeably less developed than others, even accounting for their relative importance to the story. Jack as the snarky and dapper mad-scientist wannabe is fantastic and just about my favorite thing in this whole story; Nancy is also interesting and gets a lot of depth from being the most commonly used POV character. Kade, I would have liked to know more about, though he gets a decent amount of attention. But Christopher, for example, feels like a plot convenience: a Latino kid who went to a Day-of-the-Dead-esque skeleton world, who is only relevant because at one point the mystery plot needs someone to talk to bones, and he can do that. He wasn’t introduced until right before he was needed, and he didn’t really do much afterward. The general student body beyond our small main cast of characters is filled random names attached to speculations about their home worlds, and they show up occasionally to be mean to Nancy or Jack or Kade. And the various people killed off by the mystery plot are barely people enough to feel like credible victims. I know we can’t (and shouldn’t) have full histories of every single student and staff member, but again, this aspect of the story would benefit from a little more page time devoted to it.

As for the mystery plot itself, the student body is so fixated on two obvious red herrings that it narrows down the field of actual possibilities to basically nothing, so it’s easy to figure out the whodunit by process of elimination. Once again, making the story longer might have enabled adding at least one or two more possible suspects, or at least fleshing out a few existing characters to the point where they might be suspects, in order to obscure the real killer’s identity enough to make it a revelation rather than a foregone conclusion.

I realize I’m being hard on something that I’m rating four stars, but it’s good enough, and I liked it enough, that I suppose I’m a little angry it’s not actually better than it is.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #4)

#10 – Through Wolf’s Eyes, by Jane Lindskold

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This started off reasonably well but became tedious long before the end. I kept going in case the ending redeemed it and made me want to continue the series, but alas, it did not.

The characterization is good and most of the characters I liked, or at least liked to hate in a few cases. And I thought the gradual expansion of the cast of POV characters was a wise decision, to reflect Firekeeper’s growing circle of acquaintances; I thought so right up until the introduction of Prince Newell as a POV antagonist, because his scenes are dull, plodding, and expository, completely destroying any mystery about the political intrigue by walking the reader through exactly what he had planning. The second half of the book became a repetitive slog of “watch Newell’s latest scheme fail, then listen to him plot something else.”

The main question the plot was seeking to answer was the identity of the king’s heir, and the ending does resolve that. But long before the final pages we know at least one person it’s not going to be, and ultimately that knowledge robs the ending of any of its satisfaction. Once the heir was revealed, did I care? Not really.

Also, the political maneuvering on a personal level I often found intriguing–especially everything surrounding Elise–but on the macro level, I literally don’t understand why there was a war at the end of the novel. I reread the scene where the King decides to declare war twice, and I simply don’t follow the logic. Plus, calling one day-long battle a “war” felt more than a little silly, especially when the on-page battle is breezed through so fast that several named-but-not-major characters die on a single page, in neat little paragraphs summing up their final moments. There’s no drama. It read like someone checking items off a to-do list.

The world-building leaves a great many questions unanswered that will presumably be addressed in future works, but it did leave one hole that I also felt weakened the plot: sorcery. So much of Elise’s subplot is tied up in the debate over whether sorcery is real or not, and whether the curse she and several other people believe themselves to be under is magic or merely suggestion. I actually liked that wrinkle; but treating magic so lightly in the narrative, leaving it open to question, undermines the reason for the “war” at the end of the story (which I already thought was weak to begin with.) The reasoning behind the battle, as much as I understand it, has to do with sorcery being very real and very dangerous, which I felt was inconsistent with the tone of Elise’s plot.

I think this had some interesting ideas and fun characters, but the plot needed fine-tuning, the overall style needed some editing for clarity and length, and the ending needed to feel more impactful.

#11 – The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I almost set this aside after the first few pages, intending to delete it from my TBR like I never intended to read it: I’m thattired of protagonists with amnesia.

I can’t say exactly what made me keep going. Something about it was compelling even under the weight of my personal bias, and when the flow of the narrative abruptly changed, I became hooked.

I don’t usually say “hooked” about something I rate at two stars. The compliment that I can give this novella without reservation is that it’s exceptionally well-paced.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know what the point was. At different times during the story I could feel the hand of the author pressing my nose to the page (metaphorically, it was my phone) and asking, “See? See what I’m getting at here?” But the answer was always no. I didn’t get it. Even with a day to reflect before writing this review, I still don’t get it. A few stray bits of story, coupled with a few things Molly said, seemed anti-natalist, but without knowing more about the author I doubt that’s the intention. Other things suggested a different flavor of existential despair, and at one point–sadly I don’t remember what made me think this, exactly–I wondered if the symbolism was anti-abortion. Which doesn’t square with the possible anti-natalism at all, and that’s why I question if I’m reading in between the lines correctly. I doubt I am. I found the thematic underpinnings of this little SF/horror tale to be murky at best.

I didn’t realize until I came to write the review that there were sequels, but in this case I don’t think knowing that would have changed my expectations of the story. It has an ending, one that is narratively satisfactory (if not thematically, because I still don’t know what the point was.) It’s possible to use that ending as a cliffhanger, but not necessary to; I felt it was complete and don’t have any complaints about it specifically.

On a personal note, this is yet another strike in the long line of “I got this ebook free from Tor’s newsletter and I didn’t like it much.” I actually noticed that pattern a while ago and stopped downloading them last year, though I’ve still got a backlog to get through. What is it about modern SF/F that I’m not grokking? Because it seems like everyone else likes them…

This Week, I Read… (2022 #3)

#8 – Act Your Age, Eve Brown, by Talia Hibbert

  • Reading the World Mini Challenge: 2/12
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

So close to being as perfect a rom-com as its predecessor, but it fell a little short for me in some ways.

Eve was an amazing character. I loved the tension between her being unapologetically herself in demeanor and appearance, and her internal struggles about her behavior, her place in society, her status as the family disappointment.

Jacob has also, in some ways, has said “fuck it, I do I want” to society; he runs his B&B with hard-won professionalism but in his personal life, he does what makes him feel good, right down to building himself nests out of pillows and blankets for comfort–not something I expect to see my romance heroes do, or admit to, but he knows himself and isn’t ashamed of how he is.

Obviously they’re going to hate each other at first but end up perfect for each other. That’s what Hibbert does with her romances (at least this series.)

What I felt was lacking was more about Jacob in general, and specifically I would have liked to see his Aunt Lucy have a larger role, as she’s functionally his mother, and his only real family. Since we have the previous two books’ worth of knowledge about Eve’s family to build on, Jacob’s inner circle feels woefully thin by comparison; we get what feels like the right amount of time with his best friend Montrose and a little bit with his more distant friends, Montrose’s twin sisters. (The scene where they show up and chivy Eve off for a night of instant best-friendship was charming and honestly a little envy-provoking. I could use people in my life like that, right now.) But Aunt Lucy is mentioned a few times but only gets two incredibly brief scenes where she’s actually present, and I wanted more.

Another thing that disappointed me slightly was the climactic fight, because no matter how realistic an expression of the couple’s issues it was, it still relied heavily on miscommunication to make the conflict work, and I’ve never been a huge fan of that. If it had been about the different ways they communicate because they’re both on the autism spectrum, I would have been more forgiving about it; but it really just boils down to Jacob being overly defensive and obstinately refusing to listen to Eve, which I’ve seen plenty of in romances with neurotypical characters and doesn’t impress me.

The final issue I had was that the romance felt rushed, but that speed actually wasn’t tied to Eve’s impending departure from her job, it was just that they were really horny for each other and jumped in with both feet. That, I get, but they both started thinking the L word really quickly, and given their incredibly rocky beginning (how were there not more consequences for Eve injuring Jacob?) this pace required a fairly massive suspension of disbelief.

#9 – The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 12%. I see, skimming other reviews, I stopped short of meeting all three children of the dead emperor, but I doubt I’m missing much.

I found this to have a fairly smooth and readable style, but not to be anything I felt was worth reading about.

I’m simply not interested in a story that has devoted so much world-building time to pain. Kaden is physically abused, supposedly in the name of teaching him their ways, by the order of monks who raised and sheltered him. The order of elite fighters that Valyn belongs to is apparently so violent in its training that many cadets don’t make it to their Trial, plus the cadets like to beat each other up on top of that. As I didn’t get to the female protagonist, the Emperor’s daughter, I’ve been spared whatever horrible and painful upbringing and daily life she’s got, but I’m sure it’s awful, based on her brother’s lives.

I get that having the protagonists suffer is an important way to demonstrate conflict, but on a plot level “suffering” should mean the much broader sense of them struggling or failing to achieve their goals, or losing something important to them. It doesn’t mean that the characters have to be introduced as victims of abuse, especially when the author doesn’t seem to view them that way (even in my limited reading so far.) They’re clearly supposed to be badasses tempered by their harsh environment, or whatever, but all I see is misery, and I don’t want to keep reading about it.

Also, though I have far fewer examples and won’t go into depth because other reviewers have done it better, there’s some rampant misogyny and fatphobia already on display, even this early. Bored with it, moving on.

This Week, I Read… (2022 #2)

#4 – Emerald Blaze, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I love it, I love it to pieces.

I already liked Alessandro just fine because I could tell some sort of wonderfully juicy vulnerability was hiding under that smooth exterior, and now it’s on full display (at least to Catalina and the readers.)

I already liked Catalina just fine because she was struggling to come into her own under an overwhelming wave of outside pressures, and now she’s much more confident and cannier about how she presents herself to others, manipulating them by showing them different faces. (ie, she’s more like Alessandro from the previous book, even if she keeps insisting she’s starting to become her grandmother.)

So the romance is a grand roller coaster of fun and the right amount of angst.

But what really stepped up in this novel compared to the earlier installments in the series was the main plot. Stakes were definitely raised, to the point where I’m actually worried that Ruby Fever won’t be able to raise them further–our plucky heroes having to deal with something that is a literal existential threat to humanity feels really big and possibly un-toppable.

Add to that the continuing presence and expansion of the family surrounding Catalina–bringing Runa in from former-client status to almost-family is a good call, for basically the same reasons I was happy to see Cornelius stick around. Leon and Bern are still awesome. Grandma Frida is still a total badass. Arabella is starting to grow up a little more and got an excellent chance to be clever in a plot-relevant way. I love all them all!

Waiting for the next book is going to be hard.

#5 – Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia

  • Forgotten YA Gems BOTM
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I like a few of the things this story was trying to say, and a few small things it managed to accomplish, but I don’t care for the great bulk of it.

First, the entire premise. I get that YA can depict teens in unrealistically aspirational situations, but as an adult reader I had trouble swallowing the idea that a teenage artist still in school was capable of producing such a beloved and beyond-wildly popular webcomic. It just felt fake to me the entire time, and since it’s the entire core of the story, that’s a problem.

Second, what is Eliza’s deal? I mean that in good faith, because over the course of the story she shows various markers for a variety of mental illnesses or inherent neurodivergence, but the only aspect of her mental health that is actually addressed at any point is her post-revelation anxiety. Her obsession/hyperfixation on her art and the community it created could be read as a sign of autism, or ADHD, or depression-related escapism. Her absolute lack of interest in relating to other people on a face-to-face level could be any of those things or straight up social anxiety. At some points she clearly dissociates from her body, and that’s never explored. And her final dip into briefly-possibly-suicidal territory happens in a flash for plot reasons and is never important again.

Nothing about her mental landscape is ever definitive, and by the end, treating her anxiety and calling that a day seemed shallow and slapdash. The inability (or unwillingness) of her family to recognize that she’s not “normal” and take steps to either heal that (if it’s treatable illness) or accommodate that (if it’s neurodivergence) is a source of conflict that was genuinely painful to read, and not resolved to my satisfaction.

Third, Eliza’s constant insistence that she’s not a “writer,” she’s an artist. Okay, I get that you’re not producing vast quantities of prose like Wallace’s fan fiction or his novelization of your comic, but even if you’re primarily using art, you’re still “writing” a “story,” Eliza. If you were just an artist, there would be no narrative, you’d just do endless portraits and landscapes of your fictional characters and world, and there would be no movement to it. Every time it came up, it felt so disingenuous.

Fourth, the romance, which was the thing I disliked the least. Even if I don’t think it’s great overall, it has the lion’s share of individual good moments of the story. I liked that Wallace and Eliza became friends and eventually a couple by slowly accepting each other’s weirdness. That’s wonderful and I’m here for it whenever that’s the basis for a relationship. I also love, truly and actually love, that when the split happens over Eliza’s withheld identity, Wallace is allowed to be angry and stay that way for a good long while. So many romances rely on near-instantaneous forgiveness from the wronged party, and it often comes off as unbelievable that those characters get over their anger or betrayal so fast and with so little consequence. But here, Wallace is given the space to be rightfully (or perhaps even righteously) angry, he’s allowed to express his hurt, and while our protagonist is clearly unhappy about that, she’s not trying to pretend it’s unjustified.

I’m less in love with how he does actually forgive her, because it’s related to the book’s ultimately shallow treatment of suicide. I think that really cheapens the ending of their arc, and also is another nail in the coffin of how this story poorly represents mental illness.

Finally, in the “things I didn’t like” category, I don’t feel that the story snippets included from the comic, or the comic pages themselves, added anything of noticeable value to the novel. I get what they’re trying to do, but since I don’t actually read this fictional web comic and I only have the vaguest idea of who these ancillary characters are from what the story characters say about them, I could never bring myself to care, nor could I easily see what were probably supposed to be parallels with the story characters. The book wanted me to be as deeply invested in this web comic as Eliza or her fans, but I can’t be, because it doesn’t actually exist for me to be invested in. I wanted to be invested in the story I was actually getting, and every time it dragged my attention away from that to the comic or the prose transcription of the comic, I didn’t want that, I wanted more story.

#6 – Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What a disappointment.

The plot was mildly engaging, eventually. It took me about half the book to start to care, though, because of the presentation. I don’t think the interview format is a good choice for a number of reasons:

1. It takes a long time to differentiate characters because so many of them are presented so quickly, and in small chunks of transcript that don’t give any individual much chance to develop a clear voice.
2. It doesn’t lend itself to the page well, compared with visual media. Even if I intellectually understand that these are snippets interlaced from presumably separate interviews with the subjects, presenting them all at once gives the sense that they’re all in a room together talking to the interviewer, and I had to remind myself frequently that that was probably never the case. In a film or television documentary, you would see each character separately in frame as they were speaking to reinforce this (or not, if anyone was actually interviewed together.) The cuts between segments would be clear, where on the page everything runs together for the length of the section.
3. The style is flat and unrelieved; it never changes tempo or tension, because it’s always a single person speaking about themselves or someone else, and there’s no body language included to give indicators on how they’re speaking. Only vocal sounds like [laughs], [chuckles], etc., are included, which further flatten the narrative.

My other complaint is that the revelation near the end of the interviewer’s/author’s identity felt unnecessary. Once I knew what was going on, I realized that’s why I’d been seeing a certain [name] in brackets for clarity to the reader, because the interview subjects had been referring to them another way that would have spoiled the mystery. Except there was no mystery? Because I never thought it was going to be important in the slightest who the interviewer was, as there was very little in the text beyond those infrequent clarifications to even hint that the interviewer’s identity needed to be concealed somehow. It’s all setup for a somewhat maudlin ending that ties up the plot neatly but was so clearly attempting to be a tearjerker that I didn’t cry, because the presentation of the story had prevented me from being fully invested in these characters. I was too detached, because everything was so lifeless.

#7 – First Comes Like, by Alisha Rai

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Starts with a solid setup, rushes through a few common and somewhat artificial tropes to get to a happy ending that maybe could have been better earned. What rescued this from a lower rating (I did debate between three and four stars) was how much I loved the characters.

Jia is a hot mess in many ways, and she’s painfully aware of it because she believes she’s the current black sheep of the family. While they may often see her impulsiveness as a negative quality, the story frames it positively (and to some extent uses it to justify the rushed wedding.)

Dev can go on my book boyfriend list with a big gold star next to his name, because at every point in the plot he takes Jia seriously–her grievances against his family because of the situation that brings them together, her job, her needs and desires–and it’s clear that no one else in Jia’s life has ever done that to the same extent. Which obviously makes them perfect for each other, and I’m thrilled about that!

The plot… ugh. It does jump through a series of really common tropes (there’s only one bed, fake dating, fake or real engagement, let’s get married tomorrow) and tropes in and of themselves aren’t evil, having so many crammed together in such a small space (the second half of the book) felt like an escalating comedy of errors, only not in a good way. I see why this is the way it has to go, to some extent, in order to get these two to a happy ending: neither of them, for their various personal reasons, is going to hop in the sack before marriage, and I respect that. But it does mean in order to get the sex scene before the end, everything else needs to rush to get them there.

I did still enjoy it, obviously, and any problems aside, four stars feels like the right rating because I liked it better than The Right Swipe (which I gave three,) but not as much as Girl Gone Viral (which I gave five but it could have been six or ten or twenty, if that were the scale.)

This Week, I Read… (2022 #1)

#1 – Sapphire Flames, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I’m hooked. I like Catalina better than Nevada, and Alessandro better than Rogan. This is the superior couple, and they’re not even a couple yet, because of Reasons.

Yeah, sometimes it felt a little juvenile in comparison, but Catalina is still having her coming-of-age arc that started in Diamond Fire. A large part of this plot is her growing up, in the sense of accepting her responsibilities. The central conflict of her possible romance with Alessandro is, in fact, those responsibilities. If sometimes her internal narrative sounds a little like adult authors trying too hard to sound like a teenager, I can forgive that in this case.

Alessandro is a witty and flirtatious playboy one second and a stone cold badass the next. There’s another conflict for you–who is he, really? What’s his deal? We know why Catalina doesn’t think a relationship between them would work, despite wanting one anyway. But Alessandro appears to feel the same way, even while we only get the barest hint of his reasons for that assessment. It’s vaguely tragic and maybe a little hammy, but then, so is he, with his “Instagram” persona. I still adore him.

I like the new direction the main plot is taking re: Catalina’s involvement in the larger magical society, I thought that was interesting. The revelation of a certain someone’s secret authority explains a lot, though still leaves me with some questions about the conspiracy that we apparently put to bed after the first three books–I’m not convinced there’s not more going on, still, given the suspicions I had then, and “Caesar’s” identity still hasn’t been settled. I haven’t forgotten about that loose end!

Happy to see the next book is out, sad to see book 6 isn’t expected until much later this year, because I’m sure I’m going to want it the second I’m finished with book 5.

#2 – Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

  • #rereadathon 2022 (tumblr)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Re-read, Re-review:

Almost exactly three years later, I still enjoyed this and don’t feel the need to change my rating. This time around, I picked up even more on the strange pacing and thinness of some of the world-building; the apparent climax of the main plot comes early and somewhat unexpectedly, in a blink-and-you’ll miss it moment of action. Then what should be a simple denouement takes a long, long time to wrap up the book. It feels as though the political intrigue is the barest excuse to have a book where people hide out in the wilderness and face injury and death, and also fall in love. Which, I want to stress, is not necessarily a bad thing, because Katsa is still an interesting character and Po is still a darling. If anything, I liked Bitterblue even better upon rereading, so the final two Parts of the book were no hardship. But that first one still feels weak in comparison, and the Council a weak conceit that doesn’t really stand up to what the story asks it to be.

Original review here.

#3 – In the Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib

  • Reading the World Mini Challenge: 1/12
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

The book attempts to be many things, and it accomplishes some much better than others.

As a narrative about a family with a coherent plot and a satisfying climax, I’m disappointed with it. I felt that it withheld the mystery of The Terrible Event that sparked the story for too long. Yes, I had put together clues and made assumptions, but when the central idea of the narrative is that this family is broken and suffering, ostracized by their community for the crime their eldest child committed, what sense does it make for everyone but the reader to know the details of that crime? And this is exacerbated by only addressing the hole that Hosaam’s crime and death have left in the family, but not much at all about his life. And with the time frame of the story being so focused on the week leading up to the anniversary memorial service, I expected something grand or wild or transformative to happen when we finally got there, and instead, it was a confusing jumble of oddly paced action and internal revelation, with no clear catharsis for (or utter rejection of) the family by the community. It felt like a non-ending.

The epilogue clears a little bit of that up, and provides a reasonable future for Khaled, the middle child, but it’s more important to the religious themes than the plot itself.

As an exploration of the immigrant experience in America, I think it’s more successful. We get the tension between three different generations of the family about how Egyptian or American to be, and the lack of understanding about how the two cultures will interact with each other, and the difference in family structure and expected levels of obedience and respect. (The family’s Muslim identity also contributes to this, and I don’t know enough about either Egyptian or Muslim traditions and practices to identify which bits come from which source. But my thoughts on religion are coming a bit later, I just want to acknowledge I’m probably conflating the two in some respects.) It’s not hard to see the children as the most Americanized, the most ready to react to the Islamophobia present in this time period–I thought it was a nice touch that Khaled was worried about his younger sister becoming outwardly more conservative by possibly starting to cover her hair, as attacks on young women with head scarves were on the rise at the time. But it was more interesting to see the parents, the direct immigrants, struggling with how they were perceived, and how they perceived each other, on a scale of Egyptian to American, because it fluctuated, and both at times were convinced the other was the one less adapted to their new home. And Grandma Ehsan was there to be the bastion of tradition and religion, while not at all being a stereotype but a complex character in her own right.

But strangely (for me, who’s about as un-religious as they come) I found the exploration of Islam and fate to be the most interesting part of the book. Each surviving member of the family who was given a POV was shouldering some guilt and feelings of blame for what Hosaam did, and each had a different relationship with their faith. The father was not particularly observant of his religious obligations, but capitalized on the power structure both to maintain his authority and to rationalize his guilt. The mother was deeply conflicted about the role of prayer and surrender to God in accepting what had happened, and wondering if she could have changed the outcome, all while her mother hovered nearby admonishing her for playing “what if.” And their remaining son was having typical teenage troubles buried under the extra weight of being labeled as a murder’s younger brother–he struggled to believe in miracles, the core theme and question of the book, and had a complicated relationship with both Islam and the Arabic language, which he never spoke to the standard that he felt others expected of him. His narrative thread is what connects the whole story, as the prologue his a story from his childhood and the epilogue a glimpse of his adulthood, and he is the one who spends the most time examining his life in the context of the tragedy that happened a year before.

I found in Khaled’s conflict about his own beliefs an echo of what I’ve experienced, as someone raised Christian who is no longer a part of the church, and who belongs to a family that still remains devout. I also suffered small pangs of envy, as I often do when seeing another religion in media, at the rituals of solace and comfort they provide that seem better to me than the ones I grew up with. (This happens to me a lot in anime, actually, because I know enough about Shinto to think that if that were my childhood religion, I might still be a believer.) I’m aware that this tendency of mine is tied up in a Western/white exotification of unfamiliar things; I can’t fully separate that part of myself, as it’s impossible not to think the grass is greener elsewhere when I’m so dissatisfied with my own ex-faith. But there are parts of Islam (as well as many other religions) that I find beautiful and welcoming, and this story brought out a lot of that and kept me engaged even when the plot was flat or frustrating.

Actually, now that I think about it, since the story doesn’t set out to prove or disprove the existence of God or miracles or the usefulness of prayer in averting an individual’s fate, I suppose the non-ending I’m so dissatisfied by is in keeping with the theme of the story. But that doesn’t make me like the ending better now that I’ve thought it through.

This Week, I Read… (2021 #43)

#129 – Haven, by Rebekah Weatherspoon

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

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

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

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

#130 – Heartland, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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