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.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #52)

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#164 – The Dark Half, by Stephen King

  • Read: 12/12/19 – 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (107/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Naughty or nice? Read a book with a good or evil main character
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There was a much shorter, tighter story that could have been great hiding inside this wordy and repetitive mess.

I’m on board with the idea that a psychological horror-thriller staged between two men who are halves of the same whole is going to have to have a lot of internal monologue. I wouldn’t have minded if only I hadn’t had to read it all twice or even three times over. Throughout the book, we get a scene from Thad’s perspective, but then we have to replay part or all of the same scene from his wife’s, or that of the police officer he just spoke to, or George’s. Or someone would be murdered and we would see it happen, then an agent of the law would describe it to Thad. The book is over 400 pages long but to me it felt that at least half of it was simply treading over the same ground covered five or ten pages before. The excessive use of “darlings” exacerbated this–how many times did I see “foxy George Stark?” It wasn’t even limited to the key phrases that were arc words, important to the story, so they were more forgivable. But the text is littered with similar phrases that stick out every single time.

It made what, in essence, could have been a brilliant story about personal darkness and grappling with what is usually the unknowable source of creativity into a slog of tired, unnecessarily repeated perspectives. The pace did pick up eventually–I managed to read the last 150 pages in one sitting–but I will admit to skimming some when a tidbit of a scene was just covering the minutiae of how someone was stealing a car or ditching the cops. I wanted the big confrontation at the end, and after committing myself to finishing this slog I did not want to get bogged down in the petty details of travel when it was clear where everyone was headed.

The plot was good. The presentation was lacking.

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#165 – A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, by Masaji Ishikawa

  • Read: 12/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (108/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A Secret Santa recommendation
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is a difficult book for me to rate. I did not enjoy it, at all, but it’s clearly not meant to be enjoyed.

The subject matter was grim and depressing, the tone that of unmitigated anger from beginning to end, but clearly, that’s the point.

I did not really learn anything about dictatorships, totalitarianism, or even specifically North Korea that I did not already know from less personal sources, so it was not educational for me, but I can see its value to others who are unaware of the dire state of things in that country.

I’m really only left with a feeling of helplessness, even powerlessness. We know this is a humanitarian crisis, we know these people need aid, but there’s nothing I can do about it on a personal level, no calling my congressman, because even the problematic policies of American interventionist behavior won’t solve this in the current scheme of world politics. I’ve been raised in a nation that has often interfered with foreign governments, which basically never works out well for anyone, ourselves included in the long-term; but even knowing all that, my heart is still screaming, “Why can’t we do something about this? A dictator is starving his people and we’re all letting him get away with it!”

And then I remember the consequences of trying to intervene: possible nuclear war.

Any complaints I have about the simple style or the glossing over of major events in the author’s life or the flat tone pale in comparison to the simple fact that I can see this tale’s value, but I did not come away from reading it with anything less than a bleak outlook for the future and no real hope of doing anything to stop this.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #51)

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#162 – The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Read: 12/3/19 – 12/8/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (106/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book that was gifted to me
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A four-star first half with a one-star ending stuck on the back end.

I went into this blind in terms of actual content, as this was a gift I received. I doubt I would have bought it on my own, despite loving both science and the history of science–I would not have trusted Gilbert to write that novel well, knowing what I do about her other works.

But it was a gift, and I finally read it. At first I was surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Henry was a fascinating character to set up Alma’s story, and she was still reasonably interesting, though I do see why some reviewers find her lacking in comparison. One of the strengths of this work is that the side characters are all given full, even lush, personalities and backstories–no one is glossed over as unimportant, and that does lead to the risk that side characters could catch a reader’s attention more than the heroine. I found her engaging enough that I was fine following her around the length of her life, but I do see the potential for other, better stories in many of the minor players.

However, that level of devotion to all characters does lead to a certain narrative ponderousness, a slow pace that drags further when one has to stop the main story to find out everything and anything we’ll ever need to know about this new character being introduced. I didn’t mind so much in the beginning, but by the time Alma goes to Tahiti and I had to sit through the entire life story of both the Reverend and “The Boy,” I was worn out on being introduced so thoroughly to each and every soul in the book.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is that it’s an incredibly long walk to get to a very short pier. I see how the pieces fit together. I see how every person in the story was necessary to Alma’s decades-long journey through the fields of science, and more literally, from her home all the way to Tahiti and then abruptly to Amsterdam. It’s a long chain of connect-the-dots across years and continents, and the scope is incredible. I know the how, but in the end, I’m unsatisfied by the why. I was quite bitterly disappointed to realize that this is, at its deepest core, literary fanfiction for The Origin of Species, and not a particularly good one, at that. All that work to put an OC into actual history and not have it go anywhere, not fulfill any purpose! If I’m going to read that style of reimagining, I’ll just pull Neal Stephenson off my shelves, he makes it far more entertaining.

The ending was just so bland, so unfulfilling, so purposeless. Why did I follow Alma for nine decades and five hundred pages only to discover she was happy with her life despite not really accomplishing much of anything?

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#163 – Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 12/8/19 – 12/12/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A slight dip in quality compared to the first three in the series, but still really engaging–in the second half, anyway.

Part of my problem was the slow start. It took me three days to read the first half and one to read the rest. There’s so much setup to the politicking on the newly settled/contested planet that it’s a slog at the beginning, despite what is supposed to be a big “boom” of an opening–literally.

Part of my problem was one of the new characters. I loved Havelock’s story–surprised to see he’s back, of course, but he was the perfect counterpoint to the villain, whose primary flaw was inflexibility, while Havelock weighed the relative benefits of company loyalty against morality and made the “right” choice. Basia’s story was okay, he’s got grief issues about his lost son and he’s emblematic of the sort of pioneer spirit of the settlers. But Elvi was by far the weakest female character this story has ever produced. It’s not that I don’t see how the choices she made about her love life made sense, from an introverted scientist’s perspective. She’s actually a reasonably complex character, so I can’t level the “two-dimensional” criticism at her. It’s just that her entire function is to be the science girl and tell Holden things. Yeah, she figures out how to stop the plague, she’s not entirely useless. But the story focuses so much on her crush on Holden, which is “solved” by banging someone else entirely so she stops throwing her sexual energy in a useless direction and can get back to doing science. Putting her in the climactic sequence with Miller and Holden at the end felt wrong, like she was sorely out of place, and it didn’t really finish her character arc in a satisfying way. I’m not even sure what her arc was supposed to be; she’s not completely without agency or heroism, but her purpose is murky, narratively speaking, unless she’s just the lens we view Holden’s actions through. And since Holden still has his own POV chapters, I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.

So that’s the bulk of why this was a four-star read instead of a five for me. I still enjoyed it a lot; I still think the series is moving in an interesting direction, giving us a bit more information on both the protomolecule civilization and whatever it was that destroyed them, while moving along humanity in what is obviously a reasonable direction: of course settlers are going to go squat on newly available worlds! Humans explore things! We colonize them! We get ourselves into trouble! Which is basically the thrust of this entire story.

What I really liked, though, was Avasarala’s epilogue, spelling out to Bobbie what the consequences of this new human migration would be. Things are going to get even more interesting from here, and I look forward to having both of those beloved ladies back in the future.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #50)

158 - Wrong to Need You

#158 – Wrong to Need You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/27/19 – 11/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (47/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I connected with Sadia and Jackson so much more in this than I did with their romantic predecessors in the first book, and that was enough to bump this up to five stars easily. The things I did not like about this one were small and not really more than quibbles compared to how much I loved it.

First, though, I rarely listen to audiobooks out of personal preference, but that’s how I could get my hands on this through my library, so I did. I did not particularly enjoy the way Sadia’s POV narrator did male voices, so that meant a good deal of Jackson’s dialogue sounded forced and flat. But that’s not the fault of the story itself, so I learned to live with it. Oddly, I found Jackson’s narrator handled female voices a lot better overall, when I usually hate men imitating women. Chalk it up to professional ability, I guess.

If I liked how Rai handled Livvy’s depression in the first book, I love how she handled Sadia’s anxiety here. Anxiety didn’t prevent Sadia from being good at her job, or a good mother, or a good sister–except when it did. For a person who’s never suffered panic attacks, that contradiction might be hard to parse, but not only did Rai write about the panic Sadia suffered as a result of overwhelming circumstances, she also included the worry and stress a panic attack causes when it happens–the sense of failure to live up to expectations and meet obligations, the shame of someone else seeing you in such a state, the worry that others will view you differently once they know. I cried through some scenes, to be perfectly honest. They were that real to me.

As for the romance? The tone is wildly different from the first book, being just about the slowest of slow burns, whereas sex in the first book happened early and often. But I like slow burns just fine, and Jackson was worth waiting for, so to speak. When the heat was on, things got really hot, and in some unexpected ways I definitely appreciated. The emotional side was just as well developed. Jackson might have been distant and closed off at the start, but he was never cold or “robotic” (as he actually describes Nicholas to be) or as much of an asshole, either. He’s not good with words but his actions are generally pretty clear–he lives to support, and eventually love, Sadia.

With that motivation wound into the mystery of why what happened to him re: the arson charges and his complicated family history, I wasn’t nearly as annoyed by the drama-rama this time around, because I was getting resolution to the extensive setup laid out in the first book. Here, it didn’t detract from the story, it enhanced it. Yes, I realize that wouldn’t have been possible without laying the groundwork earlier, but it doesn’t really change my opinion about the first book, because there was just so much of it and it was so tedious keeping it all straight!

And finally, I haven’t read a lot of brother/brother’s widow romances, though I’m aware it and similar situations like it are a subgenre. I’m not weirded out by it personally, though I’m glad it’s acknowledged in a balanced way here. Jackson doesn’t really think it’s wrong for that reason, it’s more about his own relationship with his dead brother than Sadia’s status as a widow. Sadia is weirded out by it, because she’s handling it along the weirdness of the entire situation they’ve gotten themselves into, and I think that’s a perfectly understandable reaction for someone in her position. And Sadia’s sisters, in the big climax of personal acceptance that happens near the end, are all basically “So what?” which is the enlightened, consenting-adults attitude to take. Everyone else generally seems accepting as well, which is a better stance, I think, for the book to take than harping on the “forbidden” aspect and fetishizing it. Which this never did. Especially as Sadia’s son develops a strong relationship with his “uncle” long before it’s clear that Jackson might end up being his step-dad, too. Because making the kid’s relationship with Jackson creepy or complicated would have ruined this in a hurry, but they’re sweet and wholesome and so incredibly adorable.

What can I say, I have a thing for introverted men who don’t do crowds or attention and aren’t alpha-male jerks. I see a fair bit of myself in some parts of Sadia, and given the chance I probably would have fallen for Jackson if he were real and in my life. So what do I have to complain about here? Basically nothing.

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#159 – Hurts to Love You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/20/19 – 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (48/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Such a disappointment after the first two books.

Eve is fine as a main character. Yes, she has some mild social anxiety issues stemming from her self-esteem issues stemming from her abuse. She’s a complex and well-developed character, even if I did find the level of self-affirmation she used to motivate herself irritating. It’s not that the first two books were entirely free of repetitious elements, but this installment was worse, either because there was more of it, or because I noticed it more. How many times can she make her turtle analogies or use the word “like” and “like” about her love interest? It came across as childish, and I know she’s young, but since one of her central struggles is to have her family, and her love interest, not regard her as a child, I think that could have been handled better.

But the real problem is Gabe. I wanted to like him. He’s very likable on the surface. But that’s it, that’s his mask. And he talks frequently about that being his mask. Underneath he’s all pain and brooding about his secret heritage and the complexities of his life because he can’t claim his half-siblings. (Oh, by the way, totally called his secret waaaay before it was revealed. I don’t know what specifically made it obvious to me but it was the only thing that made any sense.)

Eve spends a lot of her time hammering away at that mask, and that’s great, and their chemistry just based on that was fine. But main story ends with us just barely getting to peek at who Gabe could be without it, and without the pain of familial separation, and then BOOM EPILOGUE he’s spilled his secret and everyone knows who he is and it’s all fine.

Um, what? Who did he tell first? Did he get everyone together like an intervention and tell everyone at once? How did they react? Who was surprised and who wasn’t? WHY DID THE MOST INTERESTING PART OF THAT CHARACTER ARC HAPPEN IN A GAP YEAR BETWEEN THE END AND THE EPILOGUE SO I DON’T EVEN GET TO READ ABOUT IT?!?

Also, it’s great to have a large man as a main character who doesn’t come across as intimidating and doesn’t get angry all the time, but Gabe is so soft and forgiving he doesn’t even get mad about things he should very well have a right to get mad about, like Eve lying to him about being Ann the app-service driver. Like, that’s such a huge part of the beginning of the book, then it’s ignored for the entire middle, then at the end he confronts her when he figures it out and one conversation later, where he doesn’t get mad, it’s all totally fine. I thought that was rushed and not entirely believable.

To make their romance worse, a good chunk of the tail end of this book was used to wrap up story lines from the previous two and leave Eve and Gabe by the wayside. Jackson and Sadia get married quietly, sure, fine. Nicholas and Livvy spend a whole chapter hashing out last-minute pre-wedding jitters in a book that’s not focused on them: annoying, but whatever. Then they have a five-month old baby, though, in the epilogue? What? At the end of book two when they get engaged, they insist she’s not pregnant. They plan the wedding for a month after that. Then a year later, they have a five-month old. The math does not add up. Okay, so that “flu” she got that kept her at home right before the wedding was actually morning sickness, then? But her mother and aunt just happened to have the flu the week before providing her a convenient lie? Am I supposed to be reading between these lines or not? Because I was fooled, I honestly thought the “I’m not pregnant” meant “I’m not pregnant,” and it pisses me off on a personal level because myself and so many other women I’ve known get those looks from idiots who think every illness we get means a secret pregnancy we’re hiding and saying “I’m not pregnant” doesn’t mean anything to them because all women lie about that stuff, right?

Okay, that’s a tangent, I haven’t even talked about the age gap yet. I told myself I wasn’t going to because I had enough other issues with this book, but I shouldn’t ignore it. Gabe is 35 and Eve is 24. The math on that barely clears the “half your age plus seven years” rule, if we ignore Gabe’s extra half-year. And there is the argument that since he’s a commitment-phobe and never had a serious relationship, it brings his effective age/experience down a little. Gabe’s single and has a successful business, no kids; Eve is single, has plans to start what will probably be a successful business, no kids. Despite the numerical age difference, they are in similar stages of life, on the large scale. But booooy does Gabe constantly make cracks about how old he is as a defense mechanism against her, which reminds the reader constantly, which either makes it creepy when it didn’t need to be or exacerbates the base level of potential creepiness. [Sudden thought: is that why Eve was such a creeper early on, narratively speaking? To balance the creep factor out between them? Do I really even want to be asking this question? I shouldn’t need to.]

The first half had issues but showed potential, then the second half let me down and the epilogue made me angry.

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#160 – The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright

  • Read: 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (105/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book with red and white on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I picked this up at a used book sale, three dollars a bag, because it sounded interesting from the blurb and I was paying pennies to try things out.

I should not have bought this book, but sadly I couldn’t know that until I started to read it.

DNF @ page 30, just past my 10% personal minimum cutoff. I finished the chapter I was in the middle of. It was terrible. The chapters before it were terrible.

So we’re introduced to this about-to-die old couple for the first two pages, then immediately the author steers us off into a three-page tangent describing the life story and eccentricities of the only current guest at their bed-and-breakfast. She’s not interesting. She’s not who I was wanting to read about when I opened the book. Why am I reading three pages about her?

That’s the pattern throughout the first ten percent. Introduce a “main” character, talk about them for ten seconds, introduce a side or minor character for flavor and spend pages on them while ignoring the main character. I know less about one of the sons of that dead old couple than I do the Brazilian airport attendant he picked up for a date before his flight home. Their daughter is introduced while she’s phoning both her brothers in succession, and there’s a gun on her kitchen counter that she idly plays with while they talk, and they talk about people in their parents’ lives we don’t really know and probably wouldn’t care about. What I want to know is why their daughter has a gun sitting around on her kitchen counter, thank you very much!

It’s an endless series of diversions, and to make it worse, they’re draped in the most saccharine, pedestrian description. At one point the author spends half a page talking about a Hallmark card, just to make sure you understand that the dead old couple was Hallmark perfect, because this book is trying incredibly hard and incredibly transparently to be a Hallmark movie.

I’m sorry I let this book sit on my shelf for two years taking up valuable space in my TBR when it wasn’t worth the thirty or so cents I paid for it.

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#161 – His Christmas Wish, by Melissa McClone

  • Read: 12/2/19 – 12/3/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A holiday book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Bleh. I had good luck with a different McClone Christmas romance as being good without being drenched in the “magic of Christmas” like it was a bad perfume, but this is terrible.

Jake and Carly are both incredibly hot-and-cold with each other about a possible romantic relationship for the entire book. They constantly flip back and forth about what they want, both out loud to each other and internally to themselves. Their friendship is obviously strong–the moments when they’re being “just friends” or working together to provide a good Christmas experience for their friends’ kids are the best parts of the book–but despite the occasional flashes of physical attraction the story kept telling us they were having, there was no chemistry. I simply did not believe these two were actually attracted to each other.

Without that, what’s the point of a romance novel?

Even the tension of Carly moving forward from the losses of her past is mellow and easily solved. She’s consumed by anti-Christmas spirit at the beginning but halfway through, she’s totally cool again, so the story turns to trying to shoehorn her and Jake into a relationship. Then he has to go up on the mountain for a rescue and she freaks out and breaks up with him…except they weren’t even really together yet. Then she leaves town for two weeks and turns around and goes right back when she sees on the news that there’s another rescue going on and Jake could be in danger.

Like I said, constantly flipping back and forth. It’s exhausting.

Oh, and then they get married two months after getting together. Because that’s a good idea. Why is a quickie marriage the epilogue of half the romances I read? I don’t care if they’ve known each other forever, they’ve got serious communication issues and differences in expectations for a romantic relationship, both have been apparent throughout this story, so why is throwing them at an altar supposed to be a happy ending? Even if I cared about them, I’d still think they were headed straight for a divorce because the story has not persuaded me that these two are actually in love with each other.

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #49)

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#155 – Abaddon’s Gate, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 11/20/19 – 11/24/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (102/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Welcome to the Expanse, where the science is hard, gravity is always a concern, and inertia is the biggest bitch in the universe who kills more people than guns ever could.

I loved it, though being a show-watcher first, this was the first book in the series to throw me a serious curve ball, when I was like, “Wait, who’s Bull? I don’t recognize this guy.” It didn’t take me too long to figure out that he was replaced on television with Drummer, who I know from reading a comparative timeline doesn’t actually show up for a while yet. And I like Drummer on the show just fine, but I like Bull too. He’s a pragmatist in all ways except his own personal safety, and I admired that.

I was also thrown by knowing right up front who Melba really was. Her first chapter is incredibly upfront about her dual identity and her purpose, and having her as a clear antagonist from the get-go was a different story experience, one that the show (to some degree) traded for much more screen time with Captain Ashford. (Which, don’t get me wrong, was a good call, because if you get an accomplished and veteran actor like David Straithearn to play your other bad guy, keep the camera on him, please.)

What continues to impress me about the Expanse is its excellent pacing and scope of escalation. First the protomolecule is a mystery, then it’s a threat because it was weaponized via human hands, now its true purpose turns out to be opening up a gate that needs to be investigated.

Then in this installment we get the plot bomb dropped that whatever civilization made the protomolecule was wiped out by something stronger. That may seem an obvious next step, but we spent two books establishing just how powerful, wacky, and alien the protomolecule was, and thus how powerful, wacky, and alien its creators are. Only now it’s how they must have been, once, because it looks like they’re gone.

I had the same sinking feeling in my gut then that I did after reading Lord of the Rings and finding out, after the fact, that Shelob wasn’t even close to the biggest and scariest spider monster in universe. As if that weren’t bad enough, Sauron wasn’t even the strongest Big Bad, a fact I learned only moments later. It was mind blowing, and I’m not exaggerating. I bought myself a copy of The Silmarillion not too long after to find out more, only to be horribly bored by the dry and factual approach to building a mythos. But that’s another review.

So this epiphany could have read like a poor bait-and-switch, but it doesn’t. And to further appreciate the pacing, it did not escape my notice that Holden’s awe-inspiring, come-to-God-and-the-Universe moment came at exactly halfway through the book. Midpoint climax, baby! That’s some good stuff.

Maaaaybe the big battle at the end for control of the Behemoth dragged on longer than truly necessary, but if that’s my only quibble, it’s a small one. It still brought everyone’s story lines together in a convincing and satisfying way.

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#156 – Proof by Seduction, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 11/24/19 – 11/25/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (103/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Okay, but not nearly as good as I was hoping. Because of finding both this and its sequel and used book sales, but in the wrong order, I actually read the second book two years ago and quite enjoyed it, but going back to fill in the first half of Ned’s story wasn’t as worthwhile as I had hoped it would be.

And that’s only half of the “meh, it was okay” equation. Jenny and Gareth’s romance was more stereotypical than I’ve come to expect from Milan’s work, with a brooding alpha male and a secretive heroine falling in lust with each other while also seeming to hate each other’s guts. Technically it’s enemies-to-lovers, but it also kind of doesn’t feel that way, somehow? Maybe because the lust is instant, and in those types of stories I expect the enemies part to stand up for longer before they give in to the lust.

My point is, the pacing felt off. And the bit at the end when Gareth is confronted with how horrible a childhood Jenny had and that explains/excuses a lot of her behaviors…meh, I just didn’t care for it.

As for the major subplot of the novel, Ned and his mistakes, I loved Ned in his own story in the next book but he is an absolute buffoon here. I get it, he’s young and no one has expected much of him. But despite this not being “his” story overall, I saw very little of the protagonist in him that I know we get later, and if I *had* read the books in order, I honestly might not have liked the second one as much because I would have had trouble believing they were the same man. Even if, to some degree, that’s the point–Ned grows up–but still, they’re almost unrecognizable as the same character.

So reading them backwards is not recommended, but reading them correctly maybe not either? Just try one of Milan’s other series instead, honestly.

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#157 – Hate to Want You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/26/19 – 11/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (104/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A romance that is fantastic in almost every respect. Diversity, respect for mental illness, realistic flaws in both main characters, honest but confused attempts to move past their past.

The major problem I had was that their past was SUCH a big part of the story. Setting up inter-family history and dynamics this complicated, to set the stage for and justify such an unhealthy lovers-to-exes-to-yearly-hookups relationship, required a lot more page space than I think the back story actually deserved. Every time things might have been looking up for our lovebirds, their families intruded somehow and mucked things up.

Not that they didn’t do plenty of mucking up themselves, they’re both hot messes, but those internal conflicts felt much more real and developed, while the family/external conflicts often felt unnatural and forced.

The handling of Livvy’s depression, though, I really liked. Though her episodes manifest differently from mine, I still related to a lot of how she felt, and even if the experience isn’t the same it’s still amazing to me to see depression in a romance treated with gravity instead of a mere flavor to someone’s personality.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #47)

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#150 – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

  • Read: 11/8/19 – 11/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (98/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book recommended by a celebrity you admire
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

After being engrossed with this book for several days, I read the last hundred pages this morning and feel oddly disappointed.

I’m left with the feeling that despite the 500+ pages of plot points I could outline for you, the things that clearly happened over the course of the novel, in the end, none of it actually mattered. That this was a story where nothing was accomplished, bad things happened to good and bad people alike, and nothing at all is resolved in the end.

It’s not that I expected a happy ending for Werner, with or without Marie-Laure. I’m a romantic, but I’m not an idiot. I wasn’t surprised by Werner’s death, though I was surprised it was so anti-climactic. That set the tone for the entire denouement–unsatisfying.

What the ending drove home to me was how shallow the engagement was at any given point with a character, how quickly their trauma could be unfolded and repackaged, how atmospheric the prose aimed to be at the cost of character development. Because the language is beautiful, I can’t argue with that common bit of praise for this work. It’s gorgeous and tactile and evocative. But if you look beneath that, the story is conveyed in incredibly short bursts, constantly switching between points of view, never allowing us to settle too long with one character and really get to know them before we’re jerked into someone else’s story.

And nothing really happens that matters. Marie keeps the jewel safe only to Titanic it at the last minute, and she never finds her father. Werner does find the source of the mysterious broadcast and eventually saves Marie’s life (which is just about the only thing worth justifying this amount of time spent on the two of them getting to this point, fair enough, that plot point matters) but wanders off to die after that. The minor characters as a whole don’t fare much better–Volkheimer survives the war and serves as the messenger-carrier for Werner’s belongings, to wrap things up neatly. Von Rumpel fails to achieve his goal, which is arguably okay because he’s the closest thing this work has to a villian, but it still doesn’t feel satisfying when he’s foiled. We check in with Frederick and he’s still mostly a vegetable. Strangely enough, it’s one of the other minor characters that gets the most growth, since circumstances force Etienne to overcome his agoraphobia, and he actually gets one of the happiest endings, where he travels the world.

Most damning/upsetting/disappointing to me, and perhaps most emblematic of just how shallowly we engage with the actual characters, was the brief scene post-war that is included to show Jutta learning of her brother’s death, that also includes her rape at the hands of Russian soldiers, for some reason. Why? Yes, rape is a horrible thing that goes along with basically every war, but did we have to see it? Did it have to happen to her specifically? Does it have any meaning or reveal anything about her character? No, it’s there because rape happens in war so it has to happen to someone, right, and Jutta hasn’t been important for half the book so it’s okay to do it to her. It doesn’t have any bearing on her epilogue scenes, it doesn’t have any bearing on the main plot of the novel, it’s just a footnote of suffering that is completely unnecessary. Jutta’s story doesn’t lose anything if that scene was just her and the other women she lived with going hungry and working at pointless jobs and feeling directionless as their country collapsed post-war. That gets the point across just fine, but oh, no, let’s have them raped too.

I’m angry about that, because not only was it unnecessary, it also completely blindsided me. Rape as a vague threat, as dread and fear, was used early in the book when some bullies are teasing Marie about her blindness, saying that when the Germans come they’ll take her first because of her infirmity, and horrible things will happen to her. That was fine, in context. That’s a thing exceptionally cruel bullies would bring up, and that’s an understandable fear for a young woman. And then… rape literally never comes up again until it happens to Jutta. Ninety-nine percent of the book is free of the specter of sexual violence, and honestly, from a white male author writing about war that’s kind of amazing.

But then Jutta is raped, right at the end, and I thought, “Really? Now? You did so good up to here. Why?”

So it would be easy to say the ending ruined the book for me, but this isn’t a case where everything was wonderful until the wheels fell of the wagon at the last second. Rather, the ending made me realize what had been wrong with the book the entire time, only I hadn’t seen it because I was trundling along hoping for some amazing ending to justify the four hundred pages of tense setup. All that anticipation had to lead to something, right? Only it didn’t.

If anything, I’ve come away from this book thinking that maybe the Sea of Flames jewel actually was cursed, because Marie had it for a long time and she lived while awful things happened around her, just like the curse said. And that gives this historical fiction a taste of magical realism that I don’t think suits the tone at all. Especially because the Sea of Flames got its own scene in the epilogue section, and I was like, “Really? Why?”

The language is beautiful, I can still say that unequivocally, but the story is just pointless in the end, and I read books primarily for the plot and characters, not for the prose.

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#151 – A Garden in the Rain, by Lynn Kurland

  • Read: 11/12/19 – 11/14/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (99/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This romance couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Is it time-travel? Is it paranormal? Is it a vacation getaway romance? Why not try all three at once, and throw in the most cartoonish ex-fiance bad guy ever?

There weren’t a lot of good things about this novel, but by far, by absolute farthest, the worst part is Bentley, the heroine’s recent ex. Their backstory is a jumble that focuses on how they ended, but as I got to know Bentley and discovered that he wasn’t a person, he was a stack of evil tropes in a trench coat, I wondered more and more how they got together in the first place, because he’s just the worst from the very first moment we meet him. There’s no tale of their wooing, there’s no fond reminiscences of before the breakup, there’s no sign he was ever a good person or a decent boyfriend/fiance at all. He is unrelentingly horrible, immoral, narcissistic, hypocritical, and cruel, and the backstory gives me no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.

And because of that, it makes me question just how stupid the heroine is. Not that she acts particularly stupid during the course of the novel itself, she’s not suffering from Too Stupid to Live Syndrome, though she does rely on the hero to rescue her a lot from Bentley’s horrible attempts at manipulation, the constant stealing of her hotel reservations and later her possessions, and eventually, a 14th-century dungeon, because time travel. But by painting the ex as a totally irredeemable ass, you have to wonder why they were together in the first place, and what’s changed since that makes the heroine capable of making better choices this time around.

As for the hero, he’s… okay? He’s tall dark and deadly, and his backstory is similarly sketchy for most of the book, and his occupation (expensive bodyguard) is never really explained, but seems more an excuse for the travel he does (with or without the heroine, as the plot demands) even though we never see him actually working, just going away or coming back.

The time-travel stuff and all the stuff about the hero’s family would probably have made a lot more sense if I hadn’t jumped into the middle of the series. I’m willing to give that a pass, because by book 4 the author shouldn’t be over-explaining it, so I’m not complaining that the world-building wasn’t there.

And I could have accepted the time travel just fine as the central thrust of the novel’s oddities, but then we got ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Lots of pushy and irritating ghosts. Ghosts who apparently have been hanging around the hero’s castle for ages but only decided to appear and harass him into moving the plot forward after the heroine walks into his life.

Can you hear that? The sound of me rolling my eyes so hard? I hated the ghosts almost as much as I hated Bentley.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

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#144 – What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

  • Read: 10/30/19 – 11/1/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (94/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with a question in the title
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

There’s nothing wrong with this book except maybe there’s too much of it.

I love xkcd, I’ve been a fan for years. As my daily/weekly webcomic reading levels dropped because one once-beloved comic or another started getting weird/bad/wordy/unfunny/overly existential, I kept reading xkcd and still do catch up when I remember to.

The humor isn’t the problem, nor is the science (which is broken down to the point where I mostly understood everything, Munroe does have a gift for explaining complex topics to laypeople) nor is the structure. The nature of the book is that it comes in bite-size bits as he answers one absurd question after another.

But by the end, I was getting worn out on the concept itself. I’m used to getting my doses of this highly specific brand of science/math humor spaced out over time. I’m not used to getting punched in the face with it in one book-sized fist. Which is really a problem with my perception of the book and not the book itself.

It’s fantastic and funny and absurd in all the best ways, but maybe, just maybe, it suffers from relying heavily on its one conceptual trick for too long.

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#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

  • Read: 11/2/19 – 11/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (95/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A ghost story
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

My first Oscar Wilde, and it won’t be my last. This was hilarious and quick and charmingly snarky. In fact, it was so quick, and I was enjoying it so much, I wish there were more of it! I didn’t know what to expect going in, as I picked this up entirely for the “ghost story” task of this year’s PopSugar Reading Challenge, and it was free, being a public domain work. I didn’t know I was going to laugh so hard at a ghost failing to frighten the new owners of its residence, at the pomposity of old-tradition Brits and new-money Americans, at the trappings of Gothic Horror that get so easily brushed aside by cheerful and stubborn practicality. This might be one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever read.

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#146 – They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera

  • Read: 11/4/19 – 11/5/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (44/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book that takes place in a single day
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I cried a lot and the best parts of this story really got to me, but there was also a lot I was yawning through.

If the point of this book was to capture the intensity of emotion and experience that two young men were facing on their last day alive, to develop their strangers-to-friends-to-“we’d be lovers if there was only more time” romance, then why did we spend so much of the book pulled away into the POV chapters of side characters?

Some of those chapters are arguably necessary for plot setup (mostly the antagonist’s) but most were throwaways from extremely minor characters that were world-building at best, but didn’t actually give me that much more insight into the world.

So that’s the bad part. And, of course, if the “point” of the book isn’t what I felt it was, if we want to explore authorial intent vs. the author is dead and the potential for infinite reader interpretations, then of course some readers won’t think my criticism is a criticism at all.

The good parts. I loved Mateo instantly and had a great deal of trouble connecting to Rufus at first, but as time went by it got easier, and I got the feeling that I the reader am supposed to have trouble because so does Mateo at first. Cool. When the first hints of attraction start popping up, I was completely on board the “JUST KISS ALREADY” train. While I can understand the frustration of the insta-love vibe that was going on near the end, I’m more okay with it here than I usually am, as a trope, because they were have a serious roller-coaster of a day and intense experiences do have a quicker bonding effect on people than drawn-out courtships. I very much liked the “I think I could have fallen in love with you” aspect of their relationship, and don’t have a problem with them both dropping L-bombs early because of the day they’re having and the knowledge of what’s coming.

I think the core of this book is strong, the deliberately heart-wrenching story of two people finding each other nearly too late. But I also think there’s a lot of extraneous stuff that could have been cut, and some that was necessary but could have been presented in a way more organic to the rest of the story than constantly cutting away to the POV chapters of characters we aren’t invested in.

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#147 – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

  • Read: 11/5/19 – 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (45/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book published posthumously
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I started out thinking this book was okay, and liked it progressively less and less as it went on.

I don’t think this story works as an epistolary novel, or at least, it needs more attention and care to make it work. The letter writers throughout are wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and educations, and there’s a sameness of tone to the entire book that diminishes the variety of character voice. I do think in the first half, Juliet, Sidney, and Dawsey sound reasonably distinct, but most of the rest of the Islanders are basically the same, made to sound backwards with a few dashes of poor grammar, and in the second half everyone becomes a muddle.

The second problem with the structure is that it made it absurdly easy to skip sections that didn’t interest me as I grew less enchanted with the story, because if the letter was to or from Juliet or Dawsey, I mostly stopped caring. I did skim some of the later letters, and I feel like I have a decent handle on the plot without reading every detail of Isola’s sudden obsession with phrenology or the ridiculously late and short subplot about Sidney’s secretary trying to steal Oscar Wilde’s letters.

Even once I strip the plot down to its core, there are things I didn’t like. The main love triangle was completely without tension, because of course Juliet is going to come to her senses and not marry Mark, he’s an ass. Trying to infuse extra tension by creating a second, weaker love triangle around Dawsey was just stupid, it was killing time so that Juliet still had an obstacle after she realized her feelings for Dawsey, and I didn’t buy it for a second.

I do have a thing for the strong, silent type of hero, so I found Dawsey appealing as an archetype but rather lackluster as an actual character. He seems so vibrant in the first half of the book when we get to read his correspondence, but as soon as he’s in the same zip code, so to speak, as Juliet, we barely see his POV again and he becomes a footnote in everyone else’s letters, which is nuts, since he’s the romantic hero. He doesn’t end up with enough actual page time to properly display his affection for Juliet, so their love story is a rushed but foregone conclusion that the book expects me to be happy about simply because it happens, but not because it did the work making it happen. I felt I was expected to fill in far too many of the blanks myself.

I have not seen the movie yet, but despite my disappointment with the novel, I do still plan on watching it, because a) I’m interested to see how an epistolary novel like this gets adapted, and b) I think if done well, a movie version would solve a lot of the issues I have with the novel’s structure. I haven’t looked into any reviews or discussions of the movie, so I have no idea if general consensus on it is good or terrible, but I can probably spare two hours to find out myself.

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#148 – Death by Chocolate, by Sally Berneathy

  • Read: 11/6/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (96/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book featuring an amateur detective
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%. I was bored.

Things happened that should have engaged my interest–a little boy mysteriously disappearing only to be found soon after with no explanation of who took him or how he got out of the house; a stake-out spot discovered in the fenced-in yard of an empty house in the neighborhood; one of the protagonist’s neighbors possessing an unusual and useful skill set to go along with her amateur investigating.

But whatever interest I might have mustered for those hooks was swamped by how stupid and irritating the protagonist herself is. Every three sentences it was chocolate this, Coke that, more chocolate, “I shouldn’t be sleeping with my ex but his smile is so gorgeous,” then berating the investigating officer with her “I know what I’m talking about, I saw this on a crime drama” attitude.

She is the worst. And I’ve gathered that she’s got a romance subplot with that officer? If I were him, I would run for the hills.

I simply could not overcome my intense dislike for the protagonist to keep reading, especially coupled with an all-telling, no-showing writing style. I’m not a “cozy mystery” genre fan, so I’m not aware of the general conventions, but this seemed simplistic and dull.

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#149 – The House on the Beach, by Linda Barrett

  • Read: 11/6/19 – 11/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (97/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Plodding and predictable, without enough conflict, with too much emphasis on the townspeople and not enough on the romance.

Seriously, there’s an entire chapter devoted to a scene in the local diner where seven different old men who eat breakfast together regularly are introduced to the leading lady. One of them is the hero’s father, and one of them she already knows because he rented her “the house on the beach,” but why did we have to bother with the other five? What purpose do they serve in the story? None.

So that was an annoyance, but the larger problem is the slow pace and lack of conflict. The first hurdle to the relationship is the weak and quickly ignored “but I’m not looking for a relationship right now for reasons.” It’s on both sides, but they keep spending time together because they’re attracted to each other anyway, and yeah, they both get over that with very little introspection or discussion.

Once they’re finally together in a bed-sharing kind of way, she finally drops the bomb that leads to the only external conflict; she’s a recent breast cancer survivor with a good prognosis. But of course he freaks out because his wife died a few years back of ovarian cancer and he can’t go through that again.

If that had been properly developed, I might have been more sympathetic. But pains are taken throughout the story, whenever either character thinks about their half of that equation, to demonstrate to the reader that the two situations could hardly be more different: early detection and successful treatment vs. “it’s far too late.” So I’m less inclined to buy Matt’s total freakout, based on the fact that for the rest of the book he’s basically perfect. He’s a great father, a hard-working man, a thoughtful guy, sweet as hell, and never does anything else wrong, so to focus all of his negative emotion and action into this one serious-yet-somehow-also-flimsy breakdown is just unsatisfying.

Really, the only reason this gets two stars from me instead of one is that his kids are cute. Casey and his stuttering, which leads him to bond with the heroine who’s a voice actress, was actually a really good subplot and gave the leads extra reason to spend time together.