This Week, I Read… (2020 #36)

#138 – Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#139 – And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #35)

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

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

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

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

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

#136 – Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky

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

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

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

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

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

#137 – At This Moment, by Karen Cimms

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#130 – Dirty, by Kylie Scott

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

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

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

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

It’s just not setting me on fire.

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

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

#131 – Amethyst, by Lauren Royal

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

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

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

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

#132 – The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

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

DNF @ page 167.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#127 – Heart Signs, by Cari Quinn

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a lot of problems with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#129 – Insomnia, by Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #33)

#122 – Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#125 – Highlander’s Desire, by Joanne Wadsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#126 – War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2020 #32)

#119 – The Great Passage, by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

  • Read: 8/13/20 – 8/14/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a geometric pattern or element on the cover
  • Mount TBR: 107/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Though I’ve owned this for two years, I read it at just the right time.

I took a year of Japanese in college, basically for fun. I had previously been studying French, but that was mostly because my high school only offered French and Spanish. My older brother had taken French, so I chose that as well. I had some fantasy that we’d be able to practice together when he called home from college, which of course never happened.

By my senior year of college, I was in the school’s anime club and seriously dating someone who had studied Japanese for years. I liked learning languages; it was something my brain was apparently good at. A lot of friends said my sanity was questionable for taking a daily language course as a senior for fun; I did it anyway, and enjoyed the heck out of it.

After I graduated, I stopped studying for a number of reasons. I started again this summer. Fifty-seven days ago, in fact. (Thank you, DuoLingo owl.)

Imagine my delight when I actually knew the meaning of about half the words discussed in the course of this story! A story about word nerds from another country I’ve never been to! In many ways this book reminds me (positively) of The Professor and the Madman, also the story of the creation of an ambitious dictionary. I think the process is fascinating, and I probably would have happily read nonfiction about Japanese dictionary creation. Dressing it up with fun characters who occasionally find love in the process was a fun bonus.

My only criticism is a systemic one that touches lightly on everything. I found the plot a bit flat and the narrative prone to telling vs. showing. That doesn’t diminish how much I love its ideas or even the characters, who were idiosyncratic to a fault, no stereotypes here. There was always a sense of restraint, though, between me and the text, a distance I would have rather bridged with more naturalistic storytelling. I can’t know yet if this is a cultural divide in style or innate to this author–I haven’t read enough contemporary Japanese fiction to make any comparison. (I did read Murakami for the first time a few weeks ago, and his style was wordier and far more descriptive, though there was still a definite distance between me and the characters. But then, I’m used to romance, a genre that is all about being up close and personal. I may be overthinking this.) In the end, it may only be a matter of personal taste–I would have liked this book to be a little longer and examine the character’s emotions with a little more subtlety.

#120 – Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

  • Read: 8/14/20 – 8/16/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with an upside-down image on its cover
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a blue cover
  • Mount TBR: 108/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is one of the many freebies Tor has tossed my way via their newsletter, which I’ve had mixed luck reading so far. I was more than pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this, especially as the core plot is a murder mystery, which is generally not my genre.

But it’s neatly nestled within a fairly rich fantasy world with vaguely Edwardian underpinnings, cozied up alongside a sweet, mostly stress-free m/m romance.

The world-building may be a bit spotty at times, but I prefer that to exposition dumps, so I’ll take it. The only truly well-developed character is the protagonist-narrator Miles, so everyone else can feel thin at times; but he’s a solid construction, with emotional depth in the present as well as an interesting backstory. He’s got problems at work even before the murder happens but also good and trusted coworkers; he’s got issues with his family and his past that catch up to him; he’s got a handsome new “friend” thrown into the mix who is a charm and a delight and also half a mystery. He’s a fun protagonist to follow around when he’s clearly out of his depth as the story progresses, but he’s also a sensitive, caring man who I was always rooting for, even when he was in over his head.

If the worst criticism I have of this was that I wanted to be maybe 30-50 pages longer to flesh out some things that were rushed, well, that’s not really that big a problem, is it? I’m usually criticizing fantasy works for the opposite issue.

I was charmed. I want to read more. And that’s really saying something from me, who usually avoids mysteries like rabid animals.

#121 – Last Memoria, by Rachel Emma Shaw

  • Read: 8/18/20 – 8/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

[I’m pretty casual about spoilers in reviews, but this one went into enough detail that I felt it necessary to hide it on Goodreads for spoilers. It’s only fair I should warn readers here, too. The TL;DR version is “poorly edited for both presentation and story, inconsistent about everything, misogynist ending, I don’t recommend it.”]

The entire book is plagued by inconsistency at all levels.

The most obvious being technical presentation, as it’s riddled with errors. There are several instances of words being incorrectly used in place of their homonyms: “taught” when it should be “taut,” “vile” when it’s obviously meant to be “vial,” and so forth. In addition, a word specific to the story–Sarilla’s unwanted nickname–switches between “beastie” and “beasty” frequently, sometimes even on the same page. Stack those errors on top of repeated incorrect hyphenation (both present when it shouldn’t be in things like “dirt-track” and missing when it should be present, like “Sarilla shaped hole”) and a general tendency toward word repetition and excessive stage direction, it’s reasonable to guess this was edited poorly or not at all.

The story is also inconsistent in characterization. Is Sarilla the scared fugitive who must avoid going into town where she might be recognized, or the brave sister who needs to save her brother? Is she the meek wimp who can’t stop her brother from acting stupidly and getting himself caught, or the sass-talking pain in the backside who’s constantly needling her captors even when it endangers her? The level of danger itself is inconsistent; she’ll be terrified of someone noticing her on one page, then she’ll act recklessly in the open when anyone could see her, because the plot needs her to, so it’s fine.

Thematically, there’s some inconsistency built on top of the apparent running gag of this novel: “everybody lies.” Those two words are used to hide from the reader everything from character backstory and motivations to fundamental ways in which the world operates. World-building was introduced long after it was needed. I didn’t know what the “graves” in the forest were that everyone was so terrified about, and when they turned out to be abandoned tunnels one could fall into, no one bothered to explain how they’d come to be called “graves.” I knew the name of Sarilla’s uncle/antagonist from the beginning, but not that he was King until nearly halfway through the book–that seemed like something that shouldn’t have been a mystery. I didn’t know there was another country peopled by memoria until even later–when Sarilla finally gets a “quest,” just in time for the narrative to switch from her POV to Falon’s.

The story suffered from a pronounced lack of direction, resulting from most of the important characters spending most of their time without any real agency.

I was floundering through Sarilla’s half of the book trying to figure out what her goal was. At first, it seemed simple–stay safe long enough to get to the rest of her family. Okay. But why? The story never told me what was going to happen when they were reunited. (No, wait, it did, another character explained it in the final chapters that aren’t even from her POV.) She abandons her brother because he’s going to get them caught. She changes her mind and searches for him. He’s caught by the army. She follows so she can get him back, but she gets captured by her former lover and his companions in the process. They kidnap her…why? It’s not clear for a while. When it turns out it’s so Falon can regain his stolen memories, they all turn around and go back for her brother, who has them. Except then he’s dead, and so is the rest of her family. At 40%. I was literally staring at the text and thinking, “So the book’s over then? Sarilla can’t reunite with her family, which I thought was her arc, and Falon can’t get his memories back, because the brother is dead.”

I should not be having a standoff with a book about whether or not the story is over at 40%.

And it’s not, because hey! everybody lies! Sarilla actually as Falon’s memories, so he still has a goal. But she doesn’t! Because I have no idea what she wants now! At the halfway mark, Falon takes her before the King and he says “So how about you help me destroy all the memoria in this other country that hasn’t been talked about at all before?”

She accepts. I’m not clear on why at the time, though eventually it’s explained that her deep self-hatred makes her want to destroy the monsters she came from. But also it’s the King’s idea to eventually double-cross them. Sarilla never seems to make her own decisions.

But the narrative switches POV to Falon, and for a while it looks like things are getting better, plot-wise. There’s a clear goal: Sarilla’s going to destroy stuff and Falon’s sticking around to get her memories back from her.

Only then Falon loses his agency by getting taken over by blackvine, which turns out to be a physical form of infectious memory/psychic connection to the race of memoria under threat. Once it’s a part of him, it’s serious emotional whiplash between hating Sarilla and loving her–the memoria want her because she might have their ancient repository of racial memory. Or not. But probably. But she says she doesn’t.

Any interest I still had, I lost here, though I made myself finish the book as it’s for a book club. The constant “everybody lies” story-washing gives the narrative permission to make every character so unreliable there’s no ground to stand on for a reader to accurately interpret the text. The ending reveals so many layers of betrayal that no one is who we thought they were–except I barely thought these characters were anyone specific already, because for most of Sarilla’s half, she’s fighting against being overwhelmed by floating memories that constantly distract her from reality. For Falon’s half, he spends a great deal of it possessed by a foreign collective consciousness. No one can go five pages without a radical shift in self-perception or opinions expressed or behaviors modified.

At the bitter end, Falon believes that Sarilla wasn’t born a monster because of her power (despite saying so at various points at least half a dozen times) but that the King “made” her that way. Then, when he gets his memories back and finds out his part in shaping her actions, he believes that he made her a monster. In both cases, again, the agency for the only female character in the book, the titular character, is usurped by the influence of male characters who take credit/blame for making her who she is. Ultimately, that’s a pretty misogynist conclusion that I don’t care for.

The entire novel is an inconsistent, sucking quicksand pit of a story. I cannot recommend it to anyone and won’t be reading the next book.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #31)

#116 – Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

  • Read: 8/6/20 – 8/7/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from a genre or sub genre that starts with a letter in your name (A – Adventure Fiction)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a long book
  • Mount TBR: 104/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 93. I marked the page ahead of time because I doubted I was going to make it through this monstrous tome.

Honestly, I picked this up from a used book sale on accident thinking it was something else, and because it was a bag sale, I was shoveling in anything that looked remotely interesting. Had I been paying more attention, I probably would not have bought this book, but since I did, I figured I’d give it a shot.

I did skim reviews ahead of time and suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it, and I was right. That being said, I do at least see what some people love so much about this novel. There’s a sort of innocent honesty to it, combined from the semi-autobiographical nature and the debut-novel status. While the author was not a young man when this was written and published, in many ways the text reminded me of a young writer’s work, when everything is exciting and exuberant and often trite and overdone but still so joyously presented. This story works hard to make you feel something, even if it’s not always successful.

I found moments and individual lines worthy of mulling over, the occasional tidbit of profound wisdom to chew on. But for every one of those there were a dozen or more bits where I rolled my eyes.

The parts of this that engaged me most were the vivid descriptions of setting, but however praiseworthy that aspect may be, it’s not going to carry me through what’s obviously going to be a complicated and sprawling plot about underworld intrigue. I met so many characters in those first 93 pages that I can’t tell you all their names or give a physical or personality-based description for most of ones I recall clearly enough to name. There’s too much going on already, even though the plot hasn’t really started, and a good setting isn’t a solid enough framework to hang that much weight on.

Clearly this book is not for me and never was. I did find some small amount of good in it, but I can say if you’re at all on the fence about whether you want to read this, the answer is probably, don’t bother.

#117 – Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, by Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy

  • Read: 8/7/20 – 8/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book inspired by a leading news story
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by or about a journalist
  • Mount TBR: 105/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I regret that it took me so long to read this book, as I remember when its events were current. I was a huge Daily Show fan and watched the story unfold through that lens. It was strange to go back to that time.

The book itself comes across as an honest, forthright account of Bahari’s experiences surrounding his imprisonment, with a strong emphasis on family as the title suggests. The discussion of his (and others’) physical torture is minimized but not ignored. The psychological torture is more present but less gruesome to read about from this safe distance.

I didn’t find it quite as gripping as I expected, whether from the years’ removal from the story’s immediacy, or from the lack of a certain spark to the narration. I don’t wish for this story to be sensationalized and I’m certainly not clamoring for lurid details, but somehow the style of this felt flatter to me than it should. Perhaps because so much of it felt like a textbook, when Bahari capably explained Iranian politics to non-Iranian me; that context was necessary for much of his ordeal to make sense, but it was relatively dry and factual compared to his own personal account.

Because I waited so long to read this, though, I saw unpleasant similarities to government behavior towards the press here in the US. Not that things have progressed that far–journalists have been beaten in the streets by police for covering this year’s protests, but as far as I know, not imprisoned–but I couldn’t help feeling chilled at seeing a possible future based on the current efforts to delegitimize the free press.

#118 – Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

  • Read: 8/10/20 – 8/12/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: An underrated book, a hidden gem or a lesser known book
  • Mount TBR: 106/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

As fairy tale mashups/retellings go, it had some interesting ideas. The frog prince part of the plot was genuinely charming.

But I’m underwhelmed by the story overall. Constantly telling me that Jena is the headstrong and practical sister got constantly undercut by Cezar being the world’s most controlling cousin. I understand why that conflict is central to the plot, but it just took forever to wade through pages of arguments that were essentially all the same argument, and the resolution depended on another (male) character swooping in to save the day. I don’t expect all of my fairy tales to be profoundly feminist, but this aspect of the story disappointed me.

Also, while others are praising the research done to make this true to Transylvanian folklore, I’ll be honest, it didn’t “feel” all that different from everything else I’ve read from the author, which is heavily based in British folklore. I wanted it to be substantially different, and it wasn’t; all I got were different names and some really boring vampires.

I own the sequel, but between my lack of joy reading this, and peeking at reviews for it, I’m inclined to purge it from my TBR. Plenty of people who actually liked this book were not impressed by the next one, so what hope do I have? Not much.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #30)

#113 – Buzz, by E. Davies

  • Read: 7/30/20 – 7/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 101/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is a plot that never had the potential to be more than okay, made worse by poor construction.

The quick and easy complaints: Leading with a sex scene as prologue when the characters haven’t been introduced is not going to get me interested. A character spending most of a chapter doing absolutely mundane things that don’t advance or even relate to the plot is not going to get me interested. Randomly diverting to one of the lead’s brothers for a POV is going to irritate me, especially when the lead just had a chapter he spent doing absolutely mundane things that I don’t understand why I had to read about. So why didn’t the plot point in his brother’s chapter happen then instead? Why did we constantly have to see important things through a side character’s perspective when nothing much happens during the lead’s POVs?

A slightly more complex complaint: Did we spend so much time with the minutiae of Noah’s work as an art curator so that he didn’t feel less developed than Cameron and his almost-hockey career? Because Noah’s job at any given point was either boring or explained poorly–I never got a sense of what he did or why it was causing him so much stress. He would say he was stressed but then a single phone call would clear up the problem; or he would whine that he wasn’t going to have space for everything he wanted because the big, bad (I don’t really know how to describe his antagonists here–building owners? angry stupid rich people? who did he answer to, anyway?) didn’t give him enough space. But then later he’d turn around and need to commission something new from a different artist…why do you need more art if you’re already worried about space for what you have?

Finally, as a romance this story fails the “why aren’t they together now?” question at nearly every stage, because the couple is together for most of the book, and there’s nothing really to keep them apart. There’s no real tension in their relationship, because they’re so open and honest with each other about nearly everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see men talking about their feelings, whether it’s m/m romance or not–but the only “obstacle” they encounter late in the story is Cam hiding his almost-hockey-career. From Cam’s perspective, it’s not even framed as a lie, just as an “I haven’t told you this yet” because a) they’re not serious yet, and b) he’s enjoying the relative anonymity. Noah finds out accidentally from Cam’s brother, sits on that knowledge for a chapter or two, then immediately forgives Cam without any fuss when he confesses. So, again, no tension. Cam’s ex is a total piece of trash who obviously isn’t going to storm back into his life, no matter how the brother worries Cam would take him back–obvious, pointless red herring. And there’s never any reason to suspect Cam is going to return to hockey and leave Noah behind, so the ultimate question of relationship success is merely “are they compatible or not?”

Which the narrative made it clear very early that they are. Their happy ending was inevitable–this is a romance, after all–but it was never once truly threatened, so I never had a reason to get invested.

#114 – In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

  • Read: 8/1/20 – 8/3/20
  • Around the Year: A book about a non-traditional family
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book about friendship
  • Mount TBR: 102/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Oh, boy, this is going to be messy. Unpopular opinions ahead!

What did I like about this? Luke is a treasure. He is best boy. I cannot fully express with mere words how much I love this child and need him to be happy. He is the only reason I finished this book.

As for the rest of it, I can give passes to a few things it attempted to do but failed to achieve, and I dislike the rest.

I’m always harping about the missing b-word, so credit where credit is due, Elliot eventually grows comfortable enough with his sexuality to actually use the word “bisexual.” Several times, in fact. I don’t mind that it took him so long because it’s obviously part of his coming-of-age arc. I’m less impressed with the fact that he is, by far, the one with the most active sex life, because while it shows that it’s possible for someone to learn and grow from failed relationships, even that young, it also plays into the promiscuous, flighty stereotype. The text does attempt to address this in the later stages with Elliot bracing for someone to reject him for admitting he’s bisexual, but it’s little more than a lampshade acknowledging that he fits the stereotype. As a bisexual person myself, I’m honestly conflicted about this, because there’s some good and some bad about Elliot as bi rep.

I think that pales in comparison to his place in the story as the outsider with a clear savior complex. While it’s not “white savior” in the classic sense, because everyone in this book is white, it’s impossible not to view the various fantasy species as Other when so much of the plot revolves around inter-species tension, whether it’s on the societal or personal level. But here comes Elliot, the snarky bratty pacifist who’s so much smarter than everyone else, he’s going to prove to this entire fantasy world that war isn’t the answer and his way is soooooo much better. The fact that nearly everyone in our world would agree–war is awful and we’d be better off without it–doesn’t mean he isn’t tromping in to impose his thinking on inferior (to his view) cultures. I can agree with his moral viewpoint without endorsing his actions or attitudes.

Also, I don’t like Elliot as a person. I can’t simply label his meanness as bullying, because that implies he’s seeking some sort of power over the people he mistreats, and he mostly isn’t. He’s just a deeply unpleasant person who takes literal years to realize other people have feelings too, and his behavior for 70% of the story is disgusting and cruel. I can tell I’m supposed to like him, because oh look he’s a sad boy with a bad home life and he’s unwanted and unloved and that’s why he’s the way he is…but I stopped falling for that trick years ago. I’ve had enough people in my life who were constantly, offhandedly cruel but somehow expected me to understand that they didn’t really mean it, they were just joking, hey why are you so offended. But that’s not even the case with Elliot, because we’re inside his head, and he’s not joking. He really does think everyone else is stupid, and even by the end of the book when he can grudgingly admit that some people aren’t so bad, I still didn’t like him.

On a smaller but still dissatisfying note, Serene got tiring quickly. The whole “elves are sexist but in favor of women” was a joke that started out decent but didn’t last through the whole book, and it’s not empowering for me as a woman to have a female character being as much of a raging misandrist as some real-world men are misogynist. It’s not a subversion, it’s just a reversal, and it’s not interesting for long.

So there are my issues with the story. I also have issues with the writing itself. I appreciate the effort put into showing how characters are feeling–especially Luke, who gets most of his characterization through displaying how angry or not he is with whatever insulting thing Elliot’s just said. The slow burn of this romance is telegraphed through four years of schooling and over four hundred pages–that’s the other thing that made this read at all bearable for me.

But the rest of the plot is thinner than a steamrolled penny and has pacing issues out the wazoo. If I lost focus for even a second and accidentally skipped a paragraph, the characters who I thought were in the library might suddenly be in the middle of a battle. Fights started out of seemingly nothing. Conversations usually seemed to start somewhere in the middle with no context. Scene breaks might cover thirty seconds, or months. There was no real structure beyond “this part of the book is this year of school and Elliot is this age” and the knowledge that time does indeed proceed forward, not backward, not sideways, as there’s no time travel. Events that most other books would emphasize were breezed past so we could have more time with Elliot being cranky–instead of those events being opportunities for him to grow as a character through his actions, they’re wayposts, mere plot points the story has to have but doesn’t want to linger on, so we can get back to the “good” part, the constant teenage angst.

I might have loved this when I was a teenager myself, but as an adult, I have no patience with it. Even knowing that this humor is supposed to be genre-mocking, at least partially tongue-in-cheek, most of it didn’t land for me, because as hard as I tried, Elliot never grew more funny or likable.

#115 – Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

  • Read: 8/3/20 – 8/6/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo (Keep It Simple version: set in Japan)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set on an island
  • Mount TBR: 103/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout this novel, moments of emotion I connected to. I have been depressed in my life; I have been alone; I have questioned my worth as a person because of my mental illness.

But if the character I was most interested in, who I most sympathized with, was Naoko, who quite obviously was never going to survive this story, then I don’t think this book was written for me.

This work is deeply misogynistic, but what I’m having trouble with is separating the misogyny that’s realistic/expected for the time and place, and thus appropriate for the story as a work of historical fiction, from the misogyny that’s a part of the author’s worldview. Yes, this book has a male protagonist, Toru, surrounded by complex female characters who are all important to him in some way and drive the plot forward. Generally that’s a good thing, but here, all of the women are portrayed as badly damaged. Naoko is beautiful and pure(ish) and lovable, but also struggling with an unnamed but obviously complex mental illness that isolates her from Toru. Midori is cute and fun and much more available (despite having an offscreen boyfriend for most of the book) but also emotionally manipulative and sometimes downright abusive. Reiko generally functions as the wise mentor character, as much as possible while still acknowledging that she has her own issues, but then at the very end she’s out of the care facility and sexually available to Toru, in a scene that I both saw coming from miles away and yet still can’t quite believe actually happened.

When you boil this story down to its bones, Toru himself might not view all women in terms of their sexual availability; he tires of meaningless sex with random women quickly, he decides to wait for Naoko and thus refuses Midori at first, and with Midori herself, they’re friends long before sex enters the picture. So Toru doesn’t fare too badly with me for his treatment of women, and the mistakes he makes along the way are understandable given his circumstances. He learns; he grows.

But I can’t help feeling that author sees women that way, because ultimately if there’s a named woman in this book, she’s got to perform a sexual act with the protagonist at some point. Maybe they serve another purpose in the story (Naoko being symbolic of Toru’s past, Reiko as the mentor, Midori as the future or at least its possibilities) but none of them escape the need to be sexually available to the protagonist to justify their place in the story. Reiko bothers me most in this context–I can understand why Naoko and Midori are viewed in terms of sex, they’re the two spokes of the past-future false love triangle. But why did Toru need to sleep with Reiko? It doesn’t further his arc, he would have “chosen” Midori in the end anyway. It doesn’t further hers, because if it does then that means sex made her a “real” person again after her long isolation and that’s just gross, thanks I hate it.

I almost put this book down long before any of this twisted sex-death dynamic came to light, because there’s a short list of famous works that are always red flags to me when I see them referenced, and The Great Gatsby is front and center here early on. If a creator draws on that (or a few other select titles) I’m almost guaranteed not to enjoy the work they made because there’s a fundamental disconnect between what they value and think is good, and what I value and think is good. I kept going in this case because it was clear that reading literature was part of Toru’s characterization as the young college student, and it didn’t necessarily predict that the entire work was going to be tainted by association. And since it’s been a long time since I was forced to pick apart Gatsby sentence by sentence for my high school English class, I don’t immediately see parallels between the stories that make any sense–this isn’t derivative of the classic or leaning on it thematically. Yet in the end, I’m wishing I had paid attention to that red flag, because ultimately I’m drained by this and honestly believe that I would be better off not having read it, despite those brief flashes of brilliance and connection I had.

This is a depressing work dealing with heavy topics in such a way that I didn’t gain any catharsis from it. It takes a rather grim view of mental health, despite individual characters doing their best to heal or stay strong in the face of illness; Naoko’s suicide was both predictable and inevitable. The lack of resolution in the ending leaves me unsettled in a way I don’t enjoy.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #29)

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#109 – Your Irresistible Love, by Layla Hagen

  • Read: 7/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 97/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that didn’t take long. DNF @ 27%, and let me show you the quote that did it.

“Nothing. She’s a grown woman. We have to respect her decisions.”

Out of context, I’m all for this. In context, it pissed me off to no end. The hero says this to his younger brother because they’ve both been excluded from attending their sister’s divorce hearing; she doesn’t want them there, and so they’re not going.

Too bad this is a complete 180 for the hero, who has been irritating me right from the beginning with his utter inability to respect the heroine’s boundaries. She says she can’t accept his gift of a spa afternoon because she barely knows him; he refuses to take it back and insists she use it. She says she wants to explore San Francisco on her own because she’s new to town; he insists on going with her. She explicitly states that they can’t date because she’s a consultant newly assigned to his company and there’s a clause about it in her contract; he asks, “Is there really no way around that?”

He’s a control freak, and he gets what he wants. I was tolerating him even though he was acting inappropriately because the heroine a) was constantly flirting right back, which made it seem more like a game than being pursued by a creeper; and b) never stuck to those boundaries she attempted to set for more than two minutes at a time. She uses that gift card. She goes with him around San Francisco and has a great day. And at the point where I’ve given up reading, she’s actually considering how to get around that no-dating-the-boss bit of her contract. She’s clearly enabling his pursuit, despite her lip service to the contrary. So their dynamic isn’t one that sets my world on fire, but I didn’t consider it as harmful in this case as I so often do in other stories when a man thinks it’s sexy to keep pushing a woman to accept him.

But if the hero outright states that he’ll respect his sister’s decisions, while constantly challenging his love interests…

That doesn’t sit right with me.

I wasn’t really enjoying the book anyway, it’s got plenty of other issues. Stilted and unnatural dialogue, flat characters, weird pacing. I was hanging on in case things got better when they actually got together, but now I see I don’t need to, because I simply can’t respect the hero and his double standard for women’s autonomy.

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#110 – Knocking Boots, by Willow Winters and Vivian Wood

  • Read: 7/24/20 – 7/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 98/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

On top of everything else I didn’t like about this book, it has the absolute worst description of a penis that I’ve ever read in a romance novel: “…two soda cans stacked end to end.”

First of all, nobody’s schlong is really that big. Second, even if I’m wrong about that and this gargantuan penis does exist, that’s the least sexy way possible to describe it. I am not attracted to a man because he has a big penis, and I am definitely not attracted to the idea of two soda cans stuffed into someone’s jeans.

And that’s a microcosm for a lot of my issues with the book. The situations don’t make sense or aren’t realistic, and then also aren’t sexy. If I’m a lonely single thirty-year old woman who’s having fertility issues, you want to guess who one of the last people on earth I would talk to them about would be? The hot bartender I have a crush on. (I mean, I wouldn’t be telling any bartender, but especially not the hot one I have a crush on.)

If this is supposed to show me how close they are before their fake-then-maybe-real relationship starts, it doesn’t, because HE’S A BARTENDER. YOU ARE PAYING HIM TIPS TO LISTEN TO YOUR PROBLEMS. The book doesn’t even pretend to examine the customer/employee dynamic, the hot bartender is a totally fine target for the heroine’s lust and it’s totally okay that she starts hanging around the employees-only sections of the bar without explicit permission and no there couldn’t possibly be any fallout for the business if this relationship tanks, why would you think that?

Another supposed-to-be-sexy-but-isn’t situation: heroine paints an erotic picture, it’s for sale at her friend’s booth at an art fair. She calls him up, hey want to go on a fake date to this art fair? He sees the painting and buys it after finding out she painted it. She’s embarrassed but turned on.

A) if you’re that embarrassed by your work, why is it for sale in a public place? B) if you’re not embarrassed in general but you didn’t want Mr. Bartender seeing it, why did you bring him? C) if you allowed both of those conditions to be met because you actually did want him to see it, then why are you embarrassed at all? What am I supposed to get from this scene? Because it doesn’t make sense.

The plot is a basic case of baby lust vs. commitment-phobia, and yeah, that’s a thing, but the bartender doesn’t even really get over his “I don’t want to settle down” attitude. At one point (I forget whether this is during actual sex or just one of his fantasies) he’s “cured” by wanting to give the heroine the baby she so desperately desires, and then poof! his issue is gone. There’s no real self-examination, and his semi-tragic backstory to explain why he’s anti-commitment doesn’t really enter into it. It’s just over! Time for a happy ending!

Even if this is a trope I actually wanted to read, this is a really poor example of it. Not recommended.

#111 – The Runaway Bride, by Sandra Chastain

  • Read: 7/25/20 – 7/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 99/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I did a double take when I checked the publication date for this. 1999? This reads like an ’80s romance novel.

The characters are all uniformly bland, mostly because they’re all defined by being stubborn. Both of our lovebirds are stubborn, refusing to bow to the dictates of their parents and/or society. All of the supporting characters are also primarily defined by being stubborn–the plucky little urchin Joe/Josie living a pickpocket-runaway lifestyle, unmarried Ginny with her baby on the way who refuses to give up hope that she can make a good life for herself Out West, the fathers and business partners and villains–all just stubborn with little else in the way of personality.

I picked this up originally because the setting and time period were unusual for the historical romances I’ve encountered–post-Civil-War America (not during) and at least partially set in the West, but definitely not a typical cowboy Western. I thought romance in the era of railroad expansion might be interesting, but it wasn’t. It was bland. The railroad plot drove the story far more than the romance did, aided by what I consider to be the biggest flaw of the book–absolute transparency about what the villains were up to. Every so often there’d be a scene break and we’d peek in on some rich jerk back East plotting the downfall of our hero and his father. So when the big explosion happened, derailing the train and putting everyone in danger, there was no mystery–obviously someone was out to get them. Obviously somebody set those explosives, we already watched them cackle devilishly about it. So there was no tension. And we know all along who the “spy” in the hero’s camp is, but I don’t think knowing that adds to the story in any way, despite the spy getting his own romantic subplot.

The story wanted to make sure I had every bit of information I needed to understand what was going on, to the point where nothing was surprising and I didn’t have to think at all.

Lastly, it should be said that, this being set in the era of major westward expansion, Native Americans show up in the story. Early mentions of them being obstacles to the railroad spur set my teeth on edge, despite being historically accurate; but these were mostly coming from the mouths of the villains, so it was bearable. When they appear later as actual characters, they were generally treated with the sort of racism that also appears to be historically accurate, but that didn’t make it easier to read. The hero and heroine in their own fashions work as best they can within the context of their setting limitations to be “good,” egalitarian people and treat the Native characters well, but whether or not it would have actually happened that way (surely not everyone in that time period was awful, there must have been outliers) it came across strongly as putting modern views retroactively onto historical characters. I would rather have seen a plot line that didn’t require a potential feud with a Native tribe at all, so all of this could have been avoided.

The actual romantic elements of this romance were stilted and strange at best, while the larger story suffered from a lack of tension. I’m giving it that second star mostly because it was more entertaining than the two romances I saddled with one star a piece last week, but really it’s more of a one and a half. Nothing stands out in this book as noteworthy that would make me want to recommend it or reread it.

#112 – Blood of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 7/27/20 – 7/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 100/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

[StrongBad voice] IT’S OVERRRRRR!!!

Lots of you aren’t going to get that reference, but it’s exactly how I feel so I don’t care.

I don’t really care about this ending, either. I’m honestly a little amazed that once again, Hobb manages to tie up so many plot threads so neatly; but I’m just as amazed how little it affected me after spending three books with these characters.

Maybe because each individual ending felt so lackluster within the whole.

I was tolerating the Tats/Thymara/Repskal love triangle, even though I generally dislike the trope, because it was being used to give us useful information about the characters and to show the growth pains of founding a new society that could shed the restrictions of the old one. I was still sure pretty much the whole time that Tats was end-game, and no surprise there, I was right. But having Repskal sink too far into the Elderling memories and become a different person should have been a bigger plot point than simply making him ineligible for Thymara’s affections. After her rejection, he goes off to fight the big battle at the climax and I honestly thought he might die, just to drive the point home, as Greft did back in book 2. But no, he and a few other dragons and keepers finish the book offscreen in Chelced. I’m not saying he needed to die, but I don’t think that ending is satisfying.

Introducing a “love” triangle in the dragons to mirror them (sort of) at this late stage in the story felt odd and unnecessary. Tintaglia returning to the young dragons after her absence and finding them altered by their long contact with humans was great–her bewilderment at Kalo’s treatment of her was priceless, and this is one of the stronger aspects of the book, that the human/dragon changes aren’t a one-way street. But the plot couldn’t ignore Icefyre’s existence so it either had to kill him off or give him something to do, and that something was apparently be the spoke of a mating triangle.

(Also, doesn’t it invalidate the Tawny Man trilogy somewhat that killing/releasing Icefyre was the Big Quest of the series, and releasing him meant mating with Tintaglia so dragons get to survive, only it ends up she gets another mate entirely? I know that’s not clear at the time that that’s possible, or even from the outset of this series when the new generation are disfigured runts who won’t all survive, but still, if Icefyre had been killed in Fool’s Fate instead, Tintaglia’s arc here would have been different but she still would have had a viable mate available by the end. Takes some of the narrative wind out of the TM trilogy’s sails.)

Selden’s plot was more developed here than in previous books, though still thin compared to others. I’m not sure it had the room to breathe as much as it should have, but it wasn’t bad and I’m not unhappy with it.

Reyn and Malta and their baby? I don’t know, I never felt the tension. Maybe I was too sure the kid wouldn’t die, and I didn’t really believe Tintaglia would, so it fell flat.

As for Leftrin and Alice and Hest, Sedric and Carson, it all came out pretty much exactly as I expected (and as it should.) I enjoyed Sedric’s confrontation with Hest, and honestly the high point of the book for me was Hest’s eventual fate. But Leftrin and Alice deciding to get married and stay in Kelsingra was such a foregone conclusion that having to lay it out felt weird.

Ultimately, this is a technically competent ending to the series in that it leaves few threads loose and provides clear resolutions to everything the books have been juggling, but somehow most of it failed to move me emotionally even though I was invested in these characters earlier in the series (notably book 2, which I thought was amazing and rated 5 stars.)

This Week, I Read… (2020 #27)

#103 – Sphere, by Michael Crichton

  • Read: 7/10/20 – 7/11/20
  • Mount TBR: 93/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with the night sky on the cover (or a black cover)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Given that I saw the movie once, twenty years ago, and remember not being impressed, I was prepared to be disappointed by this. I recalled a few key events of the plot, but not the ending, and of course I didn’t know what got changed or cut for the adaptation anyway.

To my page-turning delight, I was not disappointed. For a good chunk of the book, I can honestly say I was enthralled. Give me unreliable narrators, mysterious technology of unknown origin, and lots of action, and I will be glued to the page. It’s been a while since I read a thriller that was actually thrilling.

But this isn’t flawless, and some I can forgive more than others. Crichton’s writing style has always been more adequate than good, and this one in particular is heavy on dialogue and military jargon that hasn’t aged well. In fact, this book is so reliant on then-current technology for its setting that a reader who was not alive in 1987 might be mystified by some of it, and god only knows this plot wouldn’t work half so well with 2020 technology. It’s still good sci-fi if you also consider it historical fiction of a quite recent time period.

So that’s reasonable in my eyes, but the character issues…those are dicier. Part of the reason this feels so heavy on dialogue is that a great deal of the conflict is character-based, which requires more development than say, Jurassic Park. Not that it’s not a fantastic book/movie for other reasons, but those characters are pretty thin. Here, though, by the end those well-developed characters (relatively speaking, for a Crichton novel) are broken back down to incredibly simple archetypes as part of demonstrating how they would break under stress–the hyper-intelligent black man becomes paranoid that the two white characters are teaming up against him because of his race; the white woman is convinced she’s a constant victim of sexism throughout her life, culminating in the remaining man trying to wrest control from her; that one remaining man, a middle-aged white psychologist, cannot conceive that he might be the one at fault and is quick to diagnose the others as the problems.

All of it is reasonable, sure; it could happen that way. But it all felt simplistic, reductionist. And because of the events leading up to this flattened view of the characters, because of the pacing which had a bunch of solid action before a meandering and philosophical climax, I did feel a bit let down by the ending. Not in what happened, precisely, but in how it unfolded. The beginning was a big of a slog to set up the mystery, the middle was fun and strange and sometimes pulse-pounding, but the end was cerebral and reflective, lacking some of the tension I wanted.

#104 – The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

  • Read: 7/11/20 – 7/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 94/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have so many issues with this that I’m not even sure how to make a structured review out of them. I’m usually pretty good at that.

It’s too long and too slow. Lots of padding. Some of the padding I actually liked–sure, the descriptions of Janus Rock and how lighthouses work didn’t need to be as fleshed out as they were for the story to function, but at least they were interesting to me. The plot did not justify all the extraneous POV characters who took control for a few pages to little purpose, nor did I want to read the history of every person who had ever had even the most tangential connection to the main characters, especially the kid.

The first half and second half felt like different books. The first half is centered on isolation and grief and family and the lighthouse; the second half is “this is where everything goes wrong and now everyone’s life is constantly miserable forever.”

The ending is unsatisfying. It’s not sad, it’s not happy, it provides no clear message and gives no closure.

None of the characters felt sympathetic to me. The narrative sure spent lots of time explaining everyone’s motivations for their selfish actions, but failed to make me feel anything about them other than bewilderment or disgust. No one was great, but Isabel was the worst–I could tolerate her at first by reminding myself that her selfishness was born from intense grief, but when they got found out and she turned on Tom in a fit of ridiculous melodrama, I couldn’t pretend anymore. Her argument was basically “You didn’t help me keep committing this crime so clearly you never loved me or our fake daughter and I will hate you forever!” Am I supposed to feel bad for this woman? Because I barely did to begin with, and after that point in the story I definitely didn’t.

(As a side note, strangely enough, I was actually hoping this might be good because I have the movie tie-in cover, and somehow, despite his popularity, I’ve never seen a movie starring Michael Fassbender. I hear he’s great, but the only thing I’ve seen from his entire career is 300, and he had such a small part, and also I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I’m not watching this movie. Even if it’s better than the book, that still doesn’t mean it would be good, and since I didn’t like the story at all…)

#105 – Like Falling Stars, by Avalon Roselin

  • Read: 7/14/20 – 7/16/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is outside my usual reading tastes–I rarely read middle-grade anymore and I’ve had a bad run lately with fairy-tale-like books–but it was one of this month’s selections for the indie-author book club I belong to. I ended up with some strongly mixed feelings, so let’s start with the good stuff.

I liked a lot about this. Structurally it’s basically a slow-burn friend-mance; I recognize a lot of story beats from a typical romance, though friendship is the end goal here, as is carefully and tactfully pointed out from time to time. And that’s a better take on the young(ish) girl/immortal-and-much-older man dynamic that never seems to go completely out of style. Faeries and humans are different enough, and Nicolas himself isolated enough, that it’s more believable that Ann is opening him up to friendship and not romantic love.

I love that Nicolas is a crafter/artist. He sews, he paints, he bakes, he candy-makes. (Yes, I made up that word for to get a rhyme. What can I say, this is a pretty lighthearted read.) He’s stuffy and stiff-necked and insecure, while also being intelligent and yes, kind, when he’s motivated to be. His fumbling early attempts to be a good host are adorable, and everything related to the in-universe book Caring For Your Human was utterly charming.

Ann I found to be more challenging to know and like as a character. In the end, there’s some justification for that, and clues to her history hidden within the issues I had with her, so I can’t say much without spoiling that completely. But the very vagueness of her amnesia made her difficult to pin down, unpredictable. I can appreciate the craft involved in her portrayal, but retroactively it doesn’t really make me more comfortable with her or her role in the story. (Also, she treats everyone she meets like they already know she has amnesia, even when she doesn’t tell them, and every single one of them takes it completely in stride. I’m trying to chalk that up to “this is a fairy tale” but that threw me whenever it happened.)

Which leads me to the things I didn’t care for as much. Ann is one step up from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in function, and I don’t like that dynamic in general, but especially when 90% of the other characters are male…seriously, where are the women in Faerie? There’s the Queen, she’s important, and there are some random girl faeries at the Yule party. (I don’t recall any really being mentioned earlier on at the fall festival.) All of Nicolas’ friends/former friends are male–his predecessor was female but she’s long gone. The town librarian is male and has a boyfriend he constantly mentions. So the only other woman of importance in the story is the witch…who is not the greatest person at any point in the story for a number of reasons.

Yeah, sure I love that the book is queer-inclusive, but it rings a little hollow if the only queer relationships shown are m/m, even when romantic relationships aren’t the point of the story. Why don’t any of those random female faeries at the Yule party that Ann makes friends with for about ten seconds introduce their girlfriends? On top of all of the important friendships in Nicolas’ past being exclusively male relationships, this felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth. It feels like male relationships are being prioritized (aside from Nicolas’ growing friendship with Ann–but hey, her friendship “fixes” his other friendships, so it’s still kind of about men.)

So Ann does have an arc of her own, which means she’s not fully MPDG, but if half of her purpose is to discover who she is, then the other half is to make Nicolas less of a jerk through the power of friendship. I don’t think it’s the greatest look, especially for a younger target audience, that the heroine (who has a murky backstory for reasons) is constantly spending a great deal of her emotional energy trying to better the life of the hero who has a rich and complex backstory complete with lost friendships and long-held grudges, who is part of a richly detailed and complex society, and what’s more, who has power in that society. That imbalance between the development of their characters, while understandable eventually for Plot Reasons, made me uncomfortable the whole way through.

My last complaint is that this book felt longer than its actual run time. It meanders through the plot at a relaxed pace, and the narrative style often errs on the side of wordy and complex, which I think is strange for a MG novel–usually those are written more simply, with straight-forward grammar and structure.