This Week, I Read… (2020 #24)

#92 – City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 6/18/20 – 6/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 85/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book about dragons
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Aahh, the dreaded filler book. This feels to me much the same way that Dragon Keeper did before I got to the majesty of Dragon Haven. Not a lot happens to move the plot forward–not nothing, but not a lot. A good chunk of this book was spent reintroducing neglected characters as brief POVS (Tintaglia, Malta, Selden) all of whom I’m glad to see back, but it’s just setting them up at the edge of the chess board so they can make their moves later–none of them really “do” much other than decide to move somewhere else, be forced by circumstance to move somewhere else, or in Selden’s case, are forcibly moved somewhere else against their will.

I’m sure it’s all going to be important, but it really doesn’t amount to much yet.

That systemic flaw aside, there is good stuff here about Kelsingra and how interesting it is, though the fact that I was interested in it meant I wished there had been more than we were given. I wanted to see the whole of this mysterious Elderling city that I’ve only glimpsed before, as characters visited it through the stone portal magic, or in memory, across the many books so far. Someday, when I have the time and energy to reread the whole series from the beginning, it’s going to mean a lot more to me when the tower window gets broken and I’m all like I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW IT’S SO COOL. (Still haven’t figured out the deal with the damn rooster crown, though. It keeps showing up but I haven’t put the pieces together yet. The final trilogy with Fitz and the Fool better finish that up.)

Overall, the series is a marvel of plotting and world-building, and that’s still true here as a piece of the whole, it’s just a short and relatively featureless piece that spends all its time setting up for the more interesting stuff that’s coming.

#93 – So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

  • Read: 6/19/20 – 6/21/20
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Listen to an audiobook + Read something outside your comfort zone
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

An excellent and organized primer on how to engage with race as a topic for those who don’t already know how–which is a lot of people.

Different people are going to get different things out of this book, and given its title and its black author, I did expect going in that it was going to be aimed squarely at white people. It’s not. Oluo takes time to acknowledge, quite often in fact, the ways that different groups of people of color can be biased again each other, which is a part of the conversation that I (being white) am not often privy to. The advice she gives about how to examine yourself for privilege and how to dismantle your learned biases apply to everyone; while white people might benefit most by taking this book seriously (and then doing what they can to change the culture of white supremacy,) anyone can benefit. There are many pieces of advice for people of color on how to handle interacting with racist people and microaggressions, their rights to stand up for themselves vs. the pressure to educate others, and plenty more that does not in any way apply to me, but I still found helpful to learn about.

Topics were divided by chapter, and some were more basic than others, but I value the goal of meeting everyone where they are. I did not need Oluo to teach me why I cannot ever-ever-ever use the n-word, I knew that; but others might not. I think the most illuminating chapter for me personally was on Asian-Americans as the model minority–this really isn’t talked about much in my sphere, and while I was aware of a few of the classic stereotypes of East Asians specifically, I did not know about many others, nor about the vast disparities in wealth, education, and opportunity that correlate closely with country of origin. While this topic wasn’t covered in depth (it’s not the point of the book) I’m concerned enough by my lack of knowledge that it’s something I want to investigate further.

And that’s really the point of this work, a starting point. If someone is new to educating themselves on anti-racism, this is an accessible entryway, a good first read. It would make a poor only read because it provides an introductory view on many topics but doesn’t cover anything in depth, except perhaps the personal struggles of the author herself as a black woman, as that’s a narrative thread carried throughout the book. What I’m taking away from this work is that, while I may know and already practice much of what Oluo wants to tell me, she’s done an excellent job pointing out where I can improve, and I need to educate myself further on those issues.

#94 – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World, by Steve Brusatte

  • Read: 6/22/20 – 6/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 86/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The book fell down for me on several fronts. DNF @ page 99, and once I outline my growing qualms with the presentation throughout the first chapters, I’ll share the quote that made me set the book down for good.

Issue #1: The author is quietly sexist in a way I’m sure many people wouldn’t notice, but I did. I read an article several years ago concerning the troubling tendency of Western journalism to infantilize women by referring to them only by their first names, while men in similar circumstances would be referred to by their last names. It’s not by any means universal; the current round of think pieces on the most recent J.K. Rowling debacle aren’t calling her “Joanne,” for example. But it does happen, and since becoming aware of it, I’ve seen it crop up in many places. In fact, a well-liked review on Goodreads of a book I recently read does it, referring to the female author repeatedly by her first name, despite being positive and respectful in most other ways. (Yes, the reviewer is male.)

In Dinosaurs, Brusatte name drops many, many colleagues, mentors, and well-regarded pillars of paleontology and geology. All of them are introduced by full names, but the men (with one exception) are thereafter referred to by last name, while the comparatively few women are referred to by first name only. The particular instance that brought this home to me was the “skilled geologist Jessica Whiteside,” whom Brusatte takes great pains to laud as brilliant, amazing, and so forth, to the point where it seemed he heaped praise on her in an effort to not sound sexist. But then she was “Jessica” for the rest of the section about her, while a man in the same position would have been “Whiteside,” like most of the other men referred to so far in this work. (The lone exception was person who entered the narrative as a teenager and was referred to by his first name presumably because of his youth, which carried over even after the tale was describing his adult work. There was another similar anecdote later in the book of a scientist who got started young but did not receive the same lack of respect re: naming conventions; I have no sure explanation for that, and I realize it weakens my argument slightly. If I had kept reading, maybe I would have found other women who were not treated in this manner, but that’s not good enough reason for me to keep reading, nor to stop me from calling this out.)

To some this might seem like extreme nitpicking, but it left a foul taste in my mouth.

Issue #2: This book can’t decide what it wants to be. There’s science in it, sure, like the title says–I have read things about the rise of the dinosaurs, and I’ve stopped long before I get to their fall, but I’m sure it happens. And what science there has been so far has been interesting. I had a dinosaur phase as a kid, I was obsessed, I memorized names and average sizes and diets and whatever other facts I could get my hands on. Eventually I grew out of it–at least in the sense that I moved on to other fascinations–but I’m not not interested in dinosaurs as an adult, and the early part of this book promised me a paradigm shift, because I’ve been out of touch with the facts about them for thirty years. Thirty years can do a lot to change a scientific field. I was intrigued.

So why am I spending so much time reading about the boys’ club of field researchers? Why is the author trying to hard to seem cool? Why do I care who you have beers with and what type of pub you’re in? Why is so much of these first 99 pages about what chill guys you all are? I suppose that little peeks of the behind-the-scenes of field research could be fun if used sparingly, or even just to make me appreciate what hard work it can be to make these discoveries, but the tone I got from this was that the author desperately wants to prove he’s not a nerd, despite, you know, being a paleontologist and writing a book about dinosaurs. I’m not here for this ego stroking, I wanted to read about the world blowing up and how the dinosaurs dealt with it, until they couldn’t anymore. (There has been some of that, lava and continents tearing and noxious gases. That’s been fun.)

Issue #3: The quote that killed my patience with this book completely. For context, we’ve reached the part of the tale when Pangea splits and the resulting cataclysm precipitates another extinction event, toppling the ecosystem of the late Triassic period and starting the Jurassic, when dinosaurs flourished while many of their previously strong competitors died out.

After stating that the mystery of why the dinosaurs thrived while other groups went extinct “quite literally has kept me up at night” and going on to spend a full paragraph asking hypothetical questions about what might have caused it, he drops this bomb:

Maybe dinosaurs were just lucky. Perhaps the normal rules of evolution are ripped up when such a sudden, devastating, global catastrophe happens.

No. Hard no. The author’s personal failure to know what it was about the dinosaurs that spurred their survival does not equal “maybe evolution is meaningless.” No one else knows the answer yet either, and maybe we never will, but an absence of evidence does not mean we chuck our understanding of a fundamental principle of biology–I’m only going to question the validity of evolutionary theory if someone can present me credible evidence that some other system is responsible for producing the hundreds of years of observations that currently support evolution. There is a reason, or reasons, the dinosaurs were successful when other creatures were not, even if we will never pinpoint what those reasons were.

If Brusatte is joking or being hyperbolic with this statement for effect, I think poorly of him for bringing “luck” into a book about science and expecting me not to narrow my eyes at it. If he’s being serious, then I can’t take this work seriously, end of story.

#95 – Secrets of a Summer Night, by Lisa Kleypas

  • Read: 6/23/20 – 6/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 87/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Historicals have never been my go-to for romance, but as I’m still working through the many, many battered paperbacks I acquired several years ago at used book sales, attempting to change that fact, here I am with another middling review of a middling book.

Kleypas has fared better than some in my evaluation, but I’m still not enamored of her, and after four tries, I think she’s not my thing. Even among my general dislike for Regency England, this was just okay.

The problem is, as with many other similar novels, all the conflict is external. Sure, you might be persuaded into thinking that the love interests have internal conflicts about whether or not they should be together, but all their muddled thinking is strictly due to the rules of the society around them. Annabelle doesn’t like Simon because his personality and attitudes chafe against her delicate upper-crust sensibilities; Simon doesn’t even have an internal conflict, he just wants Annabelle however he can have her, and has no apparent problem switching from “mistress” to “wife” ambitions when the plot needs him too.

All this, to disguise the fact that once you set aside the classism and learned distaste of their relative positions in society, they’re actually perfect for each other; they have tons of fun when they forget they’re not supposed to.

And for some, I guess that’s the appeal of historical romances from this period (and any other that relies on strict class behavior keeping people apart,) but for me, it gets so tired, and this was a particularly tiring example.

But you’ll notice I still gave it three stars. So what did I like? Well, Simon is just fun, even if he’s not particularly deep. The writing style is smooth and palatable, without anything to keep me from being immersed in the story. And most importantly, this novel puts more emphasis than most on the importance of female friendship. Yes, the Wallflowers here band together with a husband-hunting scheme in mind, but their banter is hilarious, their personalities reasonably well-developed for being minor characters (though with plenty of room to grow in their own books later in the series) and they all do genuinely grow to care for each other, rather than using each other for their goal. I don’t plan on continuing the series because this subgenre continues not to be my cup of tea (outside of a very small pool of exceptional authors who could write phone books and I would still read them) but I do feel a twinge of sadness that I won’t be seeing the other three friends get their own happy endings, because I did enjoy them. Just not enough to keep wading through a genre I generally find mediocre at best.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #23)

#87 – Along Came Love, by Tracey Livesay

  • Read: 6/11/20 – 6/12/20
  • Mount TBR: 80/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I was hoping this would be better than the first book, but it was worse. Even setting aside my own dislike of surprise pregnancy stories, this was worse.

Early in the story, maybe one or two chapters apart, our hero Mike offers two different versions of his reaction to waking up and discovering Indi left at the end of their weekend together without saying goodbye. First, he’s grateful and relieved that he didn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of shooing his brief fling out of bed. (My reaction to this: kind of a dick move, but he’s got the whole book to grow into a better person, right?) But the second time he tells the reader how he felt, it was RAGE. RAGE that his little boho sexy beauty was gone, RAGE so bad that it took him a few days to feel able to interact with the rest of the world. (My two reactions to that: 1) how on earth can you feel both grateful and enraged that she left before you woke up, I don’t believe those feelings can coexist as you’ve presented them, and 2) am I really supposed to believe you formed such a connection with her in two days of marathon sex that you’re enraged that she left? Or is this rage because you no longer have access to her body?)

Because Mike has serious control issues about access to Indi’s body. Thankfully the narrative takes abortion off the table right away, Indi always intended to continue with the pregnancy, so at no point does Mike have to “convince” her not to abort. But he spends most of the book using emotional manipulation tactics to persuade her to allow him to raise the child rather than giving him up for adoption (I’m going with “him” because eventually they assigned “him” to the baby, whose gender was actually undeterminable at this point of her pregnancy.) Later in the story when she’s pretty okay with that idea, he ups the pressure and starts working on the idea of them sticking together as a family even though she’s made it clear she doesn’t want to be a mother.

But my problems don’t end there, because Mike also has a girlfriend, Skylar. He had his fling with Indi after Skylar left him, no issues with that, he was single. But they later got back together, and he’s about to propose. Literally, he intends to propose the evening of the day Indi re-enters his life. But Skylar is quite conveniently about to leave town on business, so instead of having to actually deal with the mess Indi’s making of his life plan and how it impacts his current relationship, the narrative shoves Skylar into a box for a while so Mike and Indi can have their screen time together. It takes until 70% for Mike to finally talk to Skylar about what’s happened and for them to break up with very little fanfare or negativity–but then, they were never a love match, they both say so, they were a high-powered business partnership willing to be married to each other for mutual social benefit and (presumably) sex. (I actually can’t recall if the book ever explicitly states that Mike and Skylar had a sexual relationship. Everything we do see of them together is incredibly dry and society-minded, so if you told me they weren’t sleeping together, I’d believe you.)

So, Mike is prone to controlling and manipulative behavior (remember, he’s the one in the first book who hired Chelsea in secret to deceive Adam in prepping for the company’s big presentation–that, at least, is consistent with his character) and also HE’S A CHEATER because he finger-bangs Indi but stops himself before they have penis-in-vagina sex, because apparently that’s the line where he thinks he’d be cheating. I guess it’s not “sex” to him if he doesn’t orgasm? Because Indi definitely does, and yeah, sorry, you’re a cheater, Mike, that was sex. You were having sex with Indi before you broke up with Skylar, and Indi even calls you on it, saying what you did “wasn’t fair to me or Skylar.” So, Indi, I guess you’re okay being with a cheater?

And man, I haven’t even gotten to how the entire book is the spawn of a single giant plot hole. Indi re-enters Mike’s life in the first place because she needs him to post bail for “breaking in” to Chelsea’s apartment because she’s not on the approved list of guests. It could all be cleared up with a single phone call before police ever get involved, but Chelsea’s on her honeymoon at a “no contact” resort, completely cut off from the outside world. Like, call the resort even if you can’t call Chelsea directly? They’ve got to have a policy in place for reaching guests in times of emergency. What if a guest’s family member died or something else life-altering like that? There’s absolutely no way they wouldn’t reach out to a guest in a crisis, and I think “loved one about to be arrested for a crime you could exonerate her from” would count. (But if we write that scenario logically there’s no plot, because she doesn’t need Mike for bail and then he doesn’t feel responsible for keeping her close by the rest of the book.)

I’m done, I’m out, I will not be continuing on with this series.

#88 – The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

  • Read: 6/12/20 – 6/14/20
  • Mount TBR: 81/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A solid follow-up to the amazing first novel of the series, but it didn’t quite live up to its predecessor for me.

The most impressive and emotional aspects, I found, were also some of the smallest. Most of the book is still “Isabella goes to do research, accidentally ends up involved in local politics, has a harrowing adventure,” and that’s all fine, I have no objections to the formula or most of how it was executed. But what I will take away from this, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the impending war between pseudo-African nations, is how the story handles women who don’t want to accept the narrow life society demands they live. It’s already obvious that Isabella herself will continue to reject that life, and she does, but the story also allows her to air her views on motherhood (which are shocking in the context of her society and unhappily, would still be the subject of criticism and censure by many today) and acknowledge the gender roles that limit women to being mothers in a way that never limits the fathers equally. On top of that, a secondary character, Natalie, gets to have her own (scanty but definitive) arc exploring her sexual identity, in the end, deliberately not choosing to marry and disavowing completely any interest in sex, no matter the gender of her partner. (Ace representation!)

Though it’s more minor, I also appreciate the growing relationship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker for being exactly what it is–awkwardly professional at first but eventually friendly, though dealing with the elephant in the room that others might expect them to engage in a romantic relationship. I found the entire dynamic charming.

What I didn’t like, strangely enough, was the end, and how flat and anti-climactic it felt. After all the adventure, Isabella goes through the end of the book entirely alone, we don’t find out what happens to the others for several chapters and even then they don’t reappear in the story until everyone’s safe at home in Scirland, a footnote. Isabella does her dramatic walk out of the jungle and saves the day–sort of–but then the book has to spend several chapters winding down through multiple layers of political maneuvering. It’s reasonably interesting, I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, but it’s such a letdown that the stage of the story I wanted to be her warm reunion with her colleagues/friends is actually forty pages of angry men bickering (or Isabella reporting that bickering in short, after the fact.) Sure, it concluded the plot adequately, but it didn’t feel like the proper end of the story.

#89 – A Princess in Theory, by Alyssa Cole

  • Read: 6/14/20 – 6/15/20
  • Mount TBR: 82/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a diverse book
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This is an odd duck to review, because I liked a lot of it and disliked a fair bit too, and it took me quite a bit of thinking in the hour since I finished (thank you, the mindless task of hand-washing dishes) to figure out what the root of the problem is: a problem I’m not sure I’ve ever had with a book before, which is why it was so hard to identify.

I just met two well-realized, vibrant characters who are stuck in a plot that doesn’t deserve them.

Ledi is a fantastic deconstruction of both the generic Strong Female Character and the Strong Black Woman. She’s smart and determined, certainly, but she’s also decided the wisest course toward life success is to bend under the weight of her problems, not break herself against them; the “pushover” flaw I see other reviewers criticizing her for is a carefully chosen survival strategy, that is both easy to empathize with and heartbreaking to watch in action.

Thabiso manages to betray his privileged upbringing in so many small ways without being a complete jerk all the time, which is a feat, but also without coming across as stupid rather than simply out-of-touch. It’s a hard tightrope to walk and one I rarely see authors do well (or at least to my satisfaction; I’m looking at you, dime-a-dozen billionaire or CEO romances.) Going into his deception of Ledi on a whim, without a game plan for getting out of it safely, was a dumb move that can be attributed to his arrogance; by the time he actually needs to extract himself from his false identity, his feelings have gotten involved and you just know it’s going to be a spectacular mess, but by then I also liked him enough to be sympathetic even though it’s his own damn fault.

Once the jig is up, in most books I would expect a quick turn around, an underdeveloped ending where after a chapter or two of wallowing, all is forgiven and we get our HEA. But no, the reveal of Thabiso’s identity happens far closer to the halfway point, maybe around 60% (? I didn’t make a specific note of exactly when, but it’s earlier than I expected.) In theory, I like that it takes time to rebuild their relationship, it takes time for Ledi to learn to trust Thabiso again. That’s fantastic–in isolation.

The problem is that in the second “half” of the book, when this necessary time to rebuild is going on, we’ve got an entirely new country/culture, many minor characters, and two faintly ridiculous subplots shoehorned into a little more than a hundred pages. You mean to tell me the medical establishment of this fictional nation can’t tell the difference between poisonings and a disease? That a mere handful of cases with no clear pattern of infection is treated as an “epidemic?” That literally no one has ever detailed the effects of over-ingestion of a common plant to the region that is so ubiquitous to the culture that its scent is one of Ledi’s memory markers? We know the harmful effects of basically every single plant ever cultivated in any garden in the world, why on earth is this a knowledge gap the plot leaves for Ledi to intuitively fill? And how freaking obvious is it from the very moment Alehk conspicuously hands her a mug of tea that he’s behind it all? I didn’t even know before then that the mysterious disease was actually a series of poisonings, but as soon as a suspicious man bearing tea shows up, it blows the entire subplot open. And I don’t really understand his motives, because the whole traitors-in-her-history family dynamic around Ledi is rushed and underdeveloped, with the revelations coming fast and furious and not clearly stacking neatly with each other.

So, basically, the first part of the book (just over half) is slow and thoughtful and goes into great detail setting up the characters and the romance, and the second part (just under half) would really benefit from being expanded into an entire second book, given the rushed pace and half-assed-ness of the plots, so that it didn’t feel like nonsense that was killing time while Ledi and Thabiso reconciled. If it hadn’t been so rushed, there could have been other potentially nefarious characters present to disguise the identity of the true villain. There could have been more time spent developing Thesolo as a nation and people, more time devoted to expanding Thabiso’s parents past their Sternly Disapproving trope (which the Queen stumbles past, briefly, when she softens slightly towards Ledi by the end, but that didn’t feel earned to me.)

There could have been an ending that felt truly triumphant instead of banged-together out of necessity from plot-scraps from other, better stories. The first part was an updated Coming to America, but the second part was, at best, a confused mashup of any half a dozen bad medical thrillers.

#90 – No Ordinary Star, by M.C. Frank

  • Read: 6/15/20 – 6/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 83/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book under 150 pages
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit fairy tale, a lot dystopian, and I’m getting just a hint of budding romance. It’s a strange mix that makes a strange little book with some surprising strengths and some obvious flaws.

First, it’s pretty clear that this is just the first act of the story packaged as a single volume, because this is all set-up with very little internal forward motion. The book ends just after we get to the first goal post–we know Felix has to get the clock running, and he finally finds the clock. It’s an abrupt cut-off point, though it might be logical in the larger context of the story. But that’s a problem, isn’t it? I feel like I can’t evaluate this honestly because I’m aware that I’m trying to review just the first act of something larger, so of course it’s not going to feel complete and I’m going to have problems with it.

Second, doing my best to set that aside; I think there’s a lot of potential in the world-building, but it’s thrown at us willy-nilly. I find the concepts themselves interesting–how different would society look if no one needs to sleep or eat? What would happen if a dictatorship forcibly separated men from women to different parts of the planet and criminalized interaction between them? How effectively can a leader strip the world of its history and culture to recreate society in their image, and what technology would that take? But the flow of information is clunky, handed to us flatly instead of being discovered through narrative, and nothing is explored in any real depth. (I’m not a fan, specifically, of how casually rape is mentioned for shock value; it’s not treated seriously at all. I would rather lean in on the psychological horror of a prison where you’re never allowed to sleep while you remain standing immobile, packed in a room with the other prisoners you’re not allowed to speak to. That’s novel, that’s interesting, that’s a whole wealth of trauma to explore, so why even add off-hand “and if you do fall asleep the guards will take you away and rape you to death” and that’s that.)

So much of Felix and Astra’s conversation is a tense push-pull of unthinking assumptions and missing information, so why can’t more of the state of the world be revealed through them talking to each other? Astra knows more about how Felix lived than he knows about her, so why doesn’t he learn more from her than he does? (Stubbornness, I suppose, but I’m getting to that.)

The greatest strength of this work, though, are the characters. I don’t fully understand the world they’re living in yet (I’ve got the second and third books, or maybe I should call them Acts II and III, to help me with that) but I do understand, at least a little bit, the characters and their motivations. Even if I don’t get why Ulysses wants Felix to finish the clock (if these two kids are going to be rebels, why would they be supporting the status quo?) I do understand why Felix would feel compelled to follow the orders he’s been given, he was raised a soldier. Even if weaning him of the drugs that kept him in line is making him question his place in the world, his underlying drive would still be to do as he’s told, he’s just changed commanders. And Astra? She’s a born rebel whose family and whose own actions have placed her outside of the protection of the law. Of course she wants to discover the treasure of old, forbidden books that would tell her about how things used to be, how things could be again someday.

I’ll keep reading. I have hope for this story. But it’s kind of a rough ride getting there.

#91 – Desperation, by Stephen King

  • Read: 6/16/20 – 6/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 84/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book over 450 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Reading this in just over a day as part of a readathon was a trip and a half, but honestly, even if I hadn’t been devoting as much free time as possible to reading, I would have had trouble putting this down. The tension starts right away, the action not long after, and then it’s insanity for half the book and good vs. evil for rest. It’s been a long time since I read a King novel that was as much a page-turner as this one, and the two of my favorites that stand out best to me–The Stand and Under the Dome–share a lot of common traits with this. Strong ensemble casts with interesting dynamics. An otherworldly pressure exerting influence on human behavior, bending it towards destruction and chaos. Equal shares of obvious death and creeping terror.

I often refer to King as one of my favorite authors, with the caveat that when he’s good, he’s great; but when he’s bad, he’s awful. I’ve read so many of his clunkers in a row, apparently, that I’d forgotten how persuasive a slap on the face his best works are.

I will say that this leans into Christianity far harder than either of the other works I’ve mentioned, even The Stand, and that’s saying something. As someone long divorced from her Christian upbringing, it was a strange experience to find myself so gripped by a narrative drenched in God and miracles, because usually I’m pretty jaded to it. But this wasn’t preachy (aside from clearly coming from someone who, at the time of writing, believed in God and miracles enough to use them positively in his fiction.) It was more that Christianity deeply informed the traits and behaviors of one character, and his actions gradually led others to believe. (Okay, yeah, David was a Jesus figure, I get it, he even did the loaves and fishes trick, it’s not subtle. I bring all this up because, somehow, I still loved the book anyway. That’s how compelling it was.)

This Week, I Read… (2020 #22)

#83 – Wednesday, by Kendall Ryan

  • Read: 6/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 78/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Ugh. I can’t fault it for being exactly what it says on the tin–dark, angsty, and burdened with near-constant sex. All of that is true. But it comes at the cost of having characters with personalities beyond “abusive and messed up” for the hero and “absolute doormat” for the heroine.

She even manages, somehow, to convince herself that she’s the one using him, despite the fact that, at the house after his wife’s funeral, he pulled her into a bathroom and starting taking her clothes off and proceeded to have sex with her. It’s not strictly non-consensual–she had plenty of opportunity to say no but never actually said yes either, and he certainly never bothered to ask.

But okay, fine, we’re setting up the “dark” tone and the hero has a hundred pages to get better, right? It comes along far too late and isn’t all that believable–suddenly there’s a hurricane! he could be in danger and she might never see him again and they might never figure out what to do about their super-twisted fuck-buddy situation! she’s worried! he shows up! he decides to turn over a new leaf and actually date her instead of just showing up at her house every Wednesday to have sex with her!

…really? A hurricane? I guess since she never once bothers to stand up for herself, it would take a natural disaster to make the hero change, because it’s not going to be anything she does.

The hero’s face-turn is a paper-thin veneer over an entire novella of abusive, possessive, unhealthy behavior, and the whole time THE HEROINE LITERALLY JUST LETS HIM DO WHATEVER BECAUSE SHE WANTS “TO BE THERE” FOR HIM.

#84 – A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

  • Re-read: 6/5/20 – 6/10/20
  • Original rating: 5/5 stars
  • Reread rating: 4.5/5 stars

I want to knock the rest of the series out this year, and while I read Dragons in April 2019, I’ve read so much else since (and so much has happened since!) that I didn’t remember the plot as well as I would like to before continuing on with the next novel. My original review was no help there, as I mostly spoke about the style of the book and how it made me feel, rather than any specifics of what happened.

So I reread, and I’m glad I did. Did I like the book as much the second time around? Nearly. Towards the end I was impatient with the intrigue plot that wraps everything up, because my memory had washed this title with a sort of science-based nostalgia, when in reality it’s just as much action and mystery. I felt scales tipping in that direction this time much more keenly, and while that doesn’t make it a bad book–far from it–it does take a little bit of the shine off, compared with what I remember.

This is actually the first time I’ve formally reread a book I previously reviewed, and I wasn’t even planning to write a second review for it, just make a few explanatory comments about why it was showing back up on the blog, and then I found I actually did have things to say. It’s still a great book, and I still recommend it.

#85 – Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi

  • Read: 6/3/20 – 6/10/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book on a subject you know nothing about
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This book turned my comfortable and complacent view of American history on its ear. I was aware before this that my decades-ago public-school education on the subject was lacking in nuance, and even to some degree sanitized, and my college education was spread across many other subjects–I never went back to fill in the gaps of what I knew I didn’t know, let alone question what I’d already been taught.

Almost all of it was inaccurate, as it turns out.

In addition to poking large holes in my concept of history, this gave me a new framework to think about racist ideas as a whole, with its assertion of a three-sided system rather than the simple two-sided one: the world isn’t divided into racist or non-racist, but segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist. This explained so much, and will give me a good grounding going forward in my anti-racism reading and learning journey. (At least until, and if, I come across a work presenting a different structure to the system of racist ideas.) Also of note, the assertion that racial hatred is not the source but the result of institutional racism, which actually comes from the political and economic self-interests of those in power; which is a complete reversal of how I had been taught to view racism, and again, it explains so much. People in positions of power create racist policies out of self-interest (thank you capitalism), which then creates the need to justify those policies, and out of those justifications, you get prejudice and intolerance and hatred.

My (minor) issues with this work are not content-based, but structural and tonal. This swings wildly and somewhat unpredictably between dry, factual history and excited activist exhortation, a sort of whiplash that never got easier for me to navigate. And while the structure appears neat from the outside, with the history broken into five parts surrounding a major historical figure of the day, so much of each section was completely unrelated to that person, and every so often, usually at the start of a chapter, the narrative would jump tracks from a tangent to drag itself back to that person, again, a sort of mental whiplash. It may be that these issues were more apparent to me because I was listening to the audiobook and not reading the text, where I wouldn’t have heard the changes in the narrator’s voice as the tone of the piece changed.

This might not have been the best choice for my first anti-racism read, because of its length and relatively dry historicality, but whatever flaws I find in the presentation don’t diminish the content. This was a valuable and eye-opening experience from start to finish.

#86 – Love On My Mind, by Tracey Livesay

  • Read: 6/10/20 – 6/11/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: a book with an emotion in the title
  • Mount TBR: 79/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Part of me wants to say this is well-constructed, because its theme is crystal clear–communication is essential to successful relationships–and all the conflicts support that. You’d be surprised how often I see romances pile on dozens of unrelated conflicts onto their characters without even a hint of a central organizing theme.

But, on the other hand, the conflicts themselves are paper-thin, both ignored and then solved with no real effort. Adam got his pride and reputation ruined by the last women he was serious about, and he has Asperger’s, which in his case makes social interaction difficult for him. Chelsea values her career more than anything, to the point where she uncomfortably accepts the order to lie to a client (Adam) about her presence in his life, engaging in a business relationship with him under false pretenses.

Both of them start by telling themselves they should make it a personal relationship despite their obvious chemistry, though Adam folds on that far faster than Chelsea, who has far more reason to stand her ground. But she doesn’t (of course) and after an incredibly brief span of happiness together, everything blows up in their faces (also of course.)

But they both make huge changes/concessions in their lives almost instantly–Adam having an epiphany about trust, and Chelsea resigning from her job to prove love is worth more than her career–and while those about-faces make logical sense from a thematic standpoint, they come with basically no soul-searching, both of them in less than a day of story time. Then they apologize and get back together and she gets her job back and everything is totally fine now happy ending whee!!!

Also, there’s a stiff quality to nearly everything. Chelsea has no apparent personality or interests to speak of beyond her job, and Adam’s video game habit is poorly executed. Nobody calls video game characters “avatars.” Source: I’m a lifelong gamer. They’re playing a thinly-veiled version of one of the Uncharted games, apparently, based on the name and what little description is given. You’d just call the thing you control on screen a “character” like everyone else does. It makes no sense to use “avatar” in this context, because Uncharted specifically is a story-based game following a main character on his adventures, he’s how the player interacts with the video game, sure, but he’s not a meaningless shell encasing the player with no traits of his own.

Judging from other reviews, the techie-corporate aspect is just as poorly executed. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough during my reading to know the specifics of the industry, but the whole setup felt off. Adam’s best friend and COO hiring a PR firm but insisting they work undercover, essentially? How was anyone supposed to be successful in doing their job while having to disguise who they were or why they were there? If Adam hadn’t been attracted to Chelsea, how on earth would she have accomplished what was basically an impossible task, on her own, with no support or direction from her firm?

I have the second book in the series–they were both freebies or maybe 99 cents back when I picked them up–so I’ll read that too before I decide if this author is a no-go in the future for me, but I have to say, I was hoping for better.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #21)

#79 – Sexy in Stilettos, by Nana Malone

  • Read: 5/29/20 – 5/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 74/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Badly in need of an editor/proofreader. This story was riddled with errors, from poor punctuation and word choice to misspelled celebrities: one minor character was obsessed with “Patsy Klein.” I was actually confused by that at first–until I realized the author probably meant the famous singer Patsy Cline. (Which is still a throwaway detail that wouldn’t really matter if that obsession weren’t how his brother the hero found him when he was in hiding, which was strange and unsatisfying because it wasn’t told to the readers ahead of time.)

Beyond the lacking presentation, did I like the story? Not really. The characters weren’t solidly constructed, everyone’s wishy-washy in their traits. The heroine is a pushover when confronted in person about most things but when alone is doggedly determined to prove she’s not a failure, even to the point of making unwise life decisions. The hero is a committment-phobe in most areas of his life but is unswervingly loyal and obedient to his stepmother (who is actually a snarky treasure and probably the best thing about this book.) The heroine’s father is Comically Awful at the start and gets an upgrade at the end to Tragically Misunderstood, which was a pseudo-heel-face turn that was unbelievable and wholly undeserved. The heroine’s sister is a total bitch who stole her fiance but also wants her to be at the wedding and be supportive. (Like, it takes two people to cheat. If your sister and your fiance knowingly slept together, they’re both equally at fault, you can’t hate him for it but forgive her. Not if you want me to respect your intelligence, anyway.)

I never felt much chemistry between the leads, and I didn’t really think they were falling in love, just having lots of sex. The happy ending resolution jumps forward past six months of no-contact pining and concludes with a marriage proposal, and I just didn’t buy it.

#80 – Sultry in Stilettos, by Nana Malone

  • Read: 5/30/20 – 5/31/20
  • Mount TBR: 75/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 70%, hear me out, I’ll get to why.

I had lots of notes in my brain about how this book was basically the same book as the first one. Jaya was an event planner; Ricca and Beckett are both event planners, too. Alec was a semi-dilettante rich guy who was semi-obsessed by rally car racing; Beckett is far less rich, apparently, but still gets to actually drive rally cars in the story, twice by the point I gave up. Why am I reading about the same characters with only slightly different personalities?

The plot is definitely different, I’ll give it that. The first book was a fling-turned-real, whereas this is best-friends-to-lovers. Fair enough.

And the “mystery” subplot at their job is new, too, but badly executed. The culprit is so obvious I don’t even need to read the rest to know I’m right and the leads suspected the wrong character.

I could say more about that, but it’s not the reason I dropped the story when I did. Let me give you a quote:

“I’m almost done. You might as well come in and not waste your workout time. We’re headed to “Morocco landmark” at nine, and we’ll want to make sure we confirm the rest of the day.”

This book isn’t finished. The author left in a “fix me later” note from the drafting cycle. I said about the first book that it needed much better editing, and here’s the eventual culmination of it–a missed research tag that never got resolved. The work up until that point had the same sloppy, needs-editing quality as the first one, but this moment pushed it over the edge for me, it’s simply unprofessional to publish something that clearly isn’t finished.

#81 – Dragon Haven, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 5/31/20 – 6/2/20
  • Mount TBR: 76/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I did not expect to be giving this book five stars. Not after reading the first in the series, not when starting it, not even when I was halfway through. Yet, here I am.

This is some of the strongest character work I’ve seen from Hobb. Sure, Fitz is super-well-developed across his six books of first-person POV, but this series is following the Mad Ship narrative style: multiple third-person POVs. And while I enjoyed those books a great deal, it works even better here.

Every single major and several of the minor characters find themselves, in this section of the story, addressing the question that I eventually realized is the central theme of the novel: “Are you going to let other people dictate who you are?”

Alise shackled herself to a bad husband, and Sedric to an abusive lover. (Even worse, they’re the same person.) Both of them break free and find new love, while also moving the plot forward. Kudos to finally having a healthy, canonically queer relationship; it’s a nice antidote to the quasi-homophobia of Fitz’s personal disgust re: the Fool, which was clearly not meant to be a blanket statement against queerness but a deep character flaw–still, it got old and it’s nice to see positive representation.

But back to my main point. All of the dragon keepers are, by design, rejects of their own societies. Some use their exile as freedom to be who they want to be and love who they want to love; others use that freedom to try to impose new rules on the group in a bid for power. Thymara in particular understands the desire to reject the old ways but refuses to fall in line with Greft’s new social order that would continue to put her at a disadvantage.

The dragons themselves were born weak, stunted, “wrong,” and after years wallowing in that wrongness, they strike out to find a new home for themselves, one where they can be as they were meant to be–and they grow stronger on the journey, both physically and mentally, no longer limited to the pitiful existence they had as malformed hatchlings.

No one in this book is upending the social order on a revolutionary scale, but they don’t need to (and also that looks like it might be on the horizon anyway, what with founding a city of healthy dragons and everything that entails, everything that would change.) I like that this big, strange, apparently doomed journey that clearly is going to change the world never has that as the goal in mind, not really. It’s always about personal survival and personal freedom and individual stories that weave together to produce something much larger.

I liked the characters after their introduction in the first book, but I love them now.

#82 – One Perfect Night, by Bella Andre

  • Read: 6/3/20
  • Mount TBR: 77/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

When will novellas stop trying to be novels?

I picked this up as a freebie because I had enjoyed some of Andre’s other work. None of it set my world alight, but it was mostly solid. This premise seemed bite-sized enough to work as a novella without the number-one complaint I have about romance novellas: “this should have been a full-length novel, it’s trying to do too much.”

I got burned here with that. The lovebirds spend one day skiing together, one week apart and thinking about the other, then get reunited in a too-cute-for-reality setup through mutual friends and end up spending their “one perfect night” together.

During which they drop L-bombs and claim they’re “meant to be.” Um, excuse me? What planet am I on now? Why did a perfectly good novella set up have to rush them to InstaLove when a “this has potential, let’s give a try” kind of Happy For Now ending would have been the absolutely perfect cap to the story? Why does it have to be forever already?

This Week, I Read… (2020 #20)

73 - First Frost

#73 – First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen

  • Read: 5/21/20 – 5/22/20
  • Mount TBR: 69/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read Garden Spells all the way back in 2016, and I haven’t reread it since, though now I definitely want to. I remember it being sweet and comforting and blessedly easy to read. Being me, I was mildly concerned that I wasn’t going to remember what happened well enough to dive back into world with its sequel nearly four years later with no refresher, but that didn’t end up mattering. The exact details of the plot that matter are reincorporated, and the time frame leaps forward by a decade, so it was smooth sailing all the way.

This is proof that the stakes don’t need to be high to make a piece of media engaging–no one’s in danger, the world doesn’t need saving, and aside from one teenage fistfight there’s no action to speak of. But when you care about the characters, you want to keep turning pages to find out what’s going to happen to them, and that’s how I ended up reading from page 93 to the end in one sitting this morning. I wanted to see if Bay and Josh had a chance of working out. I wanted to know when Claire was going to figure out what was wrong with her career choices and how to fix them. I wanted to know if Sydney was going to come clean with her husband about the change in their dynamic. (I’d say I wanted to know who Mariah’s new best friend was, but I figured that out really quickly, and I was right. But hey, I’m not reading a novel like this for big plot twists or surprises.)

I went into this wanting more Garden Spells, and that’s exactly what I got, and I’m extremely happy with that.

The Necessary Beggar

#74 – The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick

  • Read: 5/22/20 – 5/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 70/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a yellow cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

For a random freebie I got from the Tor newsletter, I was surprised how much I liked this, because freebies are always hit or miss, you download them because they’re there!

But it was far from great, and while many elements in this strange sci-fi/magical realism/slice of life mashup were interesting and moving, many were too strange to fit or downright harmful.

The central “plot”–and it’s pretty loose, structurally–is supposed to be this amazing love story, this recreation in human flesh of a myth, that sends a message about the power of love and forgiveness, and also provides catharsis. But notice how I didn’t include “romance” in the mashup listing? Because not one of the love stories contained in the book, spread across the members of a large family, felt authentic, and one had a strong abusive dynamic (the aunt and uncle) while the young adults (the daughter and her American boyfriend) were downright creepy. I never felt like they were in love, although I know I’m not supposed to think she was in love with him because for a long time she wasn’t, but his love is so obvious and forthright that at first it seems pure, but then gets twisted by the necessities of the plot into a semi-coerced marriage, and that was just ALL KINDS OF WRONG to me. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t beautiful, it didn’t feel good after everything else the book had heaped on the daughter’s shoulders.

So what did I like about this book? The strong emphasis on familial love and loyalty, the richness of the fictional culture the family comes from, the culture clash in the early parts of the book when the children are adapting but the adults are struggling. (Part of me feels like it’s a cop-out to explore the immigrant experience in America with an entirely fictional culture when there are so many interesting ones right here in our own dimension, but at the same time, sci-fi has always been a lens through which to examine humanity, and by using a fictional culture the [white] author isn’t co-opting a real culture not her own. Yes, this was written in 2005 and I shouldn’t expect it to be up to today’s levels of “woke” but as I was reading I really wasn’t sure if this was a great idea or a lazy one. After finishing I’m still not sure. Of course, the central conceit of the story is based on a fictional myth, so I guess practically speaking it had to be a fictional culture to go with it…)

In the end, I didn’t like the ending. It was obvious to me long before then what was going on, and while that’s not me demanding some big twist–I’m not, I swear–I didn’t feel satisfied to be right, when I got to the incredibly predictable ending. After all the emotion I had built up for (some of) these characters, it did feel like a letdown. So it’s an interesting blast from the recent past that I probably never would have read if it hadn’t been a freebie, simply because I probably never would have heard of it. But my thoughts on it are too mixed, my reaction too “meh” by the end, to call this a hidden gem that I should recommend to everyone.

75 - Room

#75 – Room, by Emma Donoghue

  • Read: 5/24/20 – 5/25/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with the major theme of survival
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics
  • Mount TBR: 71/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The book that I started last night and felt absolutely compelled to read straight through to the end became, this morning when I finished it, a dreary slog that didn’t satisfy the questions it raised in the beginning.

Seriously, this did not pay off its premise.

So many other reviewers, now that I’ve finished the book and skimmed some of the reviews, hated Jack’s narration and listed in detail why, all the quirks and odd word choice and Capitalization; and I feel that, but I also feel that the situation he was in explained it all adequately, and any annoyance I felt at the style was overwhelmed by interest in the story. I was hooked. It was horrible and gripping and I wanted to know what was going to happen and how they were going to escape and what would become of them afterward.

The escape itself is thin. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but I’ll give it a pass because at least it wasn’t belabored. Ma thought of it, explained it, Jack got scared and whined, but he did it, and it didn’t take more than a handful of pages to get through.

Once they’re both back in the real world, though? The book completely fell apart, because as interesting as it might be to see from Jack’s own perspective how he deals with an environment he’s never known–the whole world–by focusing on that the book almost completely ignores Ma’s struggles with reintegration. Her attempted suicide feels more like an excuse for the narrative to force Jack to deal with someone else for a change than it does a consequence of her precarious mental health. I wasn’t interested in seeing Jack go to the mall with his aunt and uncle, I wanted to see Ma’s recovery.

There’s plenty of disturbing things in this book on the surface, but I’m walking away from it with some equally disturbing thoughts about motherhood, because not only does Ma repeatedly imply or outright state that Jack’s life is more important than hers, the narrative seems to think so too, focusing narrowly on Jack’s pain and Jack’s struggles while his mother suffers in the background, almost entirely off-screen, and all in support of furthering Jack’s story. It’s not exactly the same as being fridged, but in many ways it echoes that harmful trope, and I don’t care for it.

#76 – Bound to be a Groom, by Megan Mulry

  • Read: 5/25/20 – 5/26/20
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I read the prequel novella earlier this year, and despite it having some major flaws, I enjoyed it as a fluffy, “don’t think about it too hard” erotic romance. The premise of the first novel in the series still interested me, so here I am.

This was equally good, which is to say, equally bad. The historical and political aspects of the plot may be accurate, for all I know, but they weren’t interesting, and they weren’t a major enough part of the story to even be worth investing in. They were, at best, a skeletal framework on which to hang the notion of four people having a lot of licentious, semi-forbidden sex.

The bulk of the story was the sex, as tends to happen with erotic romance of course, but even for the genre this was stretching the “romance” aspect, because in two hundred pages four people have to forge several “love” relationships and one notable “we can have sex with the same people but no way no how with each other” dynamic.

Everything felt thin and rushed because there simply wasn’t time for anything more to develop. And to be honest, the sex scenes themselves were only so-so. I’ve read better, I’ve read worse. But if the entire point of the novel is the sex, shouldn’t it be better than so-so?

I gave the author a second shot, but I will not waste time on a third.

#77 – Melting Steel, by C.M. Seabrook

  • Read: 5/26/20 – 5/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 72/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I had a running list in my head of all the small issues I had with this book throughout the first half, many of them being related to needing a better editor. (Two different people were wearing “sequenced” dresses. Don’t let auto-correct write the story!)

But by the end, none of that matters, because this novel wouldn’t be any better for being perfectly proofread and presented. The heart of the problem is that the hero is a controlling and possessive man whose behavior crosses the line into abusive several times and the heroine is a pushover whiner with very little agency who lies back most of the time and lets the hero do whatever he wants–be that have sex with her, make her move in with him, have her followed whenever she leaves his apartment, runs a background check on her, forbids her from leaving later on when she tries to break off their relationship….

[The sex is always consensual, but often of the type that’s “I shouldn’t sleep with him for ALL OF THESE VERY GOOD REASONS but he’s just so hot and I’m just so weak-willed so I’ll let him convince me.” While I would consider much of the hero’s behavior abusive, there is no actual rape. And that’s about the best I can say about him.]

On top of that, the two of them fall in InstaLove, despite the only things they have in common being sex and trauma, since eventually it comes out that she’s half-sister to his dead best friend he feels guilty for not “saving” from her own mental health issues and eventual suicide. The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past made this impossible for me to read as anything beyond the hero “loving” the heroine because she reminded him of his lost friend, which is so gross.

The circumstances surrounding their mutual traumatic past also spawn a ridiculously contrived suspense subplot involving the drugs, stolen money, the heroine’s little brother, and her rape-y ex-boyfriend, which culminates in the hero getting non-fatally shot at his sister’s wedding.

The level of melodrama in this was beyond believable. This isn’t the worst romance I’ve read, but it’s got to be hanging out down there in the bottom ten somewhere.

#78 – Never a Mistress, No Longer a Maid, by Maureen Driscoll

  • Read: 5/27/20 – 5/28/20
  • Mount TBR: 73/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The pacing here was strange and definitely impacted my enjoyment of the story. I read on my Kindle, and the end of the prologue was at 9%. What? The prologue takes up nearly a tenth of the book? The early chapters seemed fine, but then the last act packs a lot of action and intrigue in at a pace that left my head spinning: two failed kidnapping attempts before a successful one; a murder; a daring rescue; blackmail; and the end to the subplot I originally thought was the major external conflict, a strange and rushed resolution to an unwanted betrothal for the hero.

The last act seemed like it was finishing a different book than the one I’d been reading, which had almost no physical danger in it.

As for the romance itself, I’m used to contrived setups, but this didn’t put in the work to make it really work. The hero’s career as a “spy” is thin and never seems important aside from making sure he’s in the war in Belgium to have sex with, then lose, the heroine. Who also has a somewhat unbelievable backstory, that she runs away from home to be a surgeon in the war but then as soon as she’s found goes meekly back to England to be a good daughter, except woops she’s pregnant now.

And neither of them display much growth as the story progresses, because most of the conflicts are those pesky external ones, the kidnapping, the unwanted almost-betrothal, the murder. I guess the hero does go from finding marriage distasteful to being all on board, mostly due to meeting and falling hard for his adorable little daughter (who was probably the best thing about this book, realistic, funny, not too well-behaved or perfect, but not a stupid brat either. I liked Violet a lot.) But the heroine’s internal conflict is “I don’t want to get married because I think that means giving up the life and career I have now” and she doesn’t deviate from that at all until the very end, when the rampant danger to her, her daughter, and the hero, prompts her to change her mind and think being a family together is more important than her career. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it didn’t feel natural, because it wasn’t set up at all by the earlier story.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #19)

The Bone Witch

#70 – The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco

  • Read: 5/13/20 – 5/16/20
  • Mount TBR: 66/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book that features a ghost, ghost hunter, vampire, vampire hunter, or zombie
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I think I would very much like the story this wanted so badly to be, but I don’t care much for the story that it actually is.

At the conceptual level, it’s got a lot going for it. Let’s have dark geisha mages! Let’s have our protagonist be a rogue necromancer plotting to take down the incredibly flawed system of her world!

But in the end, I don’t buy it. There’s too much focus on the world-building, especially in the constant descriptions of everyone’s kimono sorry hua, but also in smaller but just as irritating ways, like how the eventual reveal of the enemy hidden in their midst is a total ass-pull that relies on cultural cues and missteps that the reader couldn’t possibly know ahead of time because most of the world is just names on a map at the beginning without any real thought behind them. Sure, it looks like elaborate world-building to have all these places and all this royalty, but really, this novel is a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.

I see what the dual timeline/POVs were trying to do–showing Tea at the height of both her power and her darkness in the short chapter breaks, while telling us the story of how she got that way in the past through her own perspective–except that by the end of the book, it’s all just elaborate setup with no payoff. I don’t know why Tea is “evil” now–though I’m not sure evil is the right word, because wanting to destroy a presumably corrupt and ineffective world system isn’t strictly evil, it’s just revolutionary, literally speaking. And I’d be on board for a rogue necromancer revolutionary, except that this novel did. not. tell me how she got that way. There’s a huge gap between where Tea’s “past” story breaks off and where she is in the “present.”

And it involves the weakest love triangle I’ve ever seen. She literally asks one guy out on a date at the end of the book (the one we know she’s had a crush on the whole time) only to resurrect someone else entirely and call him “my love.” She hints very early on to the nameless narrator of the chapter breaks that she loved two men, so it’s not like I didn’t know there would be a love triangle, it just waited until the final pages to actually show up. And it’s dumb.

This disappoints me that much more because where the story left off, I mostly do want to find out what happens next. Does she raze the world to the ground with her seven magical beasts? Does she become a horrible dictator in the process, or a goddess of destruction, or a vengeful raging maniac? These are interesting questions I don’t usually find myself asking about the female protagonist of a YA fantasy novel. But if finding out is going to mean wading through 400 more pages of fashion shows, I’m not going to bother.

71 - Ancillary Justice

#71 – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 5/17/20 – 5/20/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book related to Maximilian Hell, the noted astronomer and Jesuit Priest who was born in 1720 [set in space]
  • Mount TBR: 67/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I’ve been disappointed by a lot of modern sci-fi over the past few years, but this is solid gold and I loved it.

It took a little bit of getting into–I can’t be sure if the beginning is actually too slow-paced or if my focus was lacking, which has been an issue for me lately. The first hundred pages weren’t dull, but they weren’t as gripping as I expected, either.

Something clicked, though, soon after that, and I read the rest of the book in just over a day. As I read more books in general and more varied types of books, it’s becoming rarer that I can say “I couldn’t put this book down” but here it’s true. I resented having to go to sleep with sixty pages to go, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I haven’t read any sci-fi that examines gender like this, nothing since The Left Hand of Darkness, and while I felt echoes of that foundational work here, it wasn’t simply retreading the same ground. I think it gains something from coming the issue from an AI perspective; I know enough about modern-day machine learning that I can imagine teaching an AI to identify the gender of an unknown individual reliably, with acceptable accuracy, would not be an easy task. At first I found it a slightly uncomfortable experience not to know the “true” gender of a character (except for those few who were, at some point, referred to in a language that had gendered pronouns, showing Breq to be correct or incorrect about her assumptions) but before long I had adapted, just going with it that everyone was female and that was fine. (I skimmed other reviews briefly, and some people are definitely fixated on properly assigning gender to the characters, especially the two involved in a romantic relationship–“which one is the man and which is the woman?” But I had no problem with the idea that they were both female, and wouldn’t have any issue if they were both male either. This book is very queer-compatible.]

Beyond the gender issue, though, there’s even more to say about identity and artificial intelligence. At what point did the experiences and personalities of Justice of Toren and One Esk diverge enough to be considered separate? How can a single individual fracture and become an enemy to herself? How does identity intersect with personal freedom or societal conformity, and how much personal freedom is even possible as an AI under a brutally strict regime with a dictator who has the power to modify the ship’s memories?

I was fascinated by everything and look forward to the next book a great deal.

The Murmur of Bees

#72 – The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia

  • Read: 5/20/20 – 5/21/20
  • Mount TBR: 68/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book set in Mexico
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 20%.

Too many POVs, not enough story. There’s no way this was going to hold my attention for hundreds of pages more, when one-fifth of the way through there’s absolutely no trajectory to the plot. I’m struggling to even predict what the plot could be, there’s so little groundwork laid aside from some vague-but-ham-fisted foreshadowing. So far the many changes in narrator have introduced me to most of the members of the family this story is (apparently) about, but in spreading itself so thin across so many characters, there’s no momentum, nothing for me to be interested in enough to keep going.

And then I set it down after reading an almost entirely unrelated, tangential sequence of chapters about how the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the town…but not through the eyes of any of the characters I’d already met. It’s about somebody else who goes to the graveyard when he’s sure he’s dying, only then he recovers, and when he returns home he accidentally frightens his mother to death, but then the rest of his family and, later, the church, hail him as a modern Lazarus.

First, what does any of that have to do with what little story we actually have been given prior; and second, I personally found the chapters about the epidemic had an almost disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek tone to them, minimizing the suffering and death, treating it as dull and humdrum, in order to set up the story of the “resurrected” man. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so bothered by it if I had read this last year when I got it, but now, with how the world is currently, it turned my stomach.

Regardless of that, I doubt I would have finished the book, because it felt scattered and tedious.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #18)

68 - Steel's Edge

#68 – Steel’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 5/8/20 – 5/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 64/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Given my reaction to all the other books in the series, I didn’t expect this to be so good. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say “I didn’t expect I would love it this much.”

I’m a sucker for wounded people finding solace in love, I guess.

Even more than the romance itself, which is awesome, this novel also gave so much closure to the rest of the series. Every bad guy is accounted for, everyone whose arc wasn’t finished gets to finish it, Richard gets some quality family time, Charlotte is introduced and put through the wringer and gets her found family in the end. I did have to put this down to go to sleep last night, but you’d better believe the first thing I did this morning was make myself breakfast and sit down to finish it.

If I wanted to be nitpicky, I could find quibbles. Sophie’s story was important but still a tad underdeveloped, maybe. We saw a fair bit of George but very little of Jack. While Charlotte and Richard weren’t as rushed as his brother and his lady love in book three, it was still kind of fast–though I buy it, in this case, because Richard is a very different type of man in a very different situation. It just worked for me better this time.

But those are small things in the wake of the huge smile I had on my face finishing the epilogue. I loved this, and I love that the series surprised me with such a great ending.

69 - The Complete Cosmicomics

#69 – The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino

  • Read: 5/9/20 – 5/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 65/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read an anthology
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I am boggled, though mostly in a good way.

I found this a quite difficult and cerebral read, not at first, but increasingly as the stories began to seem less like “stories” and more like esoteric philosophical tracts and eventually complex mathematical proofs. The anthology starts innocently enough with a tale full of absurd humor about going to the moon for its milk, so I did not suspect that by the end I would be thoroughly confused.

That’s not entirely the book’s fault, though, because had I known just how experimental this fiction would be, I might not have chosen to read it during a worldwide pandemic that’s stressing me out and destroying my concentration. I know I’m not the only one having difficulty focusing on reading–I just read an article about it yesterday–but this book certainly requires that focus, that curiosity and questioning and interest. I just couldn’t summon it as much as I needed to–by the end I was sitting down and telling myself “Just get through one story, then go do something else.” Not my preferred way of reading.

So it’s a challenging book. For all that, when I “got” it, I enjoyed it. The early stories often relied on absurdist humor coupled with a sort of deliberate cognitive dissonance–the narrator could be a human, or they could be a single cell, or they could be a fish just crawled from the water to live on dry land for the first time in evolutionary history, but the tone and expressions and idioms were still human, so sometimes you had to remember it wasn’t necessary a “person” speaking, or that space and time didn’t behave the way we perceive them or the way you would expect them to. Things got weirder from there, with a story about falling infinitely through curved space, in pondering the eventual intersection of parallel lines via non-Euclidean geometry, becoming a metaphor for a threesome; with a single afternoon car ride being overwhelmed by passion in the form of extensive blood/salt/seawater metaphors; with a story about the mitosis of a single-celled narrator being likened to falling in love, but not with another, but also not with yourself, but also not a vague sort of cosmic, universal love. (That one in particular bent my brain a little too far out of whack.)

I love the idea of it, or rather the ideas, the weird bent on philosophy via biology and other sciences. But my poor beleaguered brain wasn’t up to some of the more difficult concepts and twists and pages-long paragraphs of endless pontificating.

Ideally, I’d like to come back to this in a year or so and give it another try, to see if it makes more sense (or at least is more enjoyable in whatever level of nonsensicalness it still holds for me) when I can give it the attention it deserves.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #17)

65 - The Dragon Keeper

#65 – The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 4/30/20 – 5/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A fantasy book
  • Mount TBR: 62/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book that includes an animal sidekick
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s hard to evaluate this as a novel, because it’s really the first act of a much larger story. Lots of new characters are introduced and an epic journey is begun–but only just, very little of that journey happens here.

It’s woefully incomplete in that regard, even by the standards of first-in-series books, especially by the standards of Hobb’s three previous trilogy-starters. So as much as I enjoyed it–and I certainly did–I can’t give it five stars. It’s simply not a good place to end the book.

That being said, I found a lot to like. Alise may have started out a standard unhappy housewife type, but she certainly manages to grow past that. Thymara, as an outcast young woman, is both sympathetic and believable while not pulling too obviously on the pity vote from readers. She treads the line between accomplished and uncertain of herself with grace. Sintara’s sporadic dragon POV scenes are interesting. I even like Leftrin–he’s no Brashen Trell, but my heart has room for more than one mostly honest, rough and manly ship captain. (Speaking of Brash, it was lovely to see him and Althea and especially Paragon again, though their cameo was brief. Most of me is glad it wasn’t longer, it could have read as cheap fan service, but a small part of me still wants more because I loved them so much.)

I can’t argue with the pacing, either, this was shorter and more snappy than any of Hobb’s previous works, and I don’t mind that one bit. Problem is, I think that came at the cost of leaving everything unfinished–there is not even one story line here that resolves in any way, it’s a cliffhanger in all respects.

66 - Fate's Edge

#66 – Fate’s Edge, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 5/4/20 – 5/6/20
  • Mount TBR: 63/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I like this best yet of the three novels of The Edge, but it’s still got some issues.

I knew I would finish the series because at this point I will read anything by Ilona Andrews, so I dove in without reading the blurb or knowing too much about it–just as I’m sure I will soon when I read the final novel. So I did not know I was in for a fast-paced heist flick/rom-com mashup with clever banter and constant danger. As far as that goes, it’s fun, though it does lead to a flaw I’ll come back to.

The big and lovely surprise was how large a part in the story George and Jack played, and I’m completely enamored with those boys, they’re amazing.

As far as the leads go, I liked Audrey right away and liked her even better when she stood up to Kaldar repeatedly and seriously, choosing to protect her heart rather than indulging in a quick fling. Their flirtation is the perfect combination of clever and hot, but she wisely decides it’s not going to keep her warm at night forever, and at that point in the story, she’s undoubtedly right. It’s the sign of strong character work that I can root for the heroine of a romance novel when her stance and aims are in direct opposition to that romance, you know?

So here’s where the fast and fun pacing falls flat–Kaldar’s complete about-face about marriage in two pages of introspection. I got to that and thought, “seriously, you’re 100% committed to the idea of marriage now?”

Don’t get me wrong, I like Kaldar. I like him far more here than I did in Bayou Moon, where he was one of a million faces of Cerise’s family and was characterized entirely by his light fingers and betting magic. Here, he gets a personality to go with those, and I liked that personality. But I don’t really believe he faced-turned from a freewheeling bachelor to loyal husband material in two pages. I just can’t. Do I want him to have a happy ending with Audrey, yes, of course I do. Do I think the one they got was entirely earned? Not really. Super-rushed.

The Birchbark House

#67 – The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich

  • Read: 5/7/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A Western
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a three-word title
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

There are children’s books that are still enjoyable reads as an adult, and then there are children’s books that are definitely for children only, and I think this is one of the latter. I found the writing to be simple to the point of boredom, and if I hadn’t been listening to this instead of reading it, I might have given up when I got to the point where every character in the family had to shout the same words at the little brother for being a bad kid, twice, in sequence. I bet in print that takes a whole page, and I groaned through it playing out in my ear but soldiered on.

And it’s not really a fair criticism that I was bored the style of a book aimed at eight-year-olds. What about the story? Well, it’s really episodic in nature, with every chapter practically being it’s own self-contained chunk, especially when a chapter is mostly about another story an adult is telling the main character. I found some of these chapters more interesting and compelling than others, but for most of the book I really failed to see how they were connected and wondered what the point of the book was–were we really just following a family through a year of their life without any sort of structure beyond the seasons?

Eventually, though, the narrative threads tying the story together became more prominent. Little Omakayas suffers through her grief after the family’s bout with smallpox, finds out her origin story of being a rescued orphan–the experience that gave her immunity to the illness this time around–and resolves to become a healer because that’s what calls to her and what the spirits are shaping her to be.

By the end, I realized that despite my eye-rolling at the style, I was attached enough to these characters to care what happened to them, and to find Omakayas’ ending satisfying and fitting. I’ll admit my white ex-Christian self has more than a little cynicism that prevents me from properly appreciating the more spiritual aspects of the story (and the culture it comes from) but it seems a very comforting ending, to have that soft and buoyant belief in the spirits of nature to ease you through your grief. I don’t understand it on anything but the most surface level, but I respect it, and it’s not at all a bad message to send to children, than life goes on and that our departed loved ones are still with us in other ways.

I probably would have loved this book wholeheartedly when I was the right age (though it hadn’t been written yet) and I agree with many others who feel like this is the Native American answer to the Little House series and its “brave pioneers” story. Even if I couldn’t enjoy it fully as an adult, I think this book has great value for what it is and what can show children who might otherwise only get one side of the historical story.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #16)

60 - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

#60 – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

  • Read: 4/23/30 – 4/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 59/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book featuring time travel
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

At the heart of this is a really cool concept–the deliberate time loop–that I love and wish I could read more about. Only, I’m not going to keep reading the series, because Jacob might be the most irritating male YA protagonist I’ve read in recent years. It didn’t make me like him that in his “normal” life he was so resentful of being the child of a wealthy business family that he actively tried to get himself fired from his job by being the worst employee he could possibly be.

Over the years at my various adult jobs, I’ve worked with teenagers who for various reasons don’t want the job they have (usually because their parents are making them work, though, not because they’re rich jerks,) and they don’t deserve books written about them. They deserved to be fired for being the disruptive little punks who make everyone else’s jobs harder.

So I didn’t start the book off on a good footing with the most important character, and the rest of the book didn’t really improve my opinion of him, especially the “I have nothing in my real life to keep me there” attitude. Dude, you still have parents, and they care about you, and lots of people don’t have that, so maybe stop being a whiny entitled douchebag for ten seconds.

The mystery of what/where/how takes far too long to get off the ground, though when it finally does, I will say the atmosphere is engaging–I do feel like Cairnholm and the children’s house are real places I could visit (if I wanted to) and the author never forgot the importance of time of day and weather for setting a scene. The barrage of peculiar children thrown at us with brief explanations of their powers and even briefer indications of their personality, though, could have been handled better. (I know from other reviews that I’m not the only one who got a strong X-Men vibe from this.) Also, I’m a huge fan of romance, but not when it’s Jacob getting entangled in a weak romantic subplot with his dead grandfather’s ex-girlfriend, thank you, time travel. Could have done without that. He even confronts her at one point with how he’s realized she sees him as a stand-in for his grandfather, and that cools her off a bit, but then a page or two later they’re kissing, and I was like, “Well, I guess this is happening now, they’re both idiots.”

But the biggest disappointment for me, even more than not liking or relating to the protagonist on any level or not wanting the bad romance or not liking the pacing, was the simple fact that I don’t feel like the photographs add to the story, when that’s supposed to be the fundamental underpinning of this style. The description in the narrative of the photograph almost always came first (I can only recall one time it didn’t, towards the end) and by telling me what the subject of the picture was, by describing it in words for me, I built my own picture in my head (you know, what reading is) and then turned the page to see a photograph or three that looked very little like what I was imagining, and it took me out of the story every single time, having to accept that I’d imagined it “wrong.” So, I don’t know, put the pictures first? Start the chapter with all the photos that are needed for that chunk of the story, let them intrigue me, let me wonder about them, then tell me organically as the story unfolds why they’re relevant? Because the way this is presented seemed utterly backwards to me, and that, more than anything else, is what has killed my desire to keep going with the next book, no matter how cool the time loop concept is.

61 - Wasted Words

#61 – Wasted Words, by Staci Hart

  • Read: 4/25/20 – 4/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author you’ve only read once before
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name
  • Mount TBR: 60/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Okay, I’ve never read Emma. I did see the ’90s movie adaptation, but not since the ’90s, so my memory of the plot is basically “Emma is an interfering busybody who eventually wises up and gets out of her own way.”

So this retelling got that 100% right, even if there are smaller plot details that don’t line up, honestly I wouldn’t know.

In some ways this is a difficult book for me to rate, because on a personal level, it was too relatable. I am not Emma-the-meddling-matchmaker, but in the past I was very much Cam-the-anxious-girl-who-is-terminally-insecure-about-relationships. I am high-strung. I have been treated for both depression and anxiety. I catastrophize at the drop of a hat. It’s a deep and deeply personal character flaw of mine springing from my mental illness, and I hate Cam for it the same way I (try not to) hate myself for it. We always dislike people (fictional in this case, but it still holds) who show us the worst of ourselves, the parts we either try to hide or simply won’t admit exist. Well, I’m perfectly aware of this flaw of mine, and having it shoved in my face wasn’t pleasant.

At the same time, it did make her sympathetic (to me, obviously not to other reviewers who can’t stand her) so it’s a really strange relationship I have with this character throughout the story. I don’t like her, but somehow also love her, because she’s so relatable (again, to me, for very specific reasons.)

So if Cam is too much like me, then Tyler is too perfect. Seriously, he never does anything wrong. He’s the most standup of standup guys, he’s warm, emotionally available, thoughtful. Certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s ninety feet tall, muscular, and handsome, but those typical romance-hero attributes were there not so much to make him a shallow, cardboard Romance Hero, but to be reasons that Cam thought she wasn’t good enough for him. The real Tyler is his personality, the caring man who keeps trying to read different books on Cam’s recommendation because she’s so passionate about reading and he wants to see if he can be too. He would still be my new book boyfriend even if he weren’t a six-six former football god.

He’s incredible. And that’s the problem. I get why Cam doesn’t feel good enough for him, because the story makes her incredibly flawed and him basically flawless. The only thing he does “wrong”–and this is an utterly forgivable wrong–is to cut off Cam in their fight towards the end by drawing an emotional boundary. He’s done with her wishy-washy-ness because it keeps hurting him, and he doesn’t want to drag himself through that again. Does it suck that it’s a misunderstanding and she’s not communicating well and she’s actually trying to explain why she’s a complete disaster so they can get it out in the open and maybe move past it together? Yes. But is he justified in saying “enough’s enough, I can’t do this anymore” when he’s reached his limit of getting dragged through the mud by her constant insecurity and doubt? Also yes! So he still really isn’t doing anything wrong.

Again, I don’t remember Emma well enough to know if the same is true of her own love interest, whose name I don’t even remember. So this fundamental imbalance between horribly flawed heroine and utterly perfect hero could be a holdover from the original, but whether it is or not, it kind of undermines the very story it’s trying to tell, that Cam is “good enough” for Tyler and just needs to believe it of herself, when the story as presented shows she’s demonstrably a worse person than him, whatever her good intentions.

I still really enjoyed reading it, flaws and all, and I’m sure I’ll come back to the good parts when I need a pick-me-up, but I do really wish Tyler had had a flaw or two to even things out between them.

62 - Girl Gone Viral

#62 – Girl Gone Viral, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 4/27/20 – 4/28/30
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in 2020
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It was awesome and I loved it. I think this is my favorite Rai romance novel yet!

I listened to this audiobook while I was ill, and basically did the first seven hours almost continuously one day, then as soon as I woke up the next morning I lay on the couch and listened to the rest. As far as the audio goes, I liked the female narrator just fine, and the male narrator was AMAZING but that’s mostly because he has the deep, gravelly-but-soft voice I like best, so your mileage may vary. On to actually talking about the content!

I’m pleased to see I was right in my hope after The Right Swipe that Katrina gets her story told next, because I liked her then, at least as much as we were given of her. Here she shines, an even better anxious-style protagonist than Sadia from Wrong to Need You, my previous favorite novel by this author. (Also nice to see Gia turn up, will we get her story someday? That would be fun!) Katrina has already taken the first steps on her long road to recovery, but this section of her journey is still plenty bumpy and interesting. I loved her, and while I don’t generally look at romance heroines as aspirational (they can often be pretty far from it!) I identified with her more than usual, and she makes me want to work harder on myself.

Jas is a damn fine hero for this story as well. Part of me was just screaming “You had me at bodyguard romance!” There’s an inherent yearning in those, with the combination of close quarters and safekeeping and devotion. But Jas goes beyond the base level of the trope by also being an incredibly conflicted but thoughtful man, who has a character arc about his own identity vs. his family’s expectations and disappointment, one that perfectly compliments Katrina’s arc about self-improvement, battling mental illness, and rising above past abuse.

One of my major complaints about this novel’s predecessor was that the individual character arcs of the leads didn’t mesh well and completely overshadowed their romance arc, but here in Girl Gone Viral, all three story lines fit together perfectly to form what’s honestly the best romance I’ve read so far this year.

63 - Fake Out

#63 – Fake Out, by Eden Finley

  • Read: 4/29/30
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an Australian, Canadian or New Zealand author
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This was really a mixed bag for me. Fake dating is a trope I generally enjoy, but the setup here was really stretching my disbelief, and also made Maddox out to be a complete ass. Damon was much more likeable to me (though part of that might be their respective narrators–I didn’t like Maddox’s much at all, especially how fake his female-character voice was, on top of Maddox himself not being a decent human being at the start of the story.)

I did like how open Maddox eventually turned out to be towards his orientation, and how he’s not sure about his label at first, though he does eventually warm up to the term “bisexual.” Part of his resistance to it was that he had a false belief that you need to have a 50/50 split between attraction to men and women to qualify, and he didn’t, but he educates himself past that. What I didn’t like? The “education” is really ham-fisted for the reader as well, and throughout the book we’re tripping over random bits of homophobia and heteronormativity, and there’s only the slightest, off-handed admission that trans people exist and that bi people are allowed to be attracted to them.

It’s trying to be inclusive, and it mostly is, but there’s still a lot of mess that could be cleaned up in that regard.

As for the actual love story, I really like that this fake relationship didn’t turn into a real one too quickly, especially not at the event itself that sparked the whole thing. I like that the two of them had to work for it and that the book spanned months instead of weeks (or even just days, as romance novels sometimes do.) Even if Maddox continued to irritate me in a lot of ways right up until the end, I did want to see him and Damon get their HFN ending, and they both get a fair bit of personal growth along the way to get there.

So it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. It was a little messy. And I don’t think I care about going on with the series, because I don’t like either of the side characters involved enough to be invested in their setup for the next book.

Also, slightly unrelated but disappointing, I really thought I was clever when I figured out that Maddox’s aunt was scamming him with her medical treatment, only she wasn’t. Seriously, in every single scene, she always gets someone else to pay for her cab or her meal, it happens repeatedly and obviously. She’s constantly described as a free-spirited hippie type who makes her living as a traveling psychic, which already makes her a scammer to anyone who doesn’t believe in psychics. She stays rent-free at Maddox’s place while he crashes with Damon. Maddox offers to take her to appointments and stuff but she always declines. You know, like she’s lying about the entire thing to take advantage of him and her clinical trial doesn’t actually exist? But then in the later parts of the book, she actually does seem to be sick, and that red herring gets dropped like it never existed. It was weird and off-putting to have this elaborate ruse playing out in the background and have it turn out to be 100% on the level.

64 - Lost Lake

#64 – Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen

  • Read: 4/28/20 – 4/30/20
  • Mount TBR: 61/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with a character with vision impairment or enhancement
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s been quite a while since I read Garden Spells, but this novel brought back that same dreamy feeling, the possibilities of magic and hopefulness and love, the gentle tide of age and things lost to the past.

This didn’t wow me the same way, partly because this style isn’t a new experience now like it was then, but also partly because this felt far less focused. More characters are sharing the spotlight, and while I liked them all well enough, I would have preferred to focus more tightly on fewer of them, to get deeper histories, to get more emotional development. I suppose for a novel that’s as much about saving a place as it is the lives of the people within it, it’s okay that the lake is as much a character as any of the people, but the richness of the setting does come at a cost.

At times I felt there also wasn’t really enough tension to keep the story moving forward, because neither romance subplot is particularly gripping, and the overall plot of saving Lost Lake is a meandering path that spends most of the book hung up on a single character’s indecision, rather than some dire happening that needs to be dealt with now.

All this means it’s a very soft, comforting, easy read, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but I don’t think that aura of gentleness necessary had to be exclusionary of any tension at all.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #16)

55 - Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

#55 – The Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

  • Read: 4/16/20 – 4/18/20
  • Mount TBR: 55/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a black and white cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I seem to take issue with books that put their apparent protagonist in the title but then don’t bother to make the story about them. This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by the expectation that if a book is titled for a character, that the book should actually be about that character–I slammed The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender for precisely the same issue.

Johannes Cabal is not the protagonist, he’s the frame story surrounding a bunch of vignettes about the people who come to and suffer from his evil carnival.

The story is about those people, and it’s about the carnival. It is only tangentially about Cabal, and he’s not even the most interesting character in his own story line–that honor goes to his brother Horst, who despite being a vampire, is a better human being than Johannes ever has been. (A fact that Horst makes tediously clear during their final confrontation.)

But disappointment from the misleading title aside, could this structure have produced a good novel? Possibly. Only it didn’t, because the interest curve throughout the entire middle was almost entirely flat for me, with a notable dip for the one chapter devoted to little Timothy’s school assignment detailing his weekend, which was a phonetically written nightmare to the point of painful reading, and boring to boot. The rest of the stories weren’t quite that bad, but they were mostly humdrum, and they present a quandary about the larger plot that I’m not sure is solvable–the book seems to race by, not feeling like it takes the whole year Cabal has been allotted for his wager, yet including more vignettes to fill out the space would only lengthen the tedium for the reader.

The ending didn’t really save it for me, despite being about Johannes again, despite culminating the year of drudgery the carnival went through, because I wasn’t invested in Johannes, because I wasn’t impressed that he managed to trick Satan, and because the reveal of his apparent motivation for retrieving his soul failed to be the grand romantic gesture I think it was supposed to be. In making that motivation a surprise, in cloaking his real reasons behind a drier and more plausible excuse this whole time, I think it made him a weaker character and a less relatable one.

On a more positive note, there is one thing this book does well, and that’s tone. The atmosphere of this setting is unmistakable and pervasive, and though it owes something to its forebears–the acknowledgments cite Ray Bradbury for quite obvious reasons, and the viewing of evil and Hell throughout is strongly reminiscent of Good Omens with a slightly less tongue-in-cheek vibe–it does still manage to stand on its own as distinct from the pieces it pays homage to.

But in the end, I am not invested and will not be continuing the series.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

#56 – The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

  • Read: 4/18/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book featuring an LGBTQIA+ character or by an LGBTQIA+ author
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a banned book during Banned Books Week
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in London
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

What a disappointment compared to the other Oscar Wilde I’ve read.

I knew the vaguest outlines of the story going in–just the concept, really. I actually hadn’t had the ending spoiled for me, amazingly enough, so I hung on until the end even though I had stopped enjoying myself before the halfway point. (Not that I didn’t figure out the most likely end for Dorian ahead of time, and I was pretty close to right.)

But all the wit and humor I expected, even in this dark tale, were absent, or came in the form of racism and sexism. Product of its times, and all that, but the antisemitism, while relatively mild and confined to a short time frame, is impossible to miss; and the misogyny is deeply grained into everything about this story. At first, I thought the attitudes about women (as well as all the philosophies about life I didn’t agree with concerning the blessedness of youth and beauty) were confined to Lord Henry, who was very clearly not a good person and was not meant to be respected as one. But the misogyny also rears its ugly head in the extremely casual treatment of Sybil Vane and her ultimate fate. Women in this story are disposable intrinsically, beyond anything I can forgive as simply being in-character for the reprehensible Lord Henry as the corrupting influence.

I simply don’t remember this much misogyny being present in The Canterville Ghost, and I doubt I’d find it if I went back and looked.

While I can appreciate the queer subtext, and I can appreciate the deconstruction of the importance of youth and beauty, I can’t endorse the whole package it comes in. There’s too much wrong with it from a modern standpoint to call it “good,” no matter what sparks of genius lie within the mire.

(Also, did the entirety of Chapter Nine need to be a tedious and extensive catalog of everything Dorian became obsessed with during the years of his fall? Every jewel he ever bought, every tapestry he ever admired, every foreign musical instrument he purchased for outlandish sums, every crazy or sinful historical figure he ever wished to emulate? It put the plot of an already stretched-out story on hold for far too long.)

57 - Craving for Love

#57 – Craving for Love, by Violet Vaughan

  • Read: 4/18/20 – 4/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 56/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF midway through Chapter 12. I have read some really bad romance novels in my time, but this might just be a new level of ridiculousness.

I’m going to outline what I read to illustrate just how scattershot and full of holes this “story” gets.

Chapter 1 – Heroine nearly crashes her car twice, busts the headlight, gets home, gets tipsy, calls her ex to help fix the headlight, seduces him instead.

Chapter 2 – He stayed the night. She makes him breakfast before he has to go plow the snow, falls back asleep, and when she wakes up decides she isn’t leaving town today after all, she’s going to stay and go skiing with her ex. She considers having a quickie in his truck in the slopes parking lot.

Chapter 3 – They go skiing. They go back to her place. He fixes the headlight. She asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to have my babies?” [the reason they broke up, last summer apparently, not even recently, was because he doesn’t want kids] He says, “I love you” and leaves. She breaks down.

Chapter 4 – Jump to three days into her drive to Colorado from Vermont (though it doesn’t really say how long that is after Chapter 3–did she leave the next day?) Stops at a gas station, looks through a realty magazine to find a local realtor, makes an appointment. When she gets there, she says “I need a job and a place to live,” asks about cleaning jobs, offers references, continuing, “I can start tomorrow, and all that I ask is that you help me find a place to live.”

a) Realtors aren’t temp agencies or help-wanted ads. Their business is not to find people jobs.
b) What was her job before in Vermont? It was never mentioned before she left.
c) Yes, their job is to SELL you a place to live, not to recommend the boardinghouse his secretary (assistant? receptionist? not clear) happens to run. ISN’T THAT CONVENIENT.

Scene break, then she’s cleaning a bathroom in a rental unit because she magically has a job now, and we meet her new friend/coworker, and apparently some time has passed because she says it’s nice to be getting enough sleep at her new place because of the curfew. (Yeah, it’s a female-only boardinghouse, no drinking, no smoking, no guys, with a curfew. I didn’t realize this was the 1940’s.)

Chapter 5 – Dinner with her new friend and the friend’s husband. HERE WE MEET THE NEW LOVE INTEREST. Who is a surfer-dude-turned-ski-instructor, and he likes kids, and we know he likes kids because there’s a sickeningly cute scene with him and the two kids of their friends. Also, he’s their godfather. Surfer invites her to go skiing.

Chapter 6 – They go skiing. He’s impressed enough that he introduces her to his boss and now she’s magically got a job next winter as an instructor instead of a cleaner. That was easy, wasn’t it? They keep skiing, get hot chocolate, hang out, and exchange numbers so they can go skiing again.

Chapter 7 – Second ski day (date?) but Surfer brings friends, one of whom is an obvious Jealous Woman Who Wants Him So Don’t You Dare Make a Move on Him. All the other friends are super hyped that the Heroine and Surfer are hitting it off, though, because “he needs a girlfriend.” At the end of the day, they kiss.

Chapter 8 – Gloss over a few weeks of kissing but nothing more vigorous in the physical department, Heroine is getting antsy. She heads over to his place with wine and a sexy outfit with plans to seduce, but in a scene so badly written it’s embarrassing to try to describe so I won’t, suffice it to say, things go badly for her while he thinks everything is A-OK.

Chapter 9 – Heroine is semi-avoiding Surfer for a bit, but then her ex shows up in town (of course he does??) and they all run into each other on the slopes. She’s happy to see Ex, but then when Surfer tries to kiss her in front of him (and the class of kids he’s teaching) things get weird. Heroine takes Ex out for a meal afterward and finds out he’s already dating again too, though his girl’s still in Vermont, but it might be serious enough that she’d follow him to Colorado if he gets a job there. Heroine helps him with a place to live by giving him the realtor’s information.

Chapter 10 – Surfer gets super drunk because he’s so pissed about Heroine’s betrayal about the kiss and her ex, she goes over with fast food for him. He drops the L-bomb but says she doesn’t have to say it back yet. She sleeps over without them sleeping together.

Chapter 11 – Chaste birthday party/sleepover with Surfer at their friends’ house, because they’re watching the kids while the couple is away on an anniversary trip.

Chapter 12 – AN AVALANCHE KILLS THE HUSBAND ON THEIR TRIP. A few pages to deal with that, then a scene break where a month has passed since his death, and Heroine decides to take her friend/the widow out on a picnic.

Yeah, that’s where I stopped reading. The book is 36 chapters long, and one-third of the way through, there’s a gratuitous death of a minor character. This isn’t a romance, it’s a soap opera, with drama for the sake of drama, quick scene changes, no coherent theme, no character arcs, just PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT PLOT with no break to let anything develop. It’s ridiculous.

58 - The Perks of Being a Wallflower

#58 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

  • Read: 4/19/20 – 4/21/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with a neurodiverse character
  • Mount TBR: 57/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I can certainly see why so many readers have identified with this book and why it’s so beloved, but it left me really cold.

The best thing I can say about it is that Sam is amazing and we should all be so lucky to have a friend like that in high school. (If I were her, I would not have put up with Charlie’s nonsense for as long as she did.)

There are a lot of worst things I could say, because my two major problems are both fundamental, base-level issues. First, that the narrative style is flat and childish, beyond even what I would expect from young man who (obviously) has difficultly communicating his inner life to others. The letter-writing was aiming for “fifteen years old and unsophisticated emotionally” but actually came across as “seven years old and simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to express himself.” It made what could have been an engaging story pretty tedious.

Second, this story is trying to do far too much. I’m not saying no one’s life is this messy in reality, but in just over two hundred pages, we’re getting every ’90s after-school special crammed into a single book. We open with Charlie reeling from a classmate’s suicide; he sees his sister physically abused by her boyfriend; he witnesses a rape at a party; he watches one of his best friends betrayed by his secret gay lover, then later allows the friend to kiss him multiple times even though Charlie himself is not attracted to men; he smokes, he drinks, he has a really bad trip on LSD; he has a chance to have sex with his female best friend, at her initiation, but it goes terribly wrong. Oh, yeah, then the ending reveals Charlie himself is a victim of molestation by a family member, in case there wasn’t enough going on.

Most of those issues individually would be serious enough to be the primary thematic element of a novel, but here we’ve got them all shoehorned in the same one so that none of them has a chance to breathe or develop. The rape in particular pissed me off, because once Charlie tells a friend about what he saw, he finally figures it out, that what he witnessed was rape, and he says it out loud, and the friend agrees….and that’s that. There are no consequences, there’s no action taken even though Charlie saw a crime committed, it’s just a learning experience for him, a moment of realization on his road to deeper emotional maturity. That nameless girl’s pain and humiliation don’t matter except that they taught the male protagonist something.

Even if that one thing were forgivable to me (which it’s not, but even if it were) the rest of the book isn’t much better or more nuanced in how it handles these serious life issues. And what’s worse for me personally, reading this as an adult twenty years removed from high school but reading about the time period when I did go–I was a freshman only a few years after this book is set–dragged up a lot of emotions from that time in my life, mostly unpleasant ones, but in the end didn’t offer me any real catharsis to resolve those feelings.

59 - The Duchess War

#59 – The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 4/21/20 – 4/22/20
  • Mount TBR: 58/150
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

What? I rated something by Courtney Milan fewer than five stars?

I still loved it, don’t get me wrong, it just lacked something for me compared to the other books of hers I’ve read so far.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what, precisely, because it’s not any less well-plotted, or lighter on social justice issues (I was quite surprised this one was about unionizing! in a historical romance!) It was well-paced, and I even appreciate that the marriage of the leads doesn’t signal the end of the story, which is a common HEA ending. No, in this one it’s just a step in the journey, and it’s perfectly understandable that the characters have more issues to resolve even once they’ve tied the knot.

I think part of it is that the supporting cast felt weaker than usual. Lydia’s best-friend-ness and Oliver’s half-brother-ness were pretty standard and thin, and Minnie’s great-aunts didn’t have a lot of personality.

But really, I’m hunting for the reason I was less than 100% satisfied with what was still a solid romance I enjoyed reading. Off to put the rest of the series on my TBR.