This Week, I Read… (2019 #40)

130 - The Poppy War

#130 – The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

  • Read: 9/26/19 – 9/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (83/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with “pop,” “sugar,” or “challenge” in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Hugely disappointed and more than a little bewildered by how beloved this book is.

I went into it blind, as was recommended by pretty much everyone who touted the book as amazing, so that’s what I did. The opening act was like, huh, a female-empowerment version of Harry Potter, let’s escape my miserable home life and learn to be something better at this academy that will give me the structure and purpose that’s missing from my life. So far, I’m on board.

As far as the time spent at the academy itself, I was also mostly on board with how it was depicted, the quirks of the masters, the general antagonism and rare friendship of Rin’s fellow students, and the slow peeling-back of the mysteries of the world’s lore. Interesting stuff.

Then the war starts and implodes everything. After this, I felt like the story had no mooring–I never knew what was going to happen, I couldn’t see Rin’s arc clearly ahead of time, and when the end came and I finally did understand what the point of it all was, I was actually disgusted by where she ended up.

The pacing slows to a glacial crawl in order to fully depict the atrocities of war and fully demonize the enemy. Other reviewers have commented that they didn’t feel it was gratuitous, but I most definitely did, especially when a minor character from the school who was never well-developed or all that important miraculously survives a prolonged stint as a “public toilet” just so she can spend a few pages graphically detailing her endless cycle of rapes and the horrific treatment of the other women who were in captivity with her. Beyond that, just how long do we have to devote to describing the piles of corpses all over the city? Thank you, I got the point, can we get the plot moving again yet?

Now, the brutality of the “Mugenese” army, which is clearly based on Japan, against the “Nikara,” who are clearly Chinese, does actually have historical basis, because Japanese Imperialism wrought some horrible things on the world. My objection to this depiction of war isn’t because of any quibbles about real-world analogues.

My objection is because the only way to allow Rin to become a war criminal and still be a sympathetic protagonist, still the hero of the story, is to have the enemy she’s fighting somehow be worse.

But they’re not. And one of her comrades even points that out to her, after the fact, still trying to be the voice of reason, in yet another guise that Rin fails to listen to.

Because that’s the entire story. Rin is constantly given the choice between wisdom/prudence and power/revenge, and she constantly chooses power. Her arc is from nobody-peasant-girl to insanely powerful war criminal, and yet, I’m still supposed to be rooting for her and invested in her cause, but I’m not, because she’s an idiot who is given every chance to do better and not be a war criminal, but she always chooses wrong. No matter how many times someone with a cooler head advises her against an action, she always knows better and does what she wants to do anyway, only to have the consequences of her poor decision-making blow up (sometimes literally) in everyone’s faces.

And we have to suffer her intense moments of indecision, her internal debates, over and over again, always hoping she’ll choose differently, she’ll make the smart choice, and being disappointed over and over again when she doesn’t.

Her character arc gives her an increase in personal power that’s massive in scale and completely out of tone with her incredibly humble beginnings, so much so that even with the substantial length of this book, I still feel like it was rushed, that Rin grew too fast. And yet, really, she doesn’t grow at all, because never once did she learn from a single mistake that she made.

131 - One True Loves

#131 – One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Read: 9/29/19 – 9/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (41/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

What could have been an incredibly powerful story about love, loss, and how a person changes as they move forward was ultimately cheapened by being completely devoid of subtlety.

There wasn’t a single thing about any of the main characters that I was allowed to interpret for myself from the way they spoke or acted. The book held my hand through every page to make sure that I came away from it with exactly the message that the author wanted me to have, nothing more. Emma’s narration explained everything to me with no gaps I had to fill in.

That’s a damning criticism when leveled at most books–that the author doesn’t trust the reader to figure anything out–and it’s a serious one here. But still, I was moved. The flip side of the narrative style being so obvious and forthright was that the emotional beats had nothing holding them back from punching me square in the gut, and they did–I cried several times. While Emma could be irritating on occasion, both Sam and Jesse were charming in their own ways, and I could easily see how swoon-worthy they were. I’m a sucker for sweetness and thoughtfulness in a man, so I’d be team Sam in this Husband War, but I can certainly understand the perspective of a reader finding Jesse more appealing. That’s the other upside of the style–both men are allowed to be utterly forthcoming about their own feelings (when they choose to be, at least) and that’s a level of emotional honesty I don’t often see in romance and/or women’s fiction.

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This Week, I Read… (2019 #39)

126 - Ship of Magic.jpg

#126 – Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 9/14/19 – 9/21/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (81/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s amazing to me how this book has nothing to do with the Farseer Trilogy, explores different characters, different ways of life, different aspects of magic, and yet is still obviously and convincingly set in the same world. Kudos to Hobbs’ fantastic world-building; this is not epic fantasy where there’s only one City and everything else is vague notions of far-off places, this is a complex and cohesive setting that I have no doubt can carry the weight of the sixteen books set it it.

I fell in love with most of the characters–Vivacia, Paragon, and Brashen especially–and despite the slow, detail-heavy pace, they kept me invested over this dense 800-page story. However, that love of the characters led to a more minor version of the syndrome that frustrates me about A Song of Ice and Fire now, and years ago made me give up on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time six books in and never look back: the “make me care about a character then ignore them for a hundred pages” paradox. (In Jordan’s case, the breaking point was when my two favorite characters were entirely missing from an entire book. Martin’s ASoIaF is nearly as bad.)

Here, it did sap my will a little to be following so many POV characters across so many story lines, especially late in the story when stakes were getting really high. The most notable issue was Wintrow’s predicament after he ran away, I almost skipped ahead to find out what happened to him because I didn’t want to wait for the pace to get me there naturally. I resisted and let it happen in its own time, but I admit to pretty severe frustration.

What I think I admire most about the writing of this is that every single POV character is clearly the hero of their own story, some almost to the point of self-absorption and two in particular (Malta and Kyle) well beyond it. Even the more compassionate among them think almost entirely of themselves, and thus have only themselves to blame for their bad decisions (which are many and varied) made in pursuit of their goals.

Kyle in particular, from the perspective of basically any other character who interacts with him, is clearly wrong about nearly everything, but he nearly goes to his death still convinced that none of it is his own fault; whatever goes wrong for him is the result of the weakness, stubbornness, or willfulness of others. The fact that he’s completely incapable of introspection makes him an antagonist in this story, but an understandable one–haven’t we all known someone who has good intentions and makes decisions that are meant to benefit others, but can’t accept that they don’t know best? I hate Kyle to his very bones, but I never questioned that he wasn’t motivated by a desire for unreasonable personal power, but simply the betterment of his family’s lot in life. He’s a terrible person who does some of the most purely evil things that happen in the book, but I can still understand and even sympathize with why he does them.

And I could explore and unravel the goals and desires of every POV character in that much detail, and more. Hobb spends the whole book examining the nature of duty, loyalty, and the limits of personal freedom, whether it’s on board a ship or inside a family. The end ties together some of the individual story lines in interesting ways while leaving others completely hanging–I’ll definitely be moving on to the second book soon, though I’ll give myself a break with some lighter reads first. But I’m invested, and my quibbles with the book that kept me from giving it a fifth star are not nearly enough to stop me from continuing the story.

127 - AlterWorld

#127 – Alterworld, by D. Rus

  • Read: 9/21/19 – 9/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (82/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A LitRPG book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 10%, and trust me, I didn’t even want to read that much, but it’s my minimum personal cutoff for feeling like I really gave a book a chance.

I’m a nerd. A geek. I played World of Warcraft seriously for years, I know the lingo. And since I watch a hell of a lot of anime now, I can slot this book right down there with the worst isekai I’ve ever seen.

My complaints are many and wide-ranging, so I’d better get straight to them.

1. The grammar and punctuation are atrocious from the very first page. Given that I knew nothing about the author and this is set in Russia, I did wonder if English was not the author’s first language, and behold, upon looking him up, D. Rus is Russian. But there are Russian-language editions as well, and no translator listed anywhere I could find, so while obviously I give non-native authors leeway in their skill in English on a personal level, there’s no excuse for it in a published work, that presumably saw editing by a native speaker at some point. If it didn’t, it needs to.

2. There are no explanations for any gamer terminology given as it’s introduced. Yes, I’m a gamer and I know what it all means, but any non-gamer would be lost almost right away. Even with the understanding that gamers are the target audience and the major readership, I was still put off by seeing so much jargon go without context.

3. AlterWorld, the game, is bland and entirely generic. It’s so cookie-cutter standard that I can’t see why anyone would want to play it, let alone give up their mortal existence and live in it. I certainly don’t want to read about it. And if there are interesting aspects to it that are revealed later that I didn’t get to, well, they should show up much earlier to get me hooked, because Mr. High Elf Necromancer nearly failing to kill a level 1 bunny is just not interesting enough to keep me going.

4. The real-world setup for the idea of “perma stuck” is sloppy and rushed, just online “research” the main character breezes through with vague notions of governments being concerned about their citizenry deliberately wanting to lose themselves in online games and putting preventive measures in place. If this has been going on for two years, how has Max never heard of it? He specifically says he avoids all gaming news, and yeah, I can see where the early instances would pass him by, but if world governments are passing laws and mandating safety measures, if suicide rates are apparently skyrocketing, how big are we supposed to believe the rock is that he’s been living under? The setup simply isn’t credible.

5. Max himself is one of the most irritating narrators I’ve had the displeasure of reading this year. Half the time it seemed like he couldn’t complete a full thought before bouncing to the next one, jumping through real-world situations that could take entire scenes in a single paragraph.

I only attempted to read this because the PopSugar Reading Challenge this year called for a LitRPG book, and this was popular, highly rated, and available for free. I doubted I’d like the genre, because quite honestly, I’d rather just play a game myself than read about someone playing a game. But I tried, and it’s laughably awful, and I’m never going to touch this genre again, I’ll put those potential hours into my latest Skyrim character instead, thanks.

128 - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

#128 – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

  • Read: 9/22/19 – 9/24/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (39/48); The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book with stars on the cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It was long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the major story arc, the journey out to the newly-allied planet, isn’t introduced until a quarter of the way through the book, and then the trip itself is filled with so many short and separate subplots, I almost felt like this was a season of television instead of a novel, it was that episodic, and little from one episode carried over to another, except for very small amounts of character growth.

I like the characters, and I like the alien species we encounter, and I like the AI rights subplot, and I like the ship. It’s all very likeable. But I wasn’t really moved much by any of it, and sometimes it felt like the story was an excuse to have philosophical discussions between these likeable characters about inter-species cultural issues. To the point where, fascinating as they often were, I still felt like they were the point of the story, and not, you know, the plot.

I’m tempted to call it fluffy, because the tone is generally light and reminds me of the best parts of Firefly–except that it actually has aliens instead of endless swathes of white humans dotted with token PoC–but the subject matter isn’t usually all that fluffy. Partway through we learn that most humans are pacifists, which presents interesting dilemmas for the crew, especially the captain, when presented with violence and war. The AI stuff is about the right to exist and be recognized as equal to organic life, and then Ohan’s arc is about the right to self-determination, played out through a complicated dance of religion, disease, and culture. There’s inter-species sexytimes going on, there’s xenophobia, there’s danger. It’s not fluffy.

Yet, at the end of it, I’ve come away more motivated to write my own ragtag bunch of shipmates their own story than I am to either reread this one, or continue the series. It’s not a bad thing for a piece of media to be inspirational, not in the slightest, but I’m left with the sense that, despite the length and the extensive universe-building, I’m still missing the meat in this space-fiction sandwich. I’m still hungry for something more.

129 - The First Time She Drowned

#129 – The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter

  • Read: 9/25/19 – 9/26/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (40/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In some ways, this is an ambitious novel, tackling trauma, mental illness, toxic family relationships, and suicide all in one story. But in others, it’s lackluster–in essence it’s the same story I’ve read dozens of times across YA and women’s fiction: bad things happen to a young girl and she spends her teenage years dealing with the fallout of it. Or in this case, pointedly not dealing with it. Her family isn’t just not-supportive, they’re actively harmful to her, and while I won’t argue the existence of toxic family–I have had my own experiences there–Cassie’s nuclear family was so dysfunctional that it seemed more melodramatic than realistic.

The flowery, “poetic” language didn’t help. I didn’t find it beautiful, I found it off-putting. Eighteen-year-old girls who spend almost three years institutionalized probably don’t have internal narration that studied and literate and stuffed with metaphor. I’d have felt better about the prose style if it had been in third person instead of first, because I just couldn’t believe the inside of Cassie’s head sounded like that. (The constant inter-cutting of present and past didn’t help, either. Flashbacks are fine to some degree, but these were near constant.)

I found Cassie herself just as off-putting, if not more. I’m always hesitant to say “I don’t like this female teenage main character” because of all the sexist baggage that comes along with women not being allowed to be “unlikable” in fiction the same way men are. But I didn’t like Cassie, and more to the point, I didn’t see why anyone else would, either. In the institution, sure, friendships are going to develop between the patients because of the time spent together, the forced intimacy of living side by side for months or years, and the shared experience of being isolated from society. But once Cassie got to college, I simply didn’t understand why anyone chose to spend time with her. After Zoey saves Cassie from her illness (and her own stupidity,) she’s done her good deed and been the Good Samaritan, and yeah, maybe she hangs out for a while out of guilt or concern, but Cassie is pretty awful to be around (whether it’s by her own fault or not, ultimately.) So why does Zoey like her? And for that matter, why does Chris? His attraction seems shallow, though to be fair, so does hers, and when Zoey blatantly attempts to pair them up like an obnoxious wingman, Cassie treats Chris really badly. I can’t imagine any guy I treated that way in college doing anything other than bailing on me and finding a girl who wasn’t a complete jerk. So Chris basically likes Cassie because the plot needs him to.

The only thing I found believable about the whole story was the behavior of Cassie’s mother. In some ways she seems too awful to be true, but I’ve dealt with that kind of narcissistic, cruel, gaslighting-type behavior from a few of my family members as well, though thankfully for me it wasn’t anyone so close to me as my mother, and also thankfully, they’re no longer in my life. But the emotional manipulation Cassie suffered struck all the right (wrong?) notes in me, and I hated her mother with a deep and profound passion.

I’m not particularly pleased that the only part of the book that resonated with me was the very worst of its subject matter. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #29)

93 - Saga, Vol. 4

#93 – Saga, Vol. 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

  • Read: 7/11/19 – 7/12/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (29/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Right after I said in the review for the third volume that I expected five-star ratings across the board, I end up not liking this one quite as much. I’m still trying to pinpoint why. Some of Hazel’s narration seemed off (and some of it deliberately tricksy, which I was fine with) but I don’t really like the red herring of Marko potentially cheating that got dangled in front of me. It’s not even that I’m wholly anti-cheating in general, it’s actually that it didn’t feel like a plausible turn for the story to take, so I couldn’t treat the possibility seriously.

Alanna’s drug problem, on the other hand, was totally believable and in keeping with the pressure she’s under. I liked the time we spent with her on the Circuit, and I wish we could see more without that extra time completely breaking the pacing (which it would, I know, it’s just such an interesting bunch of characters, I want more of them.)

I think the larger, systemic problem I had with this volume might be how fractured it felt. The main arc is the separation, fine, but all the subplots seem to be going in wildly different directions here, with assassinations and kidnappings and a few side characters dying (lots of not-quite-random violence in this one) but with little cohesion binding them together. To be honest, I feel like I’m missing something that makes this make sense, in the larger fashion that the first three volumes gave a satisfying tale told in each one. Here, I feel like I read a lot of loose ends.

Which, to be fair, where still cleverly written, brilliantly drawn, and full of the detail I’ve grown to appreciate so much. My vague dissatisfaction could simply be that we’ve reached the point in the overall story where things have to start going wrong very quickly on all fronts, which is why this volume in particular was hard-hit by that violence and messiness. When I have the whole story in front of me, perhaps this slice of it won’t seem weaker.

94 - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

#93 – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

  • Read: 7/13/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (61/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Tasks: A retelling of a classic (PopSugar); A light and fluffy read (The Reading Frenzy)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 70. This was a gimmick read, and that gimmick wore thin extraordinarily quickly.

I’m not a huge P&P fan, I’m no raging purist that thinks this is bad simply because it exists. The premise sounded awesome, and I’m down for genre mash-ups. But the execution on this is so, so poor. The only good thing I can say about the text is that, in streamlining Austen’s original prose to shorten the book and make room for the additional elements, the story is far more readable in terms of style. My major stumbling block with the source material was the archaic and bloated sentence construction–that’s what’s eliminated (mostly) here for the modern reader. Kudos for that, it let me read those 70 pages before I gave up in a single afternoon instead of several days.

Everything else is terrible. The zombies–oh, sorry, “unmentionables”–are spliced into the original text, and every seam shows. Whenever the narrative needs to address the fact that Lizzy and her sisters are accomplished fighters–which is often, because we might forget otherwise?–it completely destroys the tone of the scene and takes me out of the story.

Plus, let’s throw in a little racism while we’re at it–the Bennet girls are said to have trained with Shaolin monks in China, yet Japanese terms like dojo and ninja are used liberally. If I trusted the author more, I might be able to shrug this off as a relic of the time period, when the English were mad with Orientalism and would easily conflate all things “Eastern” into a single exotic source, destroying Asian diversity; except that China was well-known to Europe for centuries in 1797 when P&P is set, but Japan wasn’t open to the Western world until the mid-1800’s. There is absolutely no reason for any Japanese terminology or cultural influence to be in this book.

Now, Elena, you might say, why are you insisting on historical realism when this book is about zombies? Well, because the book hasn’t presented me with any reason the “strange plague” altered history enough to send British and/or American delegations to Japan more than fifty years early, that’s why. P&P is set in the real world, and P&P&Z added zombies, so unless those zombies went to Japan and started diplomatic talks, Japan should still be that mysterious island nation that little is known about and who doesn’t really talk to anyone yet.

It’s hackneyed and racist to conflate multiple Asian cultures this way, and it’s lazy not to know enough about history to make this sort of mistake in the first place. And nobody higher up the food chain caught it, either.

This is a gimmick read, and it’s a bad one.

95 - Caliban's War

#95 – Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 7/13/19 – 7/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (62/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge; The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: A book about or set in space (both challenges)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Revisiting a world I know so well is so comforting, even when the action is crazy pulse-pounding and the stakes are huge.

I came to this series as a show-watcher, and I was flabbergasted after reading Leviathan Wakes at how faithful the show was. Knowing now that the writing team behind this is also working on the show, I’m not surprised at all moving forward, but I’m still amazed by how much of the incredible character depth in the novels gets carried over.

So, book two. I was thrilled to finally meet Avasarala on the page and see the full scope of her vulgarity, because of course she can’t drop the f-bomb that many times on screen. She’s so many things that female characters are so rarely allowed to be, especially in combination: intelligent, politically powerful, manipulative, crass, insulting, cantankerous, and also deeply in love with her husband throughout a long and stable marriage, motherly/grandmotherly, and despite the outward flaws of her personality or the deliberately cultivated flaws of her political persona, she’s likeable, relatable, and most of all, a force for good in the universe.

Can you tell she’s my favorite character? Just a hint?

I loved her relationship with Bobbie on the show, and it’s only better in the book. In fact, everything about Bobbie is better in the book, simply because she’s another amazing female character who gets to do things outside the scope of normal literary femininity: be the most bad-ass warrior in any given room, but still have a personality beyond it. Bobbie is shaped by being a Marine and brings military-style thinking to every conversation, sure. But she also grows so much by being exposed to influences outside her military comfort zone, and whenever she offers an idea, she’s not dismissed as the meathead who thinks with her gun. (That position is arguably held, albeit somewhat voluntarily, by Amos, who seems to welcome the underestimation and dismissal he receives from strangers for being the big, bulky grease monkey–another subversion of the “big dumb brute” trope, because Amos is plenty smart in a lot of ways, and the story shows it even when he’s trying not to make it a big deal.)

Speaking of Amos, I also liked the extra depth to his relationship with Prax. (Whom I also welcomed as a POV character, he convinced me by the end of his first page that he was a scientist through and through, and I love reading good scientists.) In the show, I saw their bond forming, but I didn’t always understand why those two gravitated towards each other, but in the book, it’s very clear.

I have less to say about the main Rocinante crew in general, other than that Holden and Naomi’s romance still seems kind of meh, though I accept the arc of her leaving and his apology bringing her back as solid and well-done. Alex doesn’t get a lot of further development here, he’s absent for half the book for story reasons, but Holden at least acknowledges in the end that that was a shitty thing to do to him, and Alex takes it all in stride as the easy-going dude he is.

With so many new and amazing characters moving the story forward, the main four can’t be quite as shiny and interesting overall as they were back in the first book when they were new, too, so I understand that, but I hope this trend downward stabilizes instead of continuing until I’m bored with them.

96 - Teach Me

#96 – Teach Me, by Olivia Dade

  • Read: 7/18/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

Since this was a romance I picked up at the behest of one of my reading clubs and not by my own interest, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. A work-place romance between an Ice Queen type and a single dad, and a sort of enemies-to-lovers arc? (They’re not enemies, not really, but she has reasons to resent his presence in her school and department at first, though she takes the high road and decides not to.) I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read this on my own, but I would have been missing out.

I loved Martin, I really, truly did. I’m a total sucker for a thoughtful man, and compassion is woven into his DNA. In their relationship, he shows his vulnerability first, which is definitely a rarity in your standard m/f romances, and one I appreciate. And he’s a good dad, without laying it on too thick. Showing him struggling with the anticipation of an empty nest when his daughter goes off to college the next year really made that aspect of his character work.

Rose, I liked slightly less. I can see how she’s a well-constructed character and a perfect match for Martin, but her fears came out a little too strongly for me and held her back a little too long. Maybe that’s just because in her place, I would have been doodling hearts around Martin’s name in my notebook long before she was, but I was honestly irritated by how closed-off she was, even near the end.

The payoff was cute, the relatively few kissing and sex scenes were swoon-worthy, though this story is far more couched in the Unresolved Sexual Tension stage of a relationship–that first kiss comes pretty late in the book. But it’s worth the wait.

It wasn’t perfect for me, but it’s pretty darn good, and since this is my first read by this author, I’ll be looking into more of her work.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #26)

81 - The Secret Keeper

#81 – The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

  • Read: 6/19 – 6/21/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (25/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Too long for the story it told, which I found needlessly complicated. Even the inciting incident, the memory of an unknown man’s murder by the main character’s mother, was so drenched in nostalgic, atmospheric prose that it didn’t have any urgency.

I’ve been giving up on a lot of books lately, though, and enough of me did want to find out the “why” of it that I kept reading. At times, I questioned my decision, because with every new reveal, the story changed, and my theory about who the man was (before that was discovered) and/or why he was killed was supposed to change with it, I guess, and keep me hooked.

Problem was, the information we start with is so vague, and the first section of the book includes so many characters being deliberately vague, even to themselves in internal monologue, that I had no real idea what was going on, and the later theories I developed, I wasn’t particularly attached to. “It couldn’t be that easy,” I told myself. And ultimately, it wasn’t.

Granted, I was skimming by the end, because I just could not deal with entire chapters of journal entries and letters that conveniently contained precisely what the character reading them, years later, need to know. But if I’d been paying closer attention, would I have figured out the final plot twist that sets everything on its head at the bitter, bitter end? Honestly, probably not. It recontextualized everything, yet I don’t remember clues leading up to it, and I can see a different ending to the book where it didn’t happen quite easily. It’s just out of left field.

I’m not impressed.

82 - After We Fall

#82 – After We Fall, by Melanie Harlow

  • Read: 6/21/19 – 6/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (54/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: Two books that share the same title (2)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A solid opposites-attract romance in terms of the leads’ personalities, but where I felt like this fell flat was in the narrative style. The book is written in dual-POV structure, common to romances, but in first person perspective, and I thought Margot and Jack simply sounded too much the same.

Especially when they both express their anger the same way! With lots of short sentences! Punctuated by many exclamation points! And they get pissed at each other often! So I had to read these passages quite frequently!

That sort of deliberate stylistic quirk feels to me like the sort of thing one character should do while the other doesn’t, rather than just the way the author writes.

Overall, I was entertained, but I’m not itching to read it again or particularly inclined to check out the author’s other work.

83 - The Sister

#83 – The Sister, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 6/22/19 – 6/23/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (55/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

After a hiatus of more than three years, I’ve returned to The Boss series. I bought this (and #7, The Boyfriend) when they were released, but somehow didn’t get to them. Early on, it was because I was still reeling from the events of The Baby and wasn’t ready for more potential heart-rending. Later, buried other under books. But because I’m making it a priority to wrap up partial series in my queue, here I am.

And I’m vaguely disappointed by my mixed reaction.

If I were judging this on the can-we-make-a-thruple-work storyline with El-Mudad, I loved it, but that came out of left field for me. One of my major issues with The Baby was that by the end of the book, after all El-Mudad had done for Sophie in her times of trouble, he felt forgotten about–he had declared his intention to be exclusive with them, if they were on board, but then other things happened (the entire plot!) and he got put on hold. I was thrown when there was no sort of closure for him.

Jump to this book, where they’re talking about how the last year has brought them all closer together, and I just don’t see it, he was barely a presence in the last book and now he’s a central figure in their lives. Which I’d like, polyamory isn’t something you see explored seriously in romance or erotica, it’s often a setup for sexy hijinks but the emotions involved are relegated to the background or ignored entirely. And this book is full of emotion on that score.

The other major plot thread, the titular sister(s) that come into Sophie’s life, I liked less. It felt rushed and kind of shallow, how awkward and antagonistic everyone but Molly was, while Molly was the super adorable teenage charmer for Sophie to instantly fall in love with. That isn’t to say Sophie didn’t experience character growth from it–she realized she didn’t have to justify her anger about her father’s abandonment, that she didn’t need anyone’s permission to feel how she felt, and that’s definitely something I can empathize with (as I’m sure many other women can.) But getting there felt trite.

On the other hand, in Sophie’s professional life, Deja’s blow-up at her was long overdue, with the story well-paved with hints that it was coming. Sophie’s sudden decision to give up her position felt both like something she would absolutely do (she’s been known to make impulsive decisions, even if she was deliberately taking her time pondering the kidney donation elsewhere in this book) and the culmination of her internal struggle with finding herself filthy rich, an issue threaded throughout this series.

So I liked it, except when I didn’t. Because I’m such a sucker for El-Mudad, he’s the biggest softie and I love him, I’m excited to finally get to The Boyfriend next, but also wary of how messy Sophie’s life has become and what that means for the plot moving forward. Because I don’t think this book was as good as previous entries in the series, and I’m hoping that downward trend won’t continue.

84 - Making Handmade Books

#84 – Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures, & Forms, by Alisa Golden

If you missed it on Wednesday, this review got its own post, check it out here.

85 - White Oleander

#85 – White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

  • Read: 6/23/19 – 6/26/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (57/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Strongly mixed feelings that are going to take a lot of unpacking, so bear with me, this is going to be long.

Pro: a “literary” novel by a woman, concerned solely and entirely about women’s lives, especially re: mother-daughter relationships. Even twenty years later, we still need more of these and less of Old White Men writing Old White Men stories.

Con: filled with ambiguous stances on problematic issues. The presence or absence of racism in the book is so complex I can’t parse it, as a white person–some characters are unabashedly racist, and Astrid doesn’t think she’s one by comparison. Yet one of her mother figures is black, and also a prostitute…but her white mother figures aren’t depicted as morally superior because of that, they’re all flawed in their own ways, so maybe it’s a wash? And then the dual symbolism imposed on the color white, on whiteness itself–beauty and death–carries its own racist underpinnings. I’m aware that I’m no scholar of racism in literature, so I’m not best qualified to really unravel this, but I couldn’t help but be both aware of it and made uncomfortable by it.

Then, there’s the sex. On the one hand, this novel acknowledges the desires of teenage girls to explore their sexuality, to even have sexuality in the first place and not be pure precious snowflakes, which I’d argue is good; but it’s debatable whether or not Fitch does enough to really portray pedophilia as immoral. Astrid’s relationship with Ray is one of her best memories for a time, something she longs for, even though they both knew it it was wrong; Ray is depicted in an incredibly sad, sympathetic light as a kindly man who knows his attraction isn’t healthy but is so unappreciated by his actual, adult girlfriend that it’s okay he’s screwing a fourteen-year-old girl. And then a slightly older Astrid goes down the same path with Sergei, though it’s not an innocent or idolized fairy tale of love this time, sleeping with a) an adult man who is also b) her foster mother’s boyfriend. I can’t make the argument here which causes me to abandon so many other works (usually by male authors, often “classics,”) that the pedophilia is normalized or even glorified. It’s not. But I don’t know that it’s condemned, either, as it should be. I don’t think Fitch is wrong to write Astrid as a troubled girl with a complex relationship with sex, but I do think it could have been clearer than Ray and Sergei were in the wrong and taking advantage of her.

Pro: Ingrid is unabashedly evil, and that’s just fun. How often do female characters get to be this narcissistic, this arrogant, this villainous, without restraint? And while I haven’t seen the movie, I enjoyed picturing Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid, hearing her voice delivering those acid-etched words.

Con: By contrast, Astrid spends most of the book coming off as insipid or downright bland. I understand this, to an extent–this is her journey, and she needs to find herself, so she can’t be fully formed to begin with. If her mother weren’t such a blazing light, I don’t think Astrid would be in as much shadow, but I do think it’s an issue when the protagonist isn’t nearly as captivating as the villain.

Pro: Some of the language was beautiful and memorable.

Con: Some of the language was overdone and ridiculous. (I know the appreciation of linguistic style is a matter of personal taste, but I experienced both the good and bad extremes over the course of this novel. I cringed at a line nearly as often as I stopped to be transported by one.)

Final pro: I always enjoy books that display appreciation for art. Ingrid is a poet, and while her style isn’t precisely to my taste, I didn’t hate her poetry, either. A major thread in Astrid’s journey is finding herself through her art, and while the ending fell a little flat for me in most respects, I was enthralled by the depiction of her salvaged-goods, mixed media pieces. That’s my jam, I cut things up and slap them back together differently, I made things out of other things, I get that. I knew Astrid better then, than I did for the entire rest of the book.

86 - The Boyfriend

86 – The Boyfriend, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 6/26/19 – 6/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (58/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

What a way to bounce back!

This time around, the story focused almost entirely on the difficulties of maintaining a stable polyamorous relationship while also hiding it from a society, and especially the family members, who won’t necessarily understand or approve of it.

I felt this book. Seriously. These emotions are strong and believable.

And I want to say this is realistic, too, though I’ve got to stick the caveat on there that Sophie is in love with two billionaires and money solves a few of the problems they might have otherwise. Not all of them, and not the big ones, but it’s a little easier to vacation as a thruple when you own your own yacht.

If the story started here, rather than having six books behind it to show how Sophie got to this relatively charmed place in life, I wouldn’t say it’s believable at all, but that’s the strength of following one character through so much of her life.

More minor bits of plot involve Sophie struggling to find direction in life (again) while adjusting her attitude towards the wealth she now has at her fingertips. I like where this is headed, but it’s not explored in depth yet–I imagine it’s going to be part of the next book.

And El-Mudad continues to be way more to my personal taste than Neil ever was, so yay for more of him.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #24)

74 - Red, White, and Royal Blue

#74 – Red, White, & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston

  • Read: 6/5/19 – 6/7/19
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I adore this with all of my bisexual heart. I actually don’t want to read another book right now–I want to read this again. (I know, nothing’s stopping me, but maybe I’ll save it for my next bad day, when I need either cathartic angst or infectious glee, depending on which part of the book I read.)

I’m aware of its flaws, but to me, they don’t get in the way of a great love story. Is it really that easy to sneak a foreign head of state into a closet for a hookup? Probably not. Are the US politics simplified and maybe too blatantly optimistic? Yes, and as for the second, that depends on your own political standing, I guess. I found them a bit too good to be true.

HOWEVER. All flaws, to my mind, are completely outweighed by the best bisexual protagonist I’ve read yet. Alex Claremont-Diaz is the absolute poster child for issues caused by the culture of compulsory heterosexuality that he (and I!) grew up in. Even though he knew queer people, even though he’d dated another bisexual person, he didn’t recognize it in himself for a LONG DAMN TIME. That’s my deal. I took even longer to figure myself out.

I read this, and I felt seen. Even if I never fell in confusing love with a European princess for my own fairy tale.

75 - Second Position

#75 – Second Position, by Katherine Locke

  • Read: 6/7/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (23/48)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at 25%, partially for angst without enough story to back it up, but honestly, mostly for nonsensical dialogue and complete lack of setting.

The book is divided between the POVs of its two main characters, Aly and Zed. Aly’s chapters irritated me to no end because it was literally nothing but dialogue with her therapist. No dialogue tags, no fidgeting, no facial expressions, nothing but the words they said–the worst example of “talking heads” in a story that I’ve ever seen. So they just sit in a blank room with no furnishings, completely isolated from any noises outside, Aly’s phone never rings because she forgot to set it to silent, the receptionist whom I assume exists never has to interrupt for an emergency…nothing. They sit in a blank room and talk at each other.

Zed’s chapters are actual story, in the sense that things happen other than dialogue. Of course, most of it is angsty internal monologue. But when things do happen, at least there’s physical space around the characters for them to happen in.

However, the dialogue is still a major issue in Zed’s POV, just in a different way. I couldn’t follow it, sometimes. I mean, quite seriously, that one character would say something, and the other would reply, and I would have no idea what it meant, because it seemed completely disconnected from what was said first.

For example, Zed’s teasing the barista at his local cafe. Zed’s friend Dan walks in and says, “You torturing the staff again?” Zed replies, “Only for you.”

What? What does that even mean? And I can’t use the rest of the scene to try to put it in context. Nothing comes before it that would help–this happens the moment Dan walks in. Immediately after, a more normal conversation happens, starting with “How’re you?”

Nothing earlier in the book helps, either. I don’t recall ever seeing Dan at that cafe before, just Zed and Aly at various times. Dan hasn’t revealed elsewhere that he enjoying pestering the employees of whatever establishments he frequents. So how does it make any sense that Zed is “torturing” the barista “for [him]”? If it’s a joke, why isn’t it funny? If it’s an inside joke, when was I, the reader, clued in? (Never.)

This isn’t even close to the only example, just the one nearest to where I stopped reading. In Zed and Aly’s numerous rambling conversations, they spoke elliptically of their history in ways I simply couldn’t piece together. Zed would often ask a question, then go off on an internal monologue for a page and a half, then Aly would answer and it would make no sense, even if I paged back to reread the question.

All of this, put together, means I couldn’t get invested in the characters, because I didn’t have a single hope of understanding them. The whole narrative felt very stream-of-conscious with a startling lack of continuity and no real definition between past and present, exacerbated by some places where (to the best of my understanding) the verb tense of the story got mixed up so that I honestly didn’t know whether I was in the present or yet another internal flashback.

76 - Half of a Yellow Sun.JPG

#76 – Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • Read: 6/7/19 – 6/10/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (50/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book written by an author from Asia, Africa, or South America
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF just shy of 50%.

It’s rare that I go so long before giving up on a book, but by the time I passed 10%, I honestly thought I was going to read the whole thing. I loved Adichie’s prose style and the rich cultural and historical detail. Some of the characters, I found more vibrant than others, but I was interested.

However, the plot was so directionless. I understand the story sets out to follow the lives of our three protagonists through a decade of political turmoil, but knowing that doesn’t give much weight to the story when the most of the first half of the book is characterization–it doesn’t feel like much that happens matters, beyond setting up the stage for something awful later. A major political event does occur in the first half–the creation of Republic of Biafra–and finally, there’s some rioting and one of our characters is in danger.

I was disturbed at how relieved I was that something was finally happening, while also not wanting to pick the book up again to find out what horrible thing happened next.

I’m never hesitant to talk about why I think a book is bad, but in this case, I feel it’s more of an issue of personal taste than quality. I’ve read historical fiction structured like this before, and it’s usually a slog for me no matter who the author is.

77 - The Scribe

#77 – The Scribe, by Elizabeth Hunter

  • Read: 6/11/19 – 6/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (51/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

A totally surprising five-star read for me. Why have I been sitting on this book for so long? I put it on my TBR ages ago and bought it last year.

Anyway, talking too much about the plot would involve spoilers more major than I’m willing to include in my review for something I loved this much and want to recommend. Instead, I’ll go into the tropes this turns on its head.

Paranormal romance with between a human and a semi-immortal being: totally not creepy this time. Soulmates: believable-ish for once! Magic system: totally not bland, nor overpowered. Insta-lust : NO! Insta-love: HELL NO!

I really just can’t fathom how so many trite, overused story pieces are put together in this while feeling fresh and interesting, because I’ve read SO MANY books where all of these go spectacularly wrong, or add up to the same old trash we’ve all seen a hundred times.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #21)

64 - Where We Land

#64 – Where We Land, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 5/17/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

As promised on the label, cute beta guy meets and falls in love with hardworking, frazzled but fun girl.

As usual for a Jenny Trout/Abigail Barnette work, there’s tons of healthy relationship dynamics at play, and the characters address social issues instead of ignoring them. (This is certainly a #MeToo era work in tone, even if the actual movement isn’t a part of the story.)

I loved the characters, even the minor ones, and I’ve got no gripes with 95% of the book. This didn’t get a fifth star from me because I prefer my romances not to skip to a HEA ending as soon as the lovebirds confirm they’re together. The epilogue felt tacked on instead of being a natural conclusion.

For what it is–a meet-cute novella–it’s practically perfect. I just loved the characters enough to want to see more, the meat of the relationship that got skipped near the end.

65 - Read, Write, Love at Seaside

#65 – Read, Write, Love at Seaside, by Addison Cole

  • Read: 5/17/19 – 5/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (45/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Try a Chapter” Mini Challenge
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Opposites attract, but not in any interesting way. DNF @ 60% because there was no conflict and I got tired of waiting for something interesting to happen.

Leanna is a directionless hippie (with a backup trust fund she wants to use only for emergencies, so it’s okay that she’s an adult with no direction because she’s not in any danger of starving or becoming homeless. That would ruin the vibe.)

Kurt is a stick-up-his-ass neat-freak author (who immediately loosens up at the mere sight of sexy, sexy Leanna and becomes super-perfect in no time flat. Like, before the book was halfway over, he’d already been made over into the ideal man, and not even because Leanna was trying to change him, but just because he was so damn smitten that he did it all without being asked.)

THERE’S NO CONFLICT. EVER. They get together with only a token amount of resistance, Kurt basically remakes his entire schedule to fit her into it but that’s okay because she’s SO INSPIRING that he writes faster in less time so it’s okay. When I gave up, they were talking about moving in together and also somehow making room for her burgeoning business (that he wants to take further time out of his own schedule for to help with) AND IT’S ALL JUST SO EASY.

I can’t even call this fluff, because fluff still usually has conflict! Maybe it’s low-key, but stuff still happens to keep the protagonists apart or make their relationship more rocky-road and less vanilla-silk. It’s so bland. It’s so easy. It’s so boring.

66 - A Stone in the Sea

#66 – A Stone in the Sea, by A.L. Jackson

  • Read: 5/19/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (46/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Try a Chapter” Mini Challenge
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 10%.

The prologue was overwrought and terrible. Having been introduced to both protagonists, I have no idea which POV it’s from, what horrible pain it’s meant to represent, or what its relevance is to the story. No clue at all. It’s just angst with no purpose.

Baz’s introductory chapter is too many mystery events alluded to with no groundwork laid. His band’s in trouble, or he is, or both. His little brother is important to him but also severely traumatized by something, maybe? The big European tour is canceled! …for some reason. Why? Keep reading to find out!

Too many hooks pulling my attention in too many directions. Should’ve just used one and made it more interesting instead of overloading poor Baz with so much obviously tragic backstory.

Then there’s Shea, who’s no mystery at all. She’s a gorgeous waitress working at her uncle’s bar. And that’s it. No depth.

But Baz finds her mysterious and asks her out. She says no, and does a pretty solid job laying out all the reasons it’s reckless and unsafe for a woman in a service industry to go out with guys who hit on her at work. Too bad it’s undermined by the event that came immediately afterward and made me give up on the book.

Baz assaults Shea. She’s said no, but he runs into her in the hallway before he leaves the bar, and he creeps up behind her, slides his hand from her back, around her side, and to her “heart.” Um, honey, if your hand made it from her back to her heart, then you’re touching her boobs at some point along the way, because you know, they’re on either side of her chest, where her heart is.

[Not that he should be touching her without permission at all, of course, but how he did it makes it sexual, and thus, worse.]

THEN he leans in and whispers in her ear, “Go out with me.”

The only response to this series of actions on his part that doesn’t support a narrative rife with toxic masculinity, rape culture, or abuse apology is if she immediately took him down with some sweet self-defense moves (or called her uncle who runs the damn bar for help, if she’s not able to manage Baz herself,) reports him for assault, and never, ever, ever goes out with him.

She does none of that. She’s too overwhelmed by how attracted to him she is.

I don’t need to read the rest of the book now, because it just romanticized assault. THIS IS NOT ROMANCE. THIS IS ASSAULT. THIS IS NOT OKAY. DON’T NORMALIZE THIS BEHAVIOR.

67 - The Kiss Quotient

#67 – The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang

  • Read: 5/20/19 – 5/21/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (20/48); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: An “own voices” book
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This came so close to being a one-afternoon read for me. I didn’t want to stop but had to, to engage in real life again. I finished it this morning.

I loved it. I loved it so much I checked negative reviews for mentions of flaws I obviously overlooked, found a few I agree with and a lot I don’t. None of them retroactively make me love the book any less.

It helps that I love smut, because this book is NOT shy about sex, even if Stella starts out that way.

The story is an interesting push-and-pull of communication issues. Michael is excellent at talking about sex, and gradually shows how great he is at being attentive. While that comes from his job (both of them, as it turns out,) he’s never portrayed as sleazy because he’s a sex worker, and that attentiveness is what makes his building trust with Stella believable. Stella is great at being bluntly honest, and she’s upfront about most of her issues without ever defining herself with a label. Both characters spend most of the book failing to reveal their true feelings because of personal insecurity, which makes them a great pair on the page, even if it’s easy for me, the reader, to shout “just talk to each other already!” They’re so good about that up to a point, then they completely fall apart. Which, again, is believable. Most people find it hard to open up about their deepest issues.

I’m just such a sucker for romances where I can actually see the couple falling in love, instead of just falling into bed together. I realize that’s a low bar to set in general, but so many books fail even at that, while this one clears it by a mile.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #16)

51 - The Last Necromancer

#51 – The Last Necromancer, by C.J. Archer

  • Read: 4/11/19 – 4/13/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (34/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Terrible. Maybe even the worst book I’ve finished this year.

Charlie/Charlotte is one of the most inconsistently written heroines I’ve ever encountered, bouncing back and forth from a worldly, tough “boy” from the streets to a shrinking violet who needs constant rescuing from everything and everyone, including her own stupid decisions and her “oh god why is he the love interest” rescuer.

At first Charlie’s cleverness is sort of cute, and I even appreciated early on when I saw her slip out of character, knowing that that would lead to her getting found out. But then it didn’t. She’s surrounded by adults, several of whom are specifically trained to investigate things, yet they all fall for her disguise? Fitzroy even tells her it was perfect, after the fact, when someone else figured it out. Nope, nuh-uh, not buying it. She was screwing up left and right.

Why? Because she was busy trying not to jump into Fitzroy’s pants. Instant attraction is fair, sure, he sounds all tall-dark-handsome and whatever, but she keeps wanting to jump into his pants even after he’s revealed himself to be abusive, manipulative, and downright psychotic. If you hire someone to “scare” a woman, and the guy you hired tries to rape her, guess what, that’s on you for your poor judgment. And when you kill the attacker to stop the rape, that doesn’t make you the good guy, because two wrongs don’t make a right, you unsympathetic lunatic, THE WHOLE SITUATION WAS STILL YOUR FAULT.

Fitzroy is a huge problem even separately from Charlie. In the ministry, Lord Gillingham plays the part of the truly unashamed and unrepentant Worst Man Ever–nothing he ever advocates as a plan of action takes Charlie’s well-being or wishes into account, and at the end, he wants her killed because she’s too dangerous to leave lying around, a weapon for someone else to pick up. So he’s the worst, right? And that’s supposed to make Fitzroy look better, and give him a chance to show how seriously he feels about Charlie’s safety.

But here’s the thing #1–Fitzroy’s not really that much better than Gillingham, he’s just less forthright about how awful he is. And here’s the thing #2–We’ve already got two far more appealing men in the story, Gus and Seth, Fitzroy’s henchman. Yes, they took part in Charlie’s original abduction, so they are by no means “good” guys, but whenever Charlie isn’t remembering to be pissed off at them all about her situation, she’s really friendly to both of them, and they are to her as well. Seth is actually used as a point of jealousy for Fitzroy, because he’s aware Seth has taken a shine to Charlie. (And Gus is ugly, so no one could possibly love him, right?)

I mean, I don’t actually like any of these characters at all, but if offered the same choices, I’d go for Seth in a heartbeat over Mr. Hired Someone To Scare Me Who Tried to Rape Me.

On top of all that, the language was too obviously modern to make me feel like this was really London in 1889; the action writing was clumsy; as piece of Frankenstein fan fiction, I am unimpressed, because it’s the monster that was interesting, not the doctor, so gutting the story to make Dr. Frankenstein into Charlie’s father wasn’t all that true to the spirit of the original work; and as a romance, not only does it glorify abusive behavior, it’s just not good. I didn’t feel any real romantic or sexual tension, it was all angsty and juvenile.

52 - A Natural History of Dragons

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

  • Read: 4/13/19 – 4/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (35/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book featuring an extinct or imaginary creature
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As an avid watcher of nature documentaries, as a one-time potential scholar of biology, as a reader fascinated by the history of science and the progression of “natural history,” it only took the first fifty pages of this story to convince me it was written specifically for me. It wasn’t, of course, but so strong was my interest in it, my connection to it, that I loved it instantly.

Isabella’s dry wit and elderly impatience for propriety and formality were a lovely bonus on top of that.

My romance-loving heart was appeased by the inclusion of a well-characterized marriage, though I appreciate how “romance” wasn’t the point, and how framing the story as a memoir allows Brennan to skip the boring/tedious parts of both Isabella’s courtship and later on, larger swathes of time when nothing important to the story was happening. Most stories use time skips of some kind (and those that don’t, I usually wish did,) but I always have an eye out for when any storytelling technique, no matter how common, is used exceptionally well.