The PopSugar Ultimate Reading Challenge 2019: Complete!

In the order I read them this year —

  1. A book you think should be a movie: Artemis
  2. A book with a wedding: Magic Shifts
  3. A book with a two-word title: Royal Assassin
  4. A book set on a college or university campus: Fair Game
  5. A book that has inspired a common phrase or idiom: Casino Royale
  6. A book about someone with a superpower: Graceling
  7. A debut novel: Angelfall
  8. A book that makes you nostalgic: The Sleeper and the Spindle
  9. Read a book during the season that it is set in: Misery
  10. A book with an item of clothing or accessory on the cover: Betrayal
  11. A book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title: Fire
  12. A book told from multiple character POVs: Jeweled Fire
  13. A book with no chapters, unusual chapter headings, or unconventionally numbered chapters: Ella Minnow Pea
  14. Your favorite prompt from a past PSRC (next book in a series I’ve already started): World After
  15. A cli-fi (climate fiction) book: The Year of the Flood
  16. A book by an author whose first and last names start with the same letter: The Deepest Cut
  17. Two books that share the same title (1): After the Fall
  18. A book about a family: Pigs in Heaven
  19. A book with at least one million ratings on Goodreads: Pride and Prejudice
  20. A book with a title that contains “salty,” “sweet,” “bitter,” or “spicy”: Bitterblue
  21. A book about a hobby: H is for Hawk
  22. A book becoming a movie in 2019: The Underground Railroad*
  23. A book you meant to read in 2018: The Lies of Locke Lamora
  24. A book that’s published in 2019: The Night Tiger
  25. A book inspired by mythology, legend, or folklore: Magic Binds
  26. A book written by a musician (fiction or nonfiction): The Talisman
  27. A choose-your-own-adventure book: Jane, Unlimited
  28. A book by two female authors: This Shattered World
  29. A book featuring an extinct or imaginary creature: A Natural History of Dragons
  30. An “own voices” book: The Kiss Quotient
  31. A book with a plant in the title or on the cover: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill
  32. A book written by an author from Asia, Africa, or South America: Half of a Yellow Sun
  33. Two books that share the same title (2): After We Fall**
  34. A retelling of a classic: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
  35. A book set in space: Caliban’s War
  36. A book set in Scandinavia: Still Waters
  37. A book revolving around a puzzle or game: The Westing Game
  38. A LitRPG book: Alterworld
  39. A book with “pop,” “sugar,” or “challenge” in the title: The Poppy War
  40. A book you see someone reading on TV or in a movie: Atonement
  41. A novel based on a true story: The Alice Network
  42. A book with “love” in the title: Dare to Love
  43. A book with a question in the title: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
  44. A ghost story: The Canterville Ghost
  45. A book that takes place in a single day: They Both Die at the End
  46. A book published posthumously: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  47. A book featuring an amateur detective: Death by Chocolate
  48. A book recommended by a celebrity you admire: All the Light We Cannot See
  49. A book set in an abbey, cloister, monastery, vicarage, or convent: Northanger Abbey
  50. Reread a favorite book: Watchmen

Note * : I originally stretched the prompt to include works being adapted into television series, which The Underground Railroad is. However, it did not end up coming out this year, as several end-of-year lists/articles anticipated it would. Most of the other books appropriate for the task, I didn’t own already, so this was still the best choice.

Note ** : These were as close to the same title as I could get from what I already owned, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to go and buy/borrow two other books sharing a name just so I could get this prompt done. Especially because many of the suggestions being discussed in the Goodreads group, I had already read one half of the pair… (sigh)

The 2020 challenge list came out earlier this month, and I’m happily putting together my proposed books for it. I want to make an effort next year to finish earlier (I read the last ten books for this year in the last several weeks, and many of them I wasn’t excited about anymore) and to distribute more evenly the ones I’m likely to enjoy and the ones I’m reading for the task, to stretch myself. So that, again, I don’t end up with a backlog of less than stellar books to plow through impatiently in the final months of the year.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #47)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#148 – Death by Chocolate, by Sally Berneathy

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

DNF @ 20%. I was bored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2019 #42)

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#135 – The Dark Mirror, by Juliet Marillier

  • Read: 10/9/19 – 10/14/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (42/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This is too long, too unfocused, and some of the characters are far too similar to those in Marillier’s other works.

Physically, Tuala is basically a copy of Sorcha from Daughter of the Forest, except that she actually is of the Fair Folk, whereas Sorcha merely seemed to be with her wildness. All the descriptors are actually the same, small, slim, barely eats enough to stay alive, constant comparisons to birds, big-eyed, dark hair, otherworldly. I’d be more willing to forgive this if Tuala had any personality to speak of, but she doesn’t. She’s young and lonely (also like Sorcha, though for different reasons) and that’s about it.

Bridei is slightly better off, being serious and studious and in the end, incredibly stubborn, but for good reason. He’s not quite as clearly matched to another Marillier character as Tuala is, but in some ways he does remind me strongly of Johnny, the golden child of the original Sevenwaters trilogy. But even if he’s more his own man, he’s still not really interesting enough to carry the story on his shoulders, because the major failing of the story is that our nominal protagonists are explicitly pawns in someone else’s grand scheme of kingship. Everything about Bridei’s life is bent toward making him the perfect candidate for king in the next election, and none of it by his own design, but by that of his foster father. That still might have had the potential to be an interesting story, if Bridei did more to test the limits of the constraints placed on him, but for most of the book he does exactly as he’s told, only breaking out of that narrow role at the very, very end. (And even that was unsatisfying, as romances go, which are always the backbone of this author’s work–this has an incredibly weak conclusion, more of a “to be continued,” because there are two more books about these idiots.)

The worst part, though, is the constant scene cuts to the schemers. Whether it’s the five “wise” men and women who formed the secret pact to make Bridei king, or the two Fair Folk who are meddling with Tuala and trying to tempt her away from the human world, every time the story is gaining some momentum, we have to stop and check in with the people in charge, and most of the time they aren’t even saying anything we don’t already know. Yes, Bridei is still mostly doing great. Yes, Tuala isn’t a part of the plan and we need to get her out of the way. Yes, time is running out because the old king is dying. STOP MAKING ME READ SCENES OF NOTHING BUT TALKING ABOUT INFORMATION I’VE ALREADY BEEN GIVEN FIVE TIMES.

This book could have been at least fifty pages shorter, just cutting repeated information, and probably more like a hundred pages shorter if all of the unnecessary scheming scenes were cut. I would have liked that book better, because it wouldn’t have dragged, though I still would have wanted a more engaging story that wasn’t two bland characters doing what they’re told for eighty percent of the book.

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#136 – Dare to Love, by Carly Phillips

  • Read: 10/16/19 – 10/17/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (87/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with “love” in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

You can tell this is the start to a new family-based romance series, because there are a million siblings introduced as quickly as possible to establish the protagonists of future books in the series. I’m not opposed to this style of series at all, but I prefer the setups to be far less blatant, and also not to come at the cost of a good story at the outset. Most of these names being thrown around had very little to do with the plot, which focused on the hero’s jealousy of and competition with his half-brother, who was the love interest’s best friend.

There’s a compelling story in there somewhere, or at least the potential for one. But I didn’t read it here. The hero elevates “controlling” to its own art form and constantly put me off. (I’m not into the controlling type of man IRL, but I can often set that aside when I read, if there’s redeeming qualities or underlying issues. If the dude’s just a jerk, I won’t like him.) The heroine was the typical “I’m strong and independent unless I’m in the same room as the hero then I’m overcome with lust” type. The half-brother/best friend is not interesting on his own, not a very good friend to the heroine in most cases, and generally just as much of a jerk as the hero.

I will give credit where it’s due, despite this being centered around the themes of competition and jealousy, it’s immediately clear that the love triangle only exists in the hero’s head, not the heroine’s or the best friend’s. Which I do appreciate from a meta standpoint, though it led to the hero beating the dead horse of “But I don’t believe neither of you has romantic feelings for the other.” Because men and women can’t be friends, obviously, a viewpoint which lowers the hero even further in my estimation, a feat I didn’t realize was possible until it happened. I do not recommend this book to anyone, even if you like the controlling type of man, because there are much better examples to be found elsewhere.

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#137 – Silver-Tongued Devil, by Rosalind James

  • Read: 10/17/19 – 10/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (88/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of James’ other novels, and I have to say, in terms of plotting this one stands out to me as well-crafted. There’s a lot of conflict, both external and internal, ranging from tragic family history and old injuries and teenage sexual trauma to criminal activity of several varieties and the hero quite literally saving the heroine’s life–but that event doesn’t come across as melodramatic or unnecessary to the story. None of it does, and considering the scope, that’s remarkable.

The chemistry between the leads is tangible, unforced, and satisfying to watch unfold. By the time these two got into bed together, I was on board with their relationship, even if they weren’t quite in it for the long haul yet.

Where this book falls down, really, is a sort of sameness of tone to nearly everyone’s dialogue, and that’s something I’ve seen in James’ other novels as well. After a while, Dakota and Blake and even Russ all sound alike, with that tendency to quip, to drop the subject of a sentence, to be sly when they think they can get away with it or stubborn a good deal of the rest of the time. The hero and heroine should sound more different from each other, and neither of them should speak like her dad! The only major character who stood out was Evan, because he was by far the most taciturn and emotionally shut-down, at least until he let loose a torrent of “I know better than you” at Dakota the one time.

It’s not enough to make me hate the novel or anything, but when I see how good the rest of it is, the dialogue issue is a pretty major distraction.

So, yeah, this is late because I got really sick this week. I gave up for a while on my planned TBR to switch to romance novels on my Kindle, because that’s physically easier to hold than a huge hardcover while I’m exhausted, and mentally easier to read than super-dense epic fantasy–I had just started Ship of Destiny and couldn’t face it while my brain was so fogged. I’m finally feeling better enough to write book reviews (I did four today, you’ll see the other two next week) and start getting my ducks back in their rows.

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.

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.