This Week, I Read… (2019 #33)

107 - Saga, Vol. 6

#107 – Saga, Vol. 6, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/9/19 – 8/10/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (33/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As usual, when I get farther and farther into a series I love, I find it harder and harder to write coherent reviews, as they generally become a list of highlights of my favorite parts. So here’s the list for the sixth volume: Ghus is still the best and I love him. I’m happy to see the reporters come back, even if I’m hesitant about what they’re trying to do because breaking Marko and Alanna’s story could be a triumphant ending or the beginning of everything going horribly wrong–it’s not like I can accurately predict anything ahead of time about a story this wacky, as the brilliance of its plotting is best visible through hindsight, not foresight. I definitely love that this series has always surprised me, and still is–Petrichor being an example, not because of the complexity of her identity, but because surprise! she’s on the ship now, and that’s a new conflict to explore.

What else, what else. I’m liking the kid Hazel is growing up to be so far, it’s charming to see her so trusting, given her unconventional and event-filled upbringing. I can see the beginning of her trajectory from unformed babyhood toward the narrator we’ve been listening to the whole time. And her reunion with Marko is just heart-breakingly adorable.

I love this series.

108 - Saga, Vol. 7

#108 – Saga, Vol. 7, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/10/19 – 8/11/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (34/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Stop stomping on my heart like this, please. That ending!

Some stuff I like from this volume: Petrichor keeps being interesting. Hazel’s first kiss. The line about unfulfilled relationships being “potential energy,” that hit me right in the gut. Also being punched in the kidneys by the multiple quiet tragedies that comprised the ending. On a lighter note, the cute little furry people of Phang were so adorable, and then, on a heavier note, that just made the ending hurt more.

Seriously, there are only two volumes left, so I knew things had to start going (more) wrong than they had been, but I’m really torn up about this!

109 - Keys to the Castle.jpg

#109 – Keys to the Castle, by Donna Ball

  • Read: 8/11/19 – 8/12/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (69/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A key in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I almost put this down after Chapter 2, when Ash was introduced and I didn’t like him one bit. I didn’t like the way he spoke to his secretary, I didn’t like the way he spoke to his mother. I didn’t like his attitude at all.

But I had liked the first chapter, introducing Sara, just fine, so I figured I’d keep reading until the two future lovebirds met, and see if I liked the way Ash spoke to her. It was like he was a different person entirely, and somehow, I read the next two hundred pages in one sitting.

That isn’t to say this is an amazing book, because now that I’m finished, it’s really just a few thin character archetypes in a trench coat. Sara is the weepy but determined American widow, headstrong and occasionally foolish. Ash is the suave, charming British lawyer (as opposed to the rotund, bumbling British lawyer) who is used to getting what he wants and can’t imagine this widow standing in his way. His ex-wife Michele is the worst of the lot, a conniving French viper who has no heart, only machinations. Ash’s mother isn’t all that great, either, an interfering Mother Knows Best woman who takes every opportunity to scold her child, and her future daughter-in-law, into doing her bidding. When the story adds the little girl Alyssa to the mix, she’s entirely too lovable and perfect–her existence is a complication to Sara and Ash’s plans, but not her person itself, whom they both adore.

It’s all so, so slick, especially when this soap-opera worthy plots and lies and schemes are set against a crumbling French ruin in an otherwise idyllic setting. I read it so fast because there was nothing to grab onto to slow me down, nothing that ever gave me pause or made me think too hard.

And while the setting is romantic and there’s tons of tension between the leads, a great deal of that tension ends up being because Ash, both in a professional capacity and a personal one, spends most of the book hiding truths from Sara. Sometimes it’s outright lying to manipulate her (even though I can see, in his twisted lawyer brain, how he believes he was acting in good faith on Alyssa’s behalf) and the rest of the time it’s simply failing to give her relevant information in ways he sees as for her own good.

The conflict between them is so one-sided, and were I Sara, I could never trust him. It’s just not credible to me that she does, let alone falls in love with him. Or maybe I could grant that, for all his charming ways, but loving and trusting aren’t always the same thing, and when presented with the proof of his misdeeds, she forgave him when I would have slammed the door in his face. I’m not on board with that kind of romance.

110 - Fixed on You.jpg

#110 – Fixed on You, by Laurelin Paige

  • Read: 8/12/19 – 8/13/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (70/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This book came to me as a full-length bonus novel attached to another Paige work that I was surprised how much I enjoyed, so I was on board with reading more, even if it was an entirely different series.

Sadly, I can’t say I enjoyed this one nearly as much.

I like dominant men just fine, but they’re usually found in BDSM novels where there’s context and structure for them, whereas here Hudson just has free reign to be a complete and utter creep. Anyone who comes on that strong, and to his employee, no less, is just disgustingly unattractive no matter what his other qualities. The very fact that he had to say to Alayna on multiple occasions, “No, you don’t work for me, you work for an establishment I own,” just screams impropriety because there’s really no functional difference as far as the story’s concerned.

And then he “hires” her to be his fake girlfriend, but they’re still going at it like rabbits “off-duty.” I mean, there’s compartmentalization, and then there’s this nonsense. He wipes out Alayna’s student loan and credit card debts as payment for her “work” as his fake girlfriend, but somehow that’s not paying for sex, just because the sex isn’t part of the arrangement and they’re doing that separately? No, no, I don’t buy it. Especially when she specifically says “no sex today” on one of their dates, and he comes into her dressing room and screws her anyway. It’s not depicted as rape, but Alayna’s internal monologue states something like “I never said no, but he never asked.” UH YEAH YOU SAID NO WHEN YOU TOLD HIM NO SEX TODAY AND HE AGREED.

So Hudson doesn’t respect clear boundaries, yet that’s okay somehow, because that’s Alayna’s entire character. She’s had therapy for her obsessive relationship issues, so from the very start, it’s a terrible idea for her to get involved with a man she finds attractive and wants to bang but who assures her that he’s not capable of love so they’re never going to have a real relationship. A smart woman would have walked away, but Alayna needed the money, and I feel that (except that the threats from her brother about cutting her off financially never actually materialized later so she never struggled for anything…you know, her entire motivation for agreeing to this scheme.) And, big surprise, over the course of the story she fixates on Hudson and falls in “love” with him. I’m putting that in quotes because even at the very, very end when Hudson realizes that weird feeling he’s feeling must be love, they don’t act like they’re in love, they act like they’re in lust, and anything approaching tenderness instead of passion just falls flat.

It’s a train wreck of a relationship that’s held together with lots of sex and not a lot of anything else.

111 - The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

#111 – The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

  • Read: 8/12/19 – 8/14/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (71/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A book in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

One technical issue that I don’t usually need to bring up: I was reading the ebook version, so I have no idea if it carries over the print books, but I had great difficulty reading the font chosen for the journal entries, and they weren’t the majority of the book, but definitely a significant portion. I increased the font size on my reader, which I rarely need to do, but it didn’t really help, because my comprehension problem was with the extreme slant of the font. Eventually I got used to it, but it definitely detracted from my reading enjoyment.

Now, about the story. I dig post-apocalyptic fiction in general, and I enjoyed a lot about this–a PA world viewed entirely through the lens of female sexuality and reproduction? Sign me up! It explores more types of male-female relationship dynamics than just “all men devolve into rapists because of the scarcity of women,” though that is the major dynamic we’re exposed to in the beginning of the story. It’s a grim and frighteningly possible world, but it’s not all bad out there in the wilderness.

What I really want to talk about, though, are the things that kept this great book from being amazing. Font issues aside, the journal entries sometimes didn’t make complete sense to me. The protagonist’s tendency to shorthand with plus and minus signs is perfectly understandable in theory, but I didn’t always follow the meaning of the more esoteric word equations she laid out with them. Then, I had trouble tracking how long the story had been going on, despite the dates given (or guessed at) in the journal, because every few chapters it seemed we were jumping forward in time to hear the end of the story of some side character that was being written out of the main plot. While I enjoyed some of those moments of closure, they did break up the flow of things, and trying to track how long it had been since the plague got confusing. I think the information was there, if I’d been taking notes, but that’s not something I generally feel like I need to do for a book I’m reading for enjoyment.

My last quibble is a larger and more personal one, because the unnamed protagonist is clearly bisexual, but we have a case of The Missing B Word. The midwife says to one companion, who asks if she’s a dyke, I mostly dated women but my most serious romantic relationship was with a man, so whatever you want to call that. (I’m probably paraphrasing slightly, I have a terrible time getting quotes verbatim from memory.) She won’t call herself bisexual, when there’s basically no other way to read it. I cringed, waiting for the “I avoid labels” line that media creators use so they won’t have to use the dreaded B word. It didn’t come then, but the attitude behind it comes up again late in the story with a journal entry from a man who ends up paired up with another man, a more effeminate one who doesn’t mind living as a woman in their relationship, but the first man doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself “gay” and writes that the midwife says he doesn’t have to call himself that if he doesn’t want to. Which is true, of course. But there’s a difference between portraying a character that obviously has internal issues with the word “gay” and struggles with self-identification because of those issues, and just breezing right past the issue of explicitly naming the protagonist’s sexuality. Bisexuality gets so little good representation in general, and then even when it’s present, it often goes unnamed, and here I just don’t see the point of pretending it’s ambiguous or defying labels when it’s just not. The midwife has dated men and women. She’s slept with men and women. Since the narrative is never about her struggling with how she feels about her sexuality, how she’s dealing with being bisexual (or not,) I don’t see any reason she shouldn’t call herself bi, and I’m angered by that lack of affirmation, because it’s something my community is so often denied.

 

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This Week, I Read… (2019 #32)

101 - Blackout

#101 – Blackout, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 7/29/19 – 8/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (31/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

[SPOILER-HEAVY. HEAVIER THAN USUAL, ANYWAY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]

You’d think, when one of my major complaints about Deadline was that I didn’t care for Shaun’s narration, the reintroduction of Georgia to the mix would make this a better book, and it does in some ways. But not enough. While this does fix some of my issues with the second book, there are enough new problems that on the whole, I’m pretty damn disappointed.

The narrative style, no matter who’s talking, remains incredibly repetitive. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t in Feed, only that I probably didn’t notice it as much because I was so drawn in by the shiny new world-building so I gulped down every word without complaint. But there’s nothing new here in that regard. Some of the rules of the world have changed over the course of the story, because medical research keeps dropping in their laps at every turn, but I didn’t find any of it as fascinating at the original setup. This book isn’t about zombies, it’s about the world that living with zombies created, and the political conspiracies surrounding that, and that just got old after a while.

Let me break that down a bit.

I was impressed, back in Feed, with Grant’s extrapolation of what American government would become in response to the crisis. I saw parallels to the non-zombie surveillance state we’re approaching (or are already in, depending on where in the country you live, how much technology you’re surrounded by, and how paranoid your perception of your environment is. That’s not a argument I want to have through this review, though.) I was impressed.

By the end of that book, it’s clear that, as with most zombie-based media, the zombies aren’t the point. They’re a condition of the world that causes other things to happen, and they get progressively less interesting and less important as the story goes on. Blackout doesn’t do this differently. The entire plot is a lather, rinse, repeat cycle of Something Important Happens which then gives our heroes information the government doesn’t want them to have or share, then the conspiracy engineers a zombie outbreak to put our heroes in harm’s way so hopefully they get killed, either by the zombies or by the cleanup to suppress the zombies. Sometimes the outbreak is just a few scientists in a lab, sometimes it takes out a city, sometimes it takes out Florida, because why not? Why not destroy an entire state to prove just how serious this conspiracy is? (Yeah, so that was a mistake in planning on the conspiracy’s part, but not on the author’s. If the stakes are that huge, why did I not feel more invested, like I did back in Feed?)

I won’t say the conspiracy itself was fully predictable, though I’d guessed some of its parameters. But the plot structure was incredibly predictable. Coupled with the insane amounts of repetition (Shaun still has to constantly remark on his craziness, the cans of Coke, every blood test has to be shown and always uses the same language to describe it, and so forth) I found myself skimming a lot of the non-dialogue, especially in the second half of the book, especially in Shaun’s chapters. If I ever ran into anything that confused me, I paged back until I found what explained it, but I feel like I have a good handle on the story now that I’ve finished.

And I’m just not particularly impressed with the payoff. It felt anticlimactic, honestly. It shouldn’t–I understand the importance of the themes involved and the choices made, and in summary, it’s a great ending. But I didn’t feel it while I was reading. It took too long to get here, and I had to wade through too much crap on the way. I didn’t feel much when a character died near the end, because developing side characters has never been a strength of this series, it’s all the Shaun and Georgia show. I can appreciate seeing the return of key figures we haven’t seen much of since Feed–the Masons, Rick, Ryman–but they’re still essentially bit players, and the moral conflicts their appearances create are brushed past really, really quickly.

The best parts of the book, to me, were Georgia’s chapters in the first half, before her escape from captivity, only I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time because I was so impatient for her reunion with Shaun. Which led to the plot twist that I hadn’t predicted, because who goes there? Even though I know, intellectually, that it’s not incest, and that it explains so much, I couldn’t find myself fully on board with them being a couple. Not because of the faux-incest moral quandary I might have been suffering, but because of those very anomalies in their relationship that the story has spent two and a half books skirting around. We’ve had the pleasure of living inside both Shaun and Georgia’s heads for over a thousand pages at that point, and neither of them ever thought about this until now? It’s simply not creditable. Yes, they were keeping their relationship secret from those around them. Yes, they never wrote anything pertaining to it down. BUT WE THE READERS HAD ACCESS TO THEIR INNER LIVES AND WE STILL WEREN’T EVER TOLD? Sitting on that for two and a half books just to make it a big reveal was ridiculous. The first book had so little relating to romance or sex in it, I was wondering if Shaun, Georgia, or both weren’t intended to be read as asexual (or aromantic, or both.) Shaun’s one-night stand with Becks in the second book made me wonder where on earth he’d gotten any sexual experience at all, because as far as I knew he was a virgin, since the narrative had never taken the time to explain that he might have been having casual sex with random women in his younger years or anything similar, but also never hinted he was sleeping with his “sister.”

Hindsight now shows me all those anomalies were leading to this revelation, but when I look at them together, my brain doesn’t go “okay, so it’s incest,” it still says “these two simply aren’t interested in romantic or sexual relationships because their unusual upbringing pair-bonded them as co-dependent siblings instead” and I think I can be forgiven for not spinning that myself into the faux-incest, what Georgia later claims is close to an obvious taboo, when she reflects on how almost no one figured it out.

I HAD ACCESS TO YOUR INNER LIVES FOR A THOUSAND PAGES AND I DIDN’T FIGURE IT OUT. HOW COULD YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES POSSIBLY HAVE DONE IT?

I honestly think this twist is a real failure of storytelling. Even though I didn’t figure it out beforehand, when it was revealed, I didn’t smack my forehead and go “Of course!” I was still pretty much, “huh?” about it, and if that’s honestly the lay of the land, the story Grant wanted to tell, I would have been much more interested in knowing from the start and watching the two of them struggle to find time for each other while both keeping it a secret under dire circumstances and also trying to save the world from the zombie-government conspiracy. I truly think that would have been a much more engaging story, with another layer of conflict that would make the stakes more personal.

102 - All the Birds in the Sky

#102 – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

  • Read: 8/2/19 – 8/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (66/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A bird in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

All book reviews come with personal bias attached–as much as many reviewers (myself often included) like to think we are working from some hypothetically universal standard of “good” writing, we can’t always agree on what those standards are and how to apply them fairly across all books. I say this now, because I’m about to write a negative review for this book, but for once, I recognize that my intense dislike is coming from a deeply personal place, and that my experience with it isn’t necessarily a good sign post for whether or not this book is worth reading. I often write bad reviews for books because of things that I don’t think other people want to be reading–unchallenged racism, sexism, homophobia, or pedophilia being the big ones, and I stand by those. I will continue to do my part warning people away from books that promote harmful ideologies, whenever I can.

That isn’t the case here. I can’t stand this book because it reminds me too much of how I wrote when I was a teenager, and of all of the people who read my work then and told me how terrible it was.

Yeah, it’s personal.

So, I didn’t finish. I read the first hundred pages, and I gave up. I couldn’t stand the constant misery, and I mean that quite seriously. Laurence and Patricia don’t have much more personality than “I’m so weird and nonconformist that everyone bullies me.” Laurence is science-flavored on top of that, Patricia witch-flavored. But they’re such thin characters, and they simply can’t support a story solely about the two of them without more development. To pile on extra misery, all of the members of both families are also horrible people who also mistreat them in some way. In that sort of environment I’d expect the two of them to become close friends, to be the only spot of good in each other’s awful lives–but despite the overall narrative the blurb is trying to sell me, I’m not at all convinced these two are friends at all–they tolerate each other at best, and at worst they spend weeks not speaking to each other–and this setup does not have me confident that they’re going to eventually fall in love. I’d be laughing at the reviews that call this book “romantic” if I weren’t so disappointed, because I adore real romance, and I don’t feel like I’m going to get that here.

Let’s go back to that science vs. witchcraft characterization. Because at a hundred pages in, I had only just gotten what looked like a plot, rather than chapter upon chapter of “look at how miserable and bullied these two kids are, don’t you feel for them?” Theodolphus Rose, master assassin posing as a school counselor, tells Patricia that Laurence is an enemy of nature and must be killed. That’s the conflict, and in other circumstances I might be interested–pitting kids against each other isn’t new at all, but done well, it can certainly be compelling. Pitting potential romantic partners against each other can be awesome, whatever age group. So I’m not opposed to this basic plot. I am opposed to it taking almost one hundred pages to show up, and I’m opposed to the flimsy world-building that has done nothing to define the relative power of science and witchcraft. At first (in the very first chapter when I still thought I might like this book, it looked like my kind of weird,) I was enchanted by Patricia’s magic and her talking to birds and going to the forest to see the Parliament. But there’s no rules to anything related to magic, and without any sort of standards or explanations, there’s really no upper limit on what magic can do in a story, whereas the real world has definite limits on science. Without the author setting up a system deliberately to make science and magic balanced, I find myself assuming magic can be more powerful (if Patricia ever gets access to it again, if not, this will be a dull story I didn’t finish) so magic will obviously win. And that’s just not interesting, if there’s an obvious winner before the battle is even fought. Now, there are ways to subvert that expectation, and there are ways to move forward from the point where I stopped reading that might result in a better book than I expect it to be. But that low bar I have set in my mind is a result of that slapdash, flimsy world-building that amounts to “this is basically contemporary fiction but I want to put whatever I want into it and call it sci-fi and magical realism at the same time.”

I don’t have a problem with genre-mixing. I’d be a giant hypocrite if I did. But a work doesn’t get a free pass on mixing genres sloppily because it’s quirky.

It’s the “quirky” thing that really gets me. I love absurdist humor, and there are elements of it here. Theodolphus’ introduction at the mall almost had me laughing, it was so over the top and ridiculous, in just the way I like. I can’t take it seriously in context, because it’s so off-tone from everything else I read surrounding it, but in isolation it was hilarious and I loved it. For a brief moment, I felt like the author was channeling Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and I was on board. But if the whole book is meant to be absurdist, it doesn’t go far enough, and absurdity for its own sake is exactly what my teenage writing (yeah, we’re back to the personal part) was mocked by my peers for. And occasionally my teachers as well.

I was a weird kid. I have no problem admitting that, though I was never bullied anything like Laurence and Patricia are shown to be. I had friends–it’s not impossible to be weird and also have friends. I was also often an unhappy kid–teenagerhood was not particularly a good time for me–and writing was a thing I did to cope. I wrote escapist fantasy. I wrote about magic. I wrote about absurdity. I wrote about depression and misery.

I wrote things in high school that were very like this story, both in tone and overall quality. The nearly universal response to these stories, when I was brave enough to let my friends read them or turn them in for writing assignments, was basically derision and ridicule. “It’s too weird.” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?” “I don’t like how strange it is.” “It doesn’t make sense.” No matter how many times I tried to defend some of the most “weird” pieces by explaining that the absurdity of it was the whole point, the overall reaction was “stop being so childish and write things that make sense.”

I do, now. I’ve found ways to channel my love of the absurd in more palatable directions. I’ve studied my craft and “grown up,” so to speak. I take great pains to make my worlds, no matter how “strange” they are, internally consistent and understandable.

So here’s the incredibly, undeniably personal part that you absolutely shouldn’t apply to yourself and whether or not you want to read this book: I am (mildly) professionally envious and angry that this book is so praised when it reads exactly like the stuff I churning out by the notebook-full at fifteen that everyone hated. It stings. I cringed constantly with second-hand embarrassment while I was reading this, as if all of my flaws had come back to haunt me. Thin world-building because I wanted it the way I wanted it and I didn’t do the work making it cohesive. Awkward and stilted dialogue. An “me against them” mentality in my main characters. No plot to speak of for ages because I was more interested in making my world weird than having a story take place in it.

Objectively speaking–as objectively as possible for me, at this point–I don’t think this is a good book, but obviously its weirdness resonates with a lot of people, and you might enjoy it. If you think it sounds good, then maybe for you, it will be.

Speaking with extreme and noted bias, this book is bad, and I can’t stand it, and I will never finish it and wish I hadn’t spent the few hours I already did attempting to read it. I want that time back.

**After I spent a solid hour writing, rewriting, and editing this review, I wondered if I should even post it in full. After all, it is highly biased and not particularly applicable to other people in many places. I thought about it a lot. I considered where I could cut the stuff that shouldn’t matter to anyone else, the stuff that revealed too much of me, the things that might do more harm than good. But I’ve always written honest reactions to books, because I think reviews are only useful and helpful when they’re honest. So I’m posting the whole thing, because I worked hard putting my thoughts and feelings in order and being up front about my biases. Whether or not this is a helpful, useful review is only part of the point. It was cathartic to write, and if another writer sees this and feels understood, then it’s worth it.

103 - Saga, Vol. 5

#103 – Saga, Vol. 5, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/4/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (32/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

By opening with a short meditation on the reasons people become soldiers, the progression of war from an immediate and visceral concern to a mere background noise to daily life, Volume 5 has jumped back up to five stars, where the series had dipped slightly for me in the middle.

This felt grounded, which is a weird thing to say about a work that thrives on covering serious issues through ludicrous situations. This series is almost nothing but high drama and action, yet it’s constructed on a firm thematic base that supports it, that reminds you the story might look insane on the surface, but it has something to say.

In this volume, particularly, I appreciate Hazel’s occasional spoilers in narration, how unflappably awesome Ghus is at all turns (new favorite side character? quite possibly!), the relatively nuanced look at drug usage (for the short span given to it, anyway,) and the effective use of dreams/nightmares/drug trips to convey the personal history of a few characters. I’m just freaking impressed, because I’ve got a thing about dreams as a trope, they’re almost never as good on the page as the author wants them to be, but here? Fantastic.

Looking forward to the next volume, already got it checked out on Hoopla.

104 - Justice Calling

#104 – Justice Calling, by Annie Bellet

  • Read: 8/4/19 – 8/5/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (67/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A moon in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I almost gave this a second star to reflect that fact that I’m a gamer nerd and got every single reference–but in the end, the author’s gamer cred doesn’t actually make me like the book better, its flaws are so serious.

1. It’s too short. That’s the overarching problem that all the other problems could be considered children of. As I have the digital omnibus of the first three books, and as I had no clear idea how long each one was, I expected to hit the end of the first book in the neighborhood of 30-35% read; it actually came at 24%. It’s not a bad thing that the other two books are apparently longer, but now that I see the first one is barely a hundred pages, that’s not a book, it’s a novella, and it’s trying to fit a book-sized plot into it.

2. Squeezing that much plot in leaves no room for character development. Jade is a bundle of Native American sass, heavy on the sass and suspiciously light on literally anything I would hope to see in a Native narrator. Anything about her background that isn’t directly related to her magic or her tragic backstory is absent, so being Native is just a label–it’s jarring that the only time it comes up is when she lashes out at a dude by calling him “white man.” It was honestly easy to forget her heritage until that point because it had no bearing on her characterization or history. The side characters, Jade’s friends, don’t even fare that well–they get brief physical descriptions when they’re introduced, two of them get clear sexual orientations (either one didn’t, or I missed it in the rush of how fast this story moves), and none of them get anything approaching a personality. They’re just names on a page and physical bodies to be hurt so that Jade has motivation for things.

3. Most of this story is devoted to action, snarkiness, and world-building. The world-building isn’t terribly robust–there’s barely time for it even when it’s clearly important to the story–but what was there was interesting enough that, had this been a full-length novel instead of this bite-sized cliffhanger romance, I might be giving the book a vastly different rating right now. The world has potential, at least. But this is so Action-Packed that the pace crowds out pretty much everything else.

4. This is a romance? What? It’s instant lust, okay, fair, that’s a real thing and I have no problem with romances starting there. But Jade and Alek don’t develop enough of a bond, any kind of bond, to make me believe they’re interested in more than some hot sex, and then we don’t even get to see the hot sex, because the book ends immediately before they jump into bed. (Though without starting the next book, I don’t know if that happens, or it’s just a teaser before some horrible thing occurs to keep them apart for a while longer.) There’s no emotion, there’s no relationship, there’s only unfulfilled lust, and that’s not a romance at all. Again, because THERE’S NO TIME FOR IT.

This book really needs to be twice as long to tell the story it wants to tell. In the final chapters, especially, events that could have been whole scenes on their own, scenes I would have wanted to read, are summarized in a few chapters so we can get to the ending faster. Everything is just woefully underdeveloped.

105 - Moloka'i

#105 – Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert

  • Read: 8/5/19 – 8/7/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (68/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A flower in the title or on the cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A pretty typical structure of “this is a woman’s life under these historical conditions,” complicated by leprosy. If you choose to look at it from an inspirational viewpoint, it’s quite “having a disease, even one this serious, isn’t necessary the end of your life.” I generally find that sort of narrative bland, and eventually, I did here.

The first hundred pages or so kept my attention, with lots of historical detail and a firmly woven plot introducing Rachel and her family, and their complicated situation. The worst flaw I could pin on the first section of the book was constant head-hopping, a style of writing I find irritating at best and unreadable at worst, but this had a flow to it that wasn’t as disruptive as most cases I’ve read before. So I soldiered on.

Aging Rachel over a section break from seven to seventeen was fine, and I was interested to see how she’d progressed after ten years living on Moloka’i. Slightly disappointed that she was the “special” one of her peers whose leprosy wasn’t actually that bad, that she was basically able-bodied despite the disease. Obviously if she was going to die young, the rest of the book wouldn’t happen, so she couldn’t be at death’s door, but for a story about a woman living with leprosy, it was far more about how the disease shaped the external trappings of her life, rather than her actual body. Both are valuable to the story, of course, but it felt imbalanced, that she was basically healthy compared to everyone else.

The rest of the book rushed through major life events at a speed that left me bewildered. If you’re going to spend the first half of the book painstakingly detailing her childhood and adolescence, then why is her entire adulthood and death in old age rushed through in the second? Serious pacing issues. It felt like I spent the same amount of page time on Rachel’s plight about wanting to live with her uncle instead of the girls’ home, as we did on the birth and giving up for adoption of her daughter. Skip a few pages and you’d miss it entirely! I understand if the author didn’t want to make this a six-hundred page book instead of four hundred, but speeding her adulthood along like that (while also managing to spend a lot of page time worried about the logistics of her travel arrangements) didn’t make me like this book or enjoy its ending. Given the high level of narrative focus and detail in the first half, the second half just felt lazy and flat.

106 - The Right Swipe

#106 – The Right Swipe, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 8/7/19 – 8/9/19
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s rare, but every once in a while I stumble across a romance novel where the characters who are supposed to be falling in love are too busy have fantastic arcs of personal growth that they don’t actually have time for a romance. That’s what’s happened here.

Samson is wonderful and adorable, but his story line is far more focused on his football legacy (which encompasses the controversy about long-term concussion damage to players,) his family issues, and overcoming the grudges of his past than it is on his courtship with Rhiannon. Rhiannon’s story line is more about her business goals, her traumatic former relationship, and overcoming her fear of showing weakness and vulnerability than it is about her courtship with Samson.

Stuffed into all the small spaces in between these huge, life-changing issues are many lesser bits of social consciousness, especially concerning the struggles of those with mental illnesses. And don’t get me wrong, I want my romances to be progressive and socially conscious: I just don’t want them to be so concerned with the big social justice issues that there’s no room left for the romance.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Do I get the sense that Samson and Rhiannon like each other? Absolutely. Want to fall into bed with each other, sometimes despite their better judgment, as often as possible? Hell yes. But do I feel like they’re falling in love? No, not really. Ultimately, I don’t want the romance to be the subplot of the “romance” novel I’m reading, and the romance is really the least important thing in this story. Yes, each of them is the catalyst of change and growth for the other, and that’s fantastic, but there’s very little feeling evident in it–probably more so on Rhiannon’s part than Samson’s, he’s a bit more open.

I will say, on a much more positive note, as this is the first in a new series, I can’t immediately tell from this story who the next romance will focus on. Sometimes in romance series it’s brutally, painfully obvious where the setup for the next book lies, and it’s not at all organic to the story. Here, both Rhiannon’s and Samson’s friends and colleagues are integral parts of their lives, not thrown in to tick off boxes or obviously set up future stories. I’m kind of hoping it’s Katrina, or at least that she’ll get a story eventually if not next, because she was interesting, and the narrative was incredibly sensitive to her deep anxiety (agoraphobia? It’s never stated explicitly, but there are strong elements of both.) As someone who struggles with anxiety myself, I always love to see good portrayals of it in media, something that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #31)

99 - Deadline.jpg

#99 – Deadline, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 7/24/19 – 7/28/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (30/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked it, and I’m going to finish the trilogy, but this was a step down from Feed.

I just don’t care as much for Shaun as I did for George. She was a more compelling narrator, and I got tired of Shaun’s constant need to tell us how crazy he was. Yeah, I get it–but did the narrative really need to remind us, every single time he talked to himself out loud and others could hear him, that they mostly knew he was crazy so it was okay? It’s repetitive, annoyingly so. Once it’s established that he’s delusional, even if just in one relatively straightforward way, can’t we limit the reminders of how the rest of the characters perceive him to the times when they have interesting reactions, instead of letting him do his thing? Only bring it up when it matters!

So that’s my first major gripe. The second being, Kelly the helper/hostage got much the same repetitive treatment. Shaun, as a narrator, had to constantly make sure that we, the reader, knew she was guarded every second of every scene. Can’t we assume that after a while? Can’t it only matter when he wanted to assign people to tasks and realized he didn’t have enough people for them and guarding Kelly, so that he had to make some kind of important choice, either about how to reshuffle things or who to send her with? Routine logistics don’t need to be remarked upon every five pages!

With my stylistic issues out of the way, I can say the plot was mostly fine. Interesting things happen, which occasionally also means horrible things. Stuff we think we know, incontrovertible stuff, is questioned and found lacking. The ending might have included one currently inexplicable miracle-level event. I’m on this train and I want to find out where it goes. I already have the final book borrowed from the library.

I just think Shaun is way less interesting than his sister. I hope the final book finds a way to make him more palatable.

100 - How to Say Goodbye

#100 – How to Say Goodbye, by Amber Lin

  • Read: 7/28/19 – 7/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (65/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Okay, it’s New Adult, but it lacks the two major hallmarks of NA romances: a tone of hyperbolic angst or a scene breakdown that skirts the line between a reasonable level of smut and full-fledged erotica. There’s sex scenes, sure, but not every two pages, and not immediately after these characters meet. And there’s angst, yeah, but it’s not for its own sake, it’s actually mostly centered around the dual issues of runaways and homelessness. Which is not something I’ve really seen romances tackle with any seriousness (though of course my exposure is not universal and there are probably other romances out there in this wheelhouse..)

I enjoyed it, but not to the point where I don’t see its flaws, or to the point where I wasn’t uncomfortable with how the delicate subject matter was handled. The simple fact of the matter is: I don’t know how realistic this portrayal is of a teenager running away from an unsafe home environment and living on the streets for four years. The story doesn’t ignore the darker aspects of survival without support, but I question if they’re being romanticized or softened to be palatable to the reader. Like, on the one hand, homelessness is obviously not good for somebody and can entail a whole host of legal and moral issues, but am I projecting how awful I think it is when I read this and think, well, Dane doesn’t actually have it that tough? It’s not ideal but it could be worse? I’m not a fair judge of that, and I don’t know that the author is, either, so I don’t know how much of this serious issue is being prettied up for the romance side of things.

And if the core conflict of the story is undermined by my questionable trust in how it’s presented, that’s an issue.

That being said, I do like our characters. They’re both well-developed, with personality flaws and past issues that make for compelling conflict between them. At the same time, though, the end of the story has them see-sawing constantly between breaking up and being together, and I’m just not on board, personally, for that level of lack of commitment. Having the main couple break up once during a typical-length romance, sure. Having them constantly turning away from each other every few chapters? That got old for me, quick, and the last time they did it didn’t feel like a real ending. Nor did them getting back together for their happy ending feel like it was deserved, like it had the proper dramatic weight. It was just another “up” section of their relationship roller coaster to me, which didn’t leave a positive impression of the book to linger with me.

So I enjoyed some of the book. Mostly the scenes that focused on Amy and Dane interacting directly, because their chemistry is solid and their dynamic is pretty adorable at times. But whenever the plot got serious, I liked it less.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #30)

97 - Strange the Dreamer.jpg

#97 – Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

  • Read: 7/19/19 – 7/23/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (63/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: Read a hyped book
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s been a few years since I read anything that came from the inside of Laini Taylor’s head, but I see her worlds are still vibrant, dangerous, beautiful, monstrous, and most of all, tender. I haven’t met another author yet who could write a single kiss that took three pages (four? maybe it was four) and keep me enthralled the whole time. She did.

I’m moved, I’m mystified, I’m glad I only have to wait as long for the sequel as it takes me to get it from the library, to answer the new questions the ending of this raised, a resolution that spawned a cliffhanger that is just. so. good.

I’m staggered by the moral complexity of many of the primary characters. While it isn’t necessarily the main thrust of the plot, this story does explore the meaning of heroism, and I love that the “heroes,” both the one that came before and the one that emerges, don’t see themselves that way, for one reason or another. I love that, once again, Taylor explores the shifting boundary between gods and monsters and humanity, between right and wrong, between love and hate. There’s so much packed into this that I’m sure I didn’t unpack fully the first time around.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to get to this, because I loved it, but at least I won’t be sitting on my hands impatiently, waiting for the story to finish being told.

98 - Wait for Me

#98 – Wait for Me, by Samantha Chase

  • Read: 7/23/19 – 7/24/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (64/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: Read a standalone or the first book in a series
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

There was a brief moment at the end of this story that almost pulled a surprise second star for this rating, but then, the very end undermined it. This was all-around dull and unpolished.

First, plot problems. The setup is more than a little ridiculous, but if it had been taken at all seriously, I might be able to forgive that. The boss of a company (which is the most unspecific and generic of companies, I haven’t the slightest idea what they do) plays matchmaker and sets up his assistant to have a “oops we’re stuck in the same place” encounter with his son (also an employee of his.)

I’m not saying old white men who think they know best won’t manipulate others, because they absolutely will. But he does it gleefully, and he does it poorly. Both in the sense that everyone around him is talking about how out of character his behavior is (when we the reader have barely been introduced to him, so that’s a red flag that he’s a plot device and not a person) and in the sense that his poor judgment puts his assistant in actual danger when she crashes her car due to bad road conditions on the errand he sent her on.

When it comes out, way down the line, that it was all a set-up, Emma the assistant gets a brilliant character moment I honestly didn’t expect from this narrative, when she quits her job without notice because of how wildly inappropriate her boss’ behavior was, and how he’s absolutely shattered her trust in him, and how she’d never feel comfortable working there again because of what he put her through. My heart was giving her a standing ovation, it was such a beautiful speech and I was so proud of her for sticking up for herself (even when I didn’t really care for her the rest of the time, but that issue I’ll get to in a minute.)

Then the ending ruined it. While she doesn’t go back to her old job (good) she basically forgives the guy for no reason. He hasn’t really apologized or done anything solid to make amends (his wife is actually the one trying to bridge the gap in their relationship) and Emma just folds and hugs them both and everything is okay again.

Now, I’ve been talking this whole time not about the romance, but about Emma’s relationship to her boss, who’s also her love interest’s father. Why am I not talking about the romance? Because it’s dull as bricks. Stubborn person A constantly fights with Stubborn Person B, but they’re also hot with lust, and after a while they fall into bed together despite both of them knowing it’s a terrible idea. I’ve seen this before, and I’m happy to read this standard plot if it’s made interesting by the characters sparking off each other.

They just don’t, here. The dialogue is so formal and awkward and in places, frankly ridiculous. Lucas, on the phone with his father/boss, at one point says “…I’m going to take a shower now, to ease the ache from my muscles.” He says that. Out loud. To his father. Who says that? Especially when Lucas is trying to hide from everyone how badly his injury is still bothering him, wouldn’t he want to constantly project strength, as he tries to elsewhere in the story?

While that’s my most memorable example of how people don’t talk in real life, there’s plenty more, and the constant awkwardness to how the dialogue sounds really diminishes any differences between characters. They can’t have characterization through dialogue, because they all sound the same, and faintly stupid to boot. Emma and Lucas really are just two incredibly stubborn people shouting at each other for most of the book, except when they’re having sex.

And the final nail in the coffin, which is minor, but telling: I don’t feel like the title fits the story. Who is waiting for whom? Is Emma waiting for Lucas to get his shit together? Meh, not really. She’s trying to move on with her life at the end, when he barges in and wins her back, but she wasn’t waiting for him to do that. She wasn’t expecting or even hoping for it. She was moving on. And if we make it about Lucas, was he waiting for someone to come into his life and call him a coward three times about how he was living his life, so that he’d get his shit together? I doubt it. Emma did that for him, and he changed, but was he waiting for her to do that? It doesn’t fit.

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 #27)

87 - Feed

#87 – Feed, by Mira Grant

  • Read: 6/27 – 6/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (26/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I don’t remember the last time I cried this much over a book.

The world-building was fascinating and a grim but realistic projection of what the US would become in the event of a devastating, but not fatal, not apocalyptic, zombie event. That’s what had me hooked right from the beginning–the idea that it happened, but it actually wasn’t the “end of the world.” The world kept going, the government didn’t destabilize, society recovered. It sure looked different, but it wasn’t gone in the way most post-apoc fiction treats it.

I was also hooked on the snark. George was a fantastic narrator.

What kept me going turned out to be honest emotional investment in the characters. A close sibling relationship in defiance of (and because of!) distance from their parents. Years-long friendships and working relationships. One exceptionally minor romantic relationship only! I do love my romance, but there wasn’t room for it here, and it wouldn’t have fit the tone, so I applaud not having any romance subplots.

The thing I actually like best, and don’t want to spoil the specifics of because I really, truly recommend this book, is that death means something. It’s not random. It’s not without impact or consequences. Let me repeat: I can’t remember the last time I cried this much over a book.

Anansi Boys

#88 – Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

  • Read: 6/30/19 – 7/4/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (59/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Run Away with the Circus” Read-a-thon
  • Task: A book with a red and white cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I found this so-so compared to Gaiman’s other works, which I generally adore. Having it labeled as a sequel to American Gods doesn’t do it any favors when it’s only set in the same world, especially as it lacks the same gravity and tone. I found myself thinking much more of Neverwhere at first, because Fat Charlie is bumbling and feckless as Richard Mayhew.

The plot moves with almost agonizing slowness, and I found it a struggle to keep going at points. What saved it for me was wealth of subplots about characters that were far more interesting to me than Fat Charlie himself. Rosie was all right, but her mother was so delightfully evil; Daisy was a charmer; and the thought processes of Charlie’s boss, the rationalization of his criminal acts, were a masterpiece of characterization. It was Fat Charlie himself who let me down, as the plot required him to be such a non-entity at first so Spider could slide into his life without a ripple; and though he fights back, he never really gained my sympathy.

 

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.