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 #38)

125 - The Bride of the Wolf

#125 – Bride of the Wolf, by Abigail Barnette

  • Read: 9/12/19 – 9/13/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (80/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book featuring magic (or brown on the cover)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

One of Barnette’s earlier works, which I picked up when she reacquired the rights and republished it. It definitely shows that she wasn’t as far along her journey as an author–it was blander than I expected from her.

The novella format was large enough for the abbreviated love story she was telling–this is definitely InstaLove here–but not really to encompass the premise that her tidbits of world-building hinted at. A medieval-era Britain where werewolves were not only real, but were living (somewhat) freely beside humans and were incorporated into the feudal power structure? I want to see more of that world! But it’s mere window dressing for a “I’m kidnapping you to save you from something worse” romance plot that doesn’t do a lot to develop either the world in any more depth, or even its own main characters.

I see there’s a second work in the series, novel-length this time, and it’s about Henry, a side character from this novella whom I liked, at least as much as I could given the small amount of page time he got. But as tempting as that would normally be, I’m just not convinced it’s going to be enough better to give a try.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #37)

123 - IT.jpg

#123 – IT, by Stephen King

  • Read: 9/5/19 – 9/8/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book with the good vs. evil trope
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF @ page 270 or so. I wanted to like this, but I simply wasn’t enjoying it and could face the other 700 pages. I’m no stranger to gargantuan King novels, but this wasn’t keeping me interested.

I feel like there’s a good story buried in here, under the weight of the constant misery every character faces. Dozens of named characters show up in the first three hundred pages, and nearly all of them are either victims or perpetrators of abuse–those that aren’t are generally helpless adult bystanders (teachers, the librarian, etc.) The kids are abused by their parents, or bullied by their classmates, or both. The lone female major character (and I’m assuming she’s major, because she’s the only girl who was present for whatever went down, and she’s introduced as an adult in the opening like the rest of them) is physically and emotionally abused by her husband.

It’s a slog, wading through all this trauma, and the constant abuse is so casual, so just-part-of-the-way-things-are, that it’s clearly not the point of the story. I lost my patience when a side story is interjected about Eddie Corcoran, told entirely though newspaper clippings, about how his disappearance (that is, murder by It) caused authorities to look into the death of his younger brother and determine it was actually murder by their stepfather. First, a side note, why is his name “Eddie” when there’s already an Eddie in the main gang? In the real world, Edward’s a common enough name and that happens, but in fiction, why have them have the same name when you have the power to give him any other name? But second and more importantly, yay, another kid was killed by It and that’s terrible and relevant, but it spins out an entire tangent about (surprise!) yet more child abuse.

Why is this book about child abuse? Is that the point? And if it is, why isn’t it taken more seriously?

Look, I get that this was published in the 1980s and I can’t be holding it to modern standards in terms of “staying in your lane,” but King came across as out of his lane constantly and whether or not it’s fair to judge him for it thirty years later, it’s horrible to read and I couldn’t take any more of it. Is he the right author to casually slap a homophobic hate crime in the beginning of his horror novel and do it justice? No, he throws out slurs constantly and even the most tolerant of the police involved are still clearly bigots, and even if that’s accurate to the time and culture of Small Town America, I don’t need to read about it like that to know it’s true, just like I didn’t need to read almost three hundred pages of bullying and child abuse. And was he the right author to do a mini chapter from the point of view of a Jewish woman reminiscing about the prejudice she faced in the past, while we the reader have figured out her husband has obviously committed suicide upstairs but she doesn’t know it yet, so we have to listen to her remembering all the slurs she was called? (Like, seriously, do we have to read slurs for everything in this book? If there were any black characters yet I’m sure there would have been n-words dropped, too. I’m not saying no slurs can ever be used by anyone ever, but the sheer volume here was ridiculous, and they were coming from a straight, white, male author, who is none of the things the slurs were applied to.)

I have a lot of complaints, yet I’m also saddened, because when the narrative wasn’t stuffed with wordy and unnecessary junk, the sense of dread pervading it was palpable–there were moments when I could see this was a good horror story suffocating under the weight of 500 extra pages of homophobia and child abuse and slurs and surprisingly extensive description of every single street in the entire fictional town of Derry.

I want to read a slimmed-down version of this story and find out what happened. Not sure I’d get that from the movie adaptations, I’d rather have a book that wasn’t so bloated, but I’m sure not finishing this one.

124 - The Westing Game

#124 – The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

  • Read: 9/9/19 – 9/11/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (79/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book revolving around a puzzle or game
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Since I read this as a child and loved it, when I was new to Goodreads and cataloging everything I could remember reading, I gave it five stars from a combination of loose memory and nostalgia. When this year’s PopSugar Challenge prompted me to read a book about a game, this was my first thought, because I still have my copy (purchased from the Scholastic Book Fair, one of my favorite things about elementary school) and I hadn’t read it for so long.

The question was, would I still give it five stars as an adult? Would it hold up?

Well, yes and no. My rating still stands, though with the caveat that it’s a five-star kid’s book. If I had read it for the first time as an adult, just now, I’d likely be less impressed, but there’s still a lot to recommend it if you remember the recommended reading level. So many things I would criticize in books targeted at adult readers–telling instead of showing, extremely short scenes, some head-hopping–actually work very well in literature aimed at children, because they’re more apt to understand and accept things at face value. I’m not saying children’s lit can’t have depth, but on the surface it needs to be reasonably straightforward. And despite the complex turns of the game and the numerous red herrings meant to lead a reader down false paths, in essence this plot is actually incredibly straightforward: it’s a game, and someone is going to win it.

I usually don’t take much care to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but in this case, I will, because though I remembered the thrust of the plot and a few key “twists,” I actually had forgotten most of the details, after so long, and got to be surprised by most things along the way. I was also impressed, as an adult, with how much personality is infused in each member of the large cast of characters, especially in so short a book–that’s where the telling comes in, and very well. Though the exposition about and description of characters is minimal at their introduction, only enough to make them distinct from each other at the most basic levels, we learn an awful lot about them through how they interact with each other, how they respond to the rules of the game, and what measures they take to win–all of those things speak volumes about them as people, and that’s quite honestly an amazing feat.

As for the game itself, I thought it was remarkably clever as a kid, but now it’s just… weird? But I totally buy that that sort of elaborate setup is the sort of thing bored rich people might do with their time and energy, with the right personal motivations in place. I realize that’s vague, but no spoilers, so I’ll just say the setup is weird and obviously contrived but also believable because it’s supposed to be both!

This Week, I Read… (2019 #36)

120 - Roomie Wars

#120 – Roomie Wars, by Kat T. Masen

  • Read: 8/30/19 – 8/31/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (77/100)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

There were things about it, from time to time, that were cute and I liked in the moment, but overall, this isn’t a convincing friends-to-lovers romance because it’s simply not a convincing friendship.

I understand people have different life experiences than me, but throughout the book, when these two idiots would talk to each other, I kept pausing and thinking, “Do people really act like that?” Every emotion was extreme and full of angst, not in the dark and brooding way, but in the “nothing is more important in my life than this” way, no matter how small or inconsequential “this” was, in the long run or even just at the time.

They might have jobs and an apartment and pay their bills on time, but under that thin veneer of maturity, they’re not adults, they’re whiny, impetuous teenagers. And in some cases I know personally, that’s still giving teenagers a bad name.

Without a solid friendship to serve as basis–and what there is is told, not shown, because of the time skips–this falls pretty flat as a romance, though it’s got funny moments as a sex romp, at least.

121 - Sweet Sinful Nights

#121 – Sweet Sinful Nights, by Lauren Blakely

  • Read: 9/1/19 – 9/2/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (78/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Read-a-thon
  • Task: A book from my TBR jar
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This does not live up to the best of my previous Lauren Blakely reads and is responsible for me taking all of the books of hers I have TBR’d off the list. Yeah, it’s that bad. I don’t want to risk sitting through something that bad again.

There are some fundamental problems with the structure. By opening with just a tidbit of the “ten years before” romance, we’re supposed to see how great Shannon and Brent are together and long for them to get back together, right? Except that their first relationship is shallow, immature, and even the author calls it a “fuck and fight” relationship. It’s supposed to show us how passionate they are, but that’s not a healthy relationship dynamic! Why would I want them to get back together?

Oh, so they’re supposed to be more mature about it this time? Well, good luck with that, it’s all secrets and willful misunderstandings and giant plot twists. It’s high drama, or it’s sex, or it’s both. Shannon even goes into internal monologue more than once about how sex with Brent wipes away all her problems and negative emotions, calling him her “addiction” and/or her “drug.” Still not healthy! Still not aspirational! Still not realistic!

The sex itself is near constant, and just as over-the-top as the drama. I can, in general, concede a few hyperbolic moments during sex scenes, especially when the characters are experiencing some sort of new closeness or clarity about their relationship and yeah, maybe the world does spin a little faster or whatever. But not all the time. Not from every single kiss, every touch, every orgasm. I mean, if Brent is really that good in bed that you’re addicted to him, I guess the author has to convey that somehow, but taking it out of the realm of the physical into the mystical-hyperbolic just reads as lazy and uncreative, not romantic or even arousing. It’s just dull.

I think the only good thing I can say about this is, Brent is(was) a comedian, and yeah, he’s actually funny sometimes. The comedy bits of his we get to see didn’t have me rolling in my seat, but they’re decent, and he does come across as witty in conversation often enough that I don’t feel his being “funny” is an informed trait. But it’s not nearly enough to rescue this train wreck of a romance.

122 - Tone Deaf

#122 – Tone Deaf, by Olivia Rivers

  • Read: 9/3/19 – 9/4/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (38/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

While this book might be good in terms of representation for deafness, it’s less than stellar in most other aspects, and I am not impressed.

I rarely have to bring up formatting issues, but in this case they were serious enough to interfere with the readability of the story and my understanding of it. There’s an author’s note at the beginning explaining why signed dialogue is marked with italics, but then in my Kindle edition, they’re not. There are no italics, or bold font, or anything distinguishing signed dialogue except a lack of quotation marks and/or the tag using “signed” instead of “said.” Oddly enough, I was okay with that–it was still generally clear whether or not the communication was verbal. What completely tripped me up, on the other hand, were the text messages. They weren’t marked consistently in any way that followed the usual dialogue rules–set off in new paragraphs, surrounded by quotation marks, indicated with tags. And there are a lot of text messages. They just existed, in plain font, mixed in with everything else, and while sometimes I could clearly tell what was supposed to be texting, a lot of the time I couldn’t and had to reread sections to figure out what was going on. Never a good sign.

If this is not true in the print editions, great, but the digital edition is a mess.

Okay, on to story problems. I have a lot.

1. The enemies-to-lovers trope underpinning Jace and Ali’s relationship isn’t quite InstaLove, but it’s incredibly rushed. They know each other for what, two weeks? And yeah, a lot of that time is spent in close contact, but they’re apart for a lot of it too, and enforced intimacy between the two of them wasn’t really believable early on because of their issues–they seemed to melt into each other really quickly, and Jace declares they’re “together” to a bandmate after one cuddling session and a single kiss. While Ali is still asleep and has no say in how their relationship is represented.
2. Neither of them have much personality beyond their history of abuse. Ali is also deaf, and I think that’s represented well? Coming from someone outside that community, anyway, it seemed legit. But Jace’s other personality trait is that he’s “broken,” stated outright by a bandmate at one point so that Ali could say “I’ll fix him.” I cringed. Oh, honey. That’s not how love works. That’s not a good relationship dynamic, and that’s the last thing teenage girls need to be reading, that if you love someone hard enough they’ll be saved.
3. I don’t understand one particular aspect of Ali’s plan for escape. She constantly says she wants to go to New York, and that’s a good choice in general because it’s far away from LA and her father, I won’t argue that. But the college she applied to and find out accepted her is in Washington, D.C., and she never explains why she’s eager to go to New York instead. I get that teenagers running away from abuse don’t have to be completely logical, but really, why New York? It’s an incredibly expensive city to live in. A runaway could get anonymity in any big city, if they tried, so why not somewhere more random and with a lower cost of living? Or, more importantly, why not the other East Coast city the plot says she actually has a reason to want to live in? Even if she had succeeded with her plan of escape and didn’t have enough money after sorting out supporting herself to go to school right away, wouldn’t she be better off at least living in the same city as the college so she could go later? (Yes, the plot says New York because that’s also where Tone Deaf’s tour ends, but since we never get anywhere close to it before the end of the book, that’s also arbitrary, it could have ended in D.C. or stopped there along the way.) The only counter-argument I could come up with against D.C. is that it might make her easier to find, once her father found out about her acceptance letter, but she was dead set on New York before that happened, when D.C. would have been the better choice.
4. The other members of the band spend a lot of page time fawning over Ali while she’s their stowaway, but also don’t get much in the way of personality. Killer and Arrow are dating, and I honestly forget which one is gay and which is bi, but both their sexualities are explicitly labeled, something we bisexuals rarely get in media, which is great. But they don’t really get much beyond that, except that they’re nice to Ali and Killer’s also a Doctor Who fan. Jon, the least-developed member of the band, gets one scene with Ali where he’s completely awkward because he admits to being shy with girls, then he basically stops mattering for the rest of the book.
5. The abuse. Oh, lord, the abuse. It’s pretty horrific, but at the same time, it also feels like it’s treated pretty shallowly, since Jace and Ali “fix” each other in the short time they’re together on tour and go on to have a happily ever after as soon as Jace saves her from her father. His backstory, of course, has to be even worse than hers to explain why he’s “broken” and she’s still whole enough to save him from… From what? He’s a health nut who refuses to drink or do drugs, so not physical self-destruction. From eternal loneliness? From emotional shutdown? We never get to explore what she’s saving Jace from by loving him so much, but clearly, he’s messed up and needs that saving.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #35)

117 - Still Waters

#117 – Still Waters, by Viveca Sten

  • Read: 8/22/19 – 8/24/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (74/100); The Reading Frenzy’s “Bookish Treasure Hunt” Challenge
  • Task: A door on the cover or in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF at 25%. It takes a really gripping mystery to keep me engaged in the genre, as it’s not my thing, and this simply wasn’t interesting enough.

As I’ve read other Swedish works in translation, I wasn’t put off by the simple, blunt narrative style, though I will say this was even simpler and more blunt than I’ve seen in the past. The text quickly fell into a pattern: introduce a new character or refocus on a known one, tell the reader how they’re feeling, describe the setting a little (or a lot, if it’s a new one,) sum up any backstory relevant to the scene, and then finally let the scene itself unfold. “Telling” not “showing” seems to be typical of the Swedish thriller style–I certainly waded through more than a thousand pages of it reading the Millennium series–but I could get over that, if only the telling had been interesting itself.

It wasn’t. While two dead bodies appearing within a week of each other on a beautiful Swedish island might be enough of a hook for the fictional locals, I’m not wowed by it, and the secrets Kicki was keeping about what may have gotten her cousin killed, and probably herself as well, were so vague and formless that I couldn’t muster enough energy to care.

This isn’t my genre, and I never would have bought this book on my own–it came to me free for World Book Day last year, so I figured I might as well give it a try, but like I’ve said, I’ve read other Swedish mystery/thrillers, and this doesn’t stand up favorably to them.

118 - The Fire Rose

#118 – The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey

  • Read: 8/25/19 – 8/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (75/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

So, so very bad. Even though I know this book is over twenty years old, and the fantasy and fantasy-romance genres have matured since the mid-1990’s, this is still really, really bad.

Despite the overly stuffy and “proper” narrative voice, I found the prose oddly compelling and readable–I think I finished almost 100 pages in my first sitting–but some of that interest was coming from a “what stupid thing will happen next,” rubber-necking sort of curiosity. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling reframed through the mastery of elemental magic. But this Beast did it to himself directly, rather than his affliction coming from an external source. Okay, I suppose we can work with that, but the redemption of Jason Cameron’s less-than-stellar qualities never happens. He’s a pretty terrible person, even setting aside the innate racism and sexism endemic to the setting and thus, his character. I mean, he knows his personal secretary is out there abusing women for fun, and has the power to do something about it, and doesn’t. Not a good look for a romantic hero.

Rosalind is less of a terrible person morally, but still a pretty boring character. Her spitfire attitude is nothing we haven’t seen from a million other “but women were oppressed at the time” stories where the One Special Woman rebels against society somehow. Rosalind does it by being smart and studious and working for her living, albeit under odd circumstances, but she spends so much time reveling in the luxuries Jason surrounds her with that her uprightness folds under a few pretty dresses and sumptuous baths. I could even get behind the “if this is what I’m offered, by golly, I’m going to enjoy it” justification, if only the author didn’t spend so. much. time. describing these luxuries; the clothes, the baths, the rooms, the food. It’s excessive detail that slows down an already thin plot.

Then the real kicker–it’s a romance, except I never once felt like either Jason or Rosalind was falling in love. They spar with each other convincingly at first, but the tension between them is more intellectual than romantic or sexual. After the revelation of Jason’s condition, he admits to himself he feels sexual attraction, but, you know, given his situation, wouldn’t he be attracted to just about any woman who could stand to be in the same room as him? Beggars can’t be choosers, and all. As for Rosalind, there’s just nothing convincing going on there. For all that she makes “uncensored Ovid” and Caligula jokes, she never managed to show me she was a sexual character, and of course, the romance ends with a marriage but no physical contact, not even a kiss? Bestiality is apparently not a line we’re going to explicitly cross, yet by not having Jason regain his human form, that’s the only road open to this romance. So it’s weird and unsatisfying and not credible.

And the villains are barely one step up from mustache-twirling idiots, they’re so ludicrously thin and dull. Didn’t want to not-mention that failing, but don’t have much more to say about it, because there’s barely anything there to criticize. They exist because Jason needs antagonists, but they’re not interesting.

118 - Break in Two

#119 – Break in Two, by M.J. Summers

  • Read: 8/27/19 – 8/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (76/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

One of the laziest and most formulaic romances I’ve read in the last year, and right down there with the most boring romances I’ve ever read.

Claire’s only personality is that she hates her ex–he’s actually given more development than she is, in the early chapters, so we can get the full picture of just what a sleazebag he is and how much better off she’ll be without him, but that comes at the definite cost of giving her page-time to have any traits of her own. She owns a lot of clothes, but even that is less about her being a clothes horse or a shopaholic, and more a setup for Cole to accidentally see her underthings, more than once.

Cole starts out with the thin character type “sexy cowboy,” to which is added, half-heartedly, “small business owner trying to make things work.” His business-owner chops are immediately undercut by how insanely unprofessional he acts around Claire, both in terms of flirting/sexual harassment and anger management issues. The first time these two idiots “fight” they’re actual just throwing childish temper tantrums at each other, and I thought, wait, are these people adults? Have they ever had jobs before?

Add to that some poorly-thought out plot points–like Claire’s ex’s affair being exposed by a phone-answering mix-up, when it’s established that Claire has her own cell phone so why would the side piece think the dude is calling when it was Claire, her coworker? They wouldn’t have the same phone number? Caller ID is a thing? It’s completely preposterous?

Oh, and the sex is rushed to, not particularly interesting, and completely eclipses the development of any emotional attachment actually forming between Cole and Claire.

The Reading Frenzy September 2019 Challenge: Back To School, Hogwarts-Style

I’m in the home stretch for some of my year-long reading challenges, on pace to finish a little early, and I’ve been having fun doing The Reading Frenzy’s monthly mini challenges since I joined. For September, it’s a back-to-school, Hogwarts-themed challenge.

I took a good, hard look at my TBR and did my best to choose books that would strike something off another reading challenge list, and mostly succeeded. I’m also (finally) caught up with all the books I got in 2016, my first big year of hoarding books–as of today, I have seven left to either read or unhaul, because after three years of sitting on my shelf, do I really want to read it?

The Chosen Ones:

1. A book featuring magic (or brown on the cover): Bride of the Wolf, by Abigail Barnette
2. A book from my TBR jar: Sweet Sinful Nights, by Lauren Blakely
3. A science fiction book: Alterworld, by D. Rus
4. A book with stars on the cover: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
5. A book that features the good vs. evil trope: It, by Stephen King
6. A book that has an animal character: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Not that one or more of those might change–I don’t think I’ve gotten through a Reading Frenzy Challenge yet without substituting at least one book out for a different choice, partway through. We’ll see if this month is the exception!

What are you looking forward to reading in September? Any new challenges you’re participating in?

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.