This Week, I Read… (2019 #50)

158 - Wrong to Need You

#158 – Wrong to Need You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/27/19 – 11/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (47/48)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I connected with Sadia and Jackson so much more in this than I did with their romantic predecessors in the first book, and that was enough to bump this up to five stars easily. The things I did not like about this one were small and not really more than quibbles compared to how much I loved it.

First, though, I rarely listen to audiobooks out of personal preference, but that’s how I could get my hands on this through my library, so I did. I did not particularly enjoy the way Sadia’s POV narrator did male voices, so that meant a good deal of Jackson’s dialogue sounded forced and flat. But that’s not the fault of the story itself, so I learned to live with it. Oddly, I found Jackson’s narrator handled female voices a lot better overall, when I usually hate men imitating women. Chalk it up to professional ability, I guess.

If I liked how Rai handled Livvy’s depression in the first book, I love how she handled Sadia’s anxiety here. Anxiety didn’t prevent Sadia from being good at her job, or a good mother, or a good sister–except when it did. For a person who’s never suffered panic attacks, that contradiction might be hard to parse, but not only did Rai write about the panic Sadia suffered as a result of overwhelming circumstances, she also included the worry and stress a panic attack causes when it happens–the sense of failure to live up to expectations and meet obligations, the shame of someone else seeing you in such a state, the worry that others will view you differently once they know. I cried through some scenes, to be perfectly honest. They were that real to me.

As for the romance? The tone is wildly different from the first book, being just about the slowest of slow burns, whereas sex in the first book happened early and often. But I like slow burns just fine, and Jackson was worth waiting for, so to speak. When the heat was on, things got really hot, and in some unexpected ways I definitely appreciated. The emotional side was just as well developed. Jackson might have been distant and closed off at the start, but he was never cold or “robotic” (as he actually describes Nicholas to be) or as much of an asshole, either. He’s not good with words but his actions are generally pretty clear–he lives to support, and eventually love, Sadia.

With that motivation wound into the mystery of why what happened to him re: the arson charges and his complicated family history, I wasn’t nearly as annoyed by the drama-rama this time around, because I was getting resolution to the extensive setup laid out in the first book. Here, it didn’t detract from the story, it enhanced it. Yes, I realize that wouldn’t have been possible without laying the groundwork earlier, but it doesn’t really change my opinion about the first book, because there was just so much of it and it was so tedious keeping it all straight!

And finally, I haven’t read a lot of brother/brother’s widow romances, though I’m aware it and similar situations like it are a subgenre. I’m not weirded out by it personally, though I’m glad it’s acknowledged in a balanced way here. Jackson doesn’t really think it’s wrong for that reason, it’s more about his own relationship with his dead brother than Sadia’s status as a widow. Sadia is weirded out by it, because she’s handling it along the weirdness of the entire situation they’ve gotten themselves into, and I think that’s a perfectly understandable reaction for someone in her position. And Sadia’s sisters, in the big climax of personal acceptance that happens near the end, are all basically “So what?” which is the enlightened, consenting-adults attitude to take. Everyone else generally seems accepting as well, which is a better stance, I think, for the book to take than harping on the “forbidden” aspect and fetishizing it. Which this never did. Especially as Sadia’s son develops a strong relationship with his “uncle” long before it’s clear that Jackson might end up being his step-dad, too. Because making the kid’s relationship with Jackson creepy or complicated would have ruined this in a hurry, but they’re sweet and wholesome and so incredibly adorable.

What can I say, I have a thing for introverted men who don’t do crowds or attention and aren’t alpha-male jerks. I see a fair bit of myself in some parts of Sadia, and given the chance I probably would have fallen for Jackson if he were real and in my life. So what do I have to complain about here? Basically nothing.

159 - Hurts to Love You

#159 – Hurts to Love You, by Alisha Rai

  • Read: 11/20/19 – 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (48/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Such a disappointment after the first two books.

Eve is fine as a main character. Yes, she has some mild social anxiety issues stemming from her self-esteem issues stemming from her abuse. She’s a complex and well-developed character, even if I did find the level of self-affirmation she used to motivate herself irritating. It’s not that the first two books were entirely free of repetitious elements, but this installment was worse, either because there was more of it, or because I noticed it more. How many times can she make her turtle analogies or use the word “like” and “like” about her love interest? It came across as childish, and I know she’s young, but since one of her central struggles is to have her family, and her love interest, not regard her as a child, I think that could have been handled better.

But the real problem is Gabe. I wanted to like him. He’s very likable on the surface. But that’s it, that’s his mask. And he talks frequently about that being his mask. Underneath he’s all pain and brooding about his secret heritage and the complexities of his life because he can’t claim his half-siblings. (Oh, by the way, totally called his secret waaaay before it was revealed. I don’t know what specifically made it obvious to me but it was the only thing that made any sense.)

Eve spends a lot of her time hammering away at that mask, and that’s great, and their chemistry just based on that was fine. But main story ends with us just barely getting to peek at who Gabe could be without it, and without the pain of familial separation, and then BOOM EPILOGUE he’s spilled his secret and everyone knows who he is and it’s all fine.

Um, what? Who did he tell first? Did he get everyone together like an intervention and tell everyone at once? How did they react? Who was surprised and who wasn’t? WHY DID THE MOST INTERESTING PART OF THAT CHARACTER ARC HAPPEN IN A GAP YEAR BETWEEN THE END AND THE EPILOGUE SO I DON’T EVEN GET TO READ ABOUT IT?!?

Also, it’s great to have a large man as a main character who doesn’t come across as intimidating and doesn’t get angry all the time, but Gabe is so soft and forgiving he doesn’t even get mad about things he should very well have a right to get mad about, like Eve lying to him about being Ann the app-service driver. Like, that’s such a huge part of the beginning of the book, then it’s ignored for the entire middle, then at the end he confronts her when he figures it out and one conversation later, where he doesn’t get mad, it’s all totally fine. I thought that was rushed and not entirely believable.

To make their romance worse, a good chunk of the tail end of this book was used to wrap up story lines from the previous two and leave Eve and Gabe by the wayside. Jackson and Sadia get married quietly, sure, fine. Nicholas and Livvy spend a whole chapter hashing out last-minute pre-wedding jitters in a book that’s not focused on them: annoying, but whatever. Then they have a five-month old baby, though, in the epilogue? What? At the end of book two when they get engaged, they insist she’s not pregnant. They plan the wedding for a month after that. Then a year later, they have a five-month old. The math does not add up. Okay, so that “flu” she got that kept her at home right before the wedding was actually morning sickness, then? But her mother and aunt just happened to have the flu the week before providing her a convenient lie? Am I supposed to be reading between these lines or not? Because I was fooled, I honestly thought the “I’m not pregnant” meant “I’m not pregnant,” and it pisses me off on a personal level because myself and so many other women I’ve known get those looks from idiots who think every illness we get means a secret pregnancy we’re hiding and saying “I’m not pregnant” doesn’t mean anything to them because all women lie about that stuff, right?

Okay, that’s a tangent, I haven’t even talked about the age gap yet. I told myself I wasn’t going to because I had enough other issues with this book, but I shouldn’t ignore it. Gabe is 35 and Eve is 24. The math on that barely clears the “half your age plus seven years” rule, if we ignore Gabe’s extra half-year. And there is the argument that since he’s a commitment-phobe and never had a serious relationship, it brings his effective age/experience down a little. Gabe’s single and has a successful business, no kids; Eve is single, has plans to start what will probably be a successful business, no kids. Despite the numerical age difference, they are in similar stages of life, on the large scale. But booooy does Gabe constantly make cracks about how old he is as a defense mechanism against her, which reminds the reader constantly, which either makes it creepy when it didn’t need to be or exacerbates the base level of potential creepiness. [Sudden thought: is that why Eve was such a creeper early on, narratively speaking? To balance the creep factor out between them? Do I really even want to be asking this question? I shouldn’t need to.]

The first half had issues but showed potential, then the second half let me down and the epilogue made me angry.

160 - The Wednesday Letters

#160 – The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright

  • Read: 12/2/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (105/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book with red and white on the cover
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I picked this up at a used book sale, three dollars a bag, because it sounded interesting from the blurb and I was paying pennies to try things out.

I should not have bought this book, but sadly I couldn’t know that until I started to read it.

DNF @ page 30, just past my 10% personal minimum cutoff. I finished the chapter I was in the middle of. It was terrible. The chapters before it were terrible.

So we’re introduced to this about-to-die old couple for the first two pages, then immediately the author steers us off into a three-page tangent describing the life story and eccentricities of the only current guest at their bed-and-breakfast. She’s not interesting. She’s not who I was wanting to read about when I opened the book. Why am I reading three pages about her?

That’s the pattern throughout the first ten percent. Introduce a “main” character, talk about them for ten seconds, introduce a side or minor character for flavor and spend pages on them while ignoring the main character. I know less about one of the sons of that dead old couple than I do the Brazilian airport attendant he picked up for a date before his flight home. Their daughter is introduced while she’s phoning both her brothers in succession, and there’s a gun on her kitchen counter that she idly plays with while they talk, and they talk about people in their parents’ lives we don’t really know and probably wouldn’t care about. What I want to know is why their daughter has a gun sitting around on her kitchen counter, thank you very much!

It’s an endless series of diversions, and to make it worse, they’re draped in the most saccharine, pedestrian description. At one point the author spends half a page talking about a Hallmark card, just to make sure you understand that the dead old couple was Hallmark perfect, because this book is trying incredibly hard and incredibly transparently to be a Hallmark movie.

I’m sorry I let this book sit on my shelf for two years taking up valuable space in my TBR when it wasn’t worth the thirty or so cents I paid for it.

161 - His Christmas Wish.jpg

#161 – His Christmas Wish, by Melissa McClone

  • Read: 12/2/19 – 12/3/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A holiday book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Bleh. I had good luck with a different McClone Christmas romance as being good without being drenched in the “magic of Christmas” like it was a bad perfume, but this is terrible.

Jake and Carly are both incredibly hot-and-cold with each other about a possible romantic relationship for the entire book. They constantly flip back and forth about what they want, both out loud to each other and internally to themselves. Their friendship is obviously strong–the moments when they’re being “just friends” or working together to provide a good Christmas experience for their friends’ kids are the best parts of the book–but despite the occasional flashes of physical attraction the story kept telling us they were having, there was no chemistry. I simply did not believe these two were actually attracted to each other.

Without that, what’s the point of a romance novel?

Even the tension of Carly moving forward from the losses of her past is mellow and easily solved. She’s consumed by anti-Christmas spirit at the beginning but halfway through, she’s totally cool again, so the story turns to trying to shoehorn her and Jake into a relationship. Then he has to go up on the mountain for a rescue and she freaks out and breaks up with him…except they weren’t even really together yet. Then she leaves town for two weeks and turns around and goes right back when she sees on the news that there’s another rescue going on and Jake could be in danger.

Like I said, constantly flipping back and forth. It’s exhausting.

Oh, and then they get married two months after getting together. Because that’s a good idea. Why is a quickie marriage the epilogue of half the romances I read? I don’t care if they’ve known each other forever, they’ve got serious communication issues and differences in expectations for a romantic relationship, both have been apparent throughout this story, so why is throwing them at an altar supposed to be a happy ending? Even if I cared about them, I’d still think they were headed straight for a divorce because the story has not persuaded me that these two are actually in love with each other.

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #48)

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#152 – Royals, by Rachel Hawkins

  • Read: 11/15/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (46/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s fluffy, and moment-to-moment I pretty much enjoyed it, but it’s got some major flaws.

The best thing about it, and I know this is rare for me to say about a YA book, is our narrator-protagonist Daisy. It can be difficult for an adult author to write teenagers, and in my experience they mostly fall into two camps: sounding too adult because the author can’t erase their own life experience and vocabulary from their writing, or sounding like whiny bratty elementary-school children because the author overcompensates for that. But here, Daisy struck me constantly as being firmly in the appropriate age group, when she desperately wants some control over her own life but keeps having it snatched away from her, yet understands and to some degree accepts the reasoning behind her lack of autonomy. As a central conflict to the novel, it’s incredibly successful. And her personality is snarky and sharp-witted, but she’s also strongly empathetic, so she doesn’t come across as a brat.

Her banter with Miles was entertaining, though I think ultimately the revelation of their romance came a little too late. The pace of the buildup was fine, then they kiss, then they “break up,” then Daisy leaves Scotland and Miles comes to the States to be with her (a huuuuuge decision) just a few weeks later. It’s thin.

What’s not so good about this novel? The setting. Now, I’m not Scottish, and while I have some Scottish heritage, it’s far enough back that it didn’t influence my upbringing in any way, and I’m not out here on the Internet claiming my clan tartan or anything and pretending I’m full of “Scots Pride.” But I have a family member who ran a study abroad program to Scotland and traveled there extensively. Nearly everyone but me in that chunk of my family has been there, sometimes more than once, and I’ve heard enough stories that, even secondhand, I know this AU-Scotland has basically no relation to actual modern Scotland. I also have family who’ve spent a lot of time in England, and I’ve been there twice for extended trips–everything I recognized about this setting told me it was British, not Scottish, and the rest (like every woman wearing tartan evening gowns to every fancy occasion) seemed completely over the top.

If I can recognize the ridiculousness of this setting as an American who’s only tangentially aware of modern Scottish culture, then what do the actual Scots think? (I skimmed some reviews, and generally, they’re not complimentary.)

So, I read this because I kept hearing great things about its sequel, Her Royal Highness, but my library doesn’t have that yet so I checked out a copy of this instead. I still want to read HRH because it’s a wlw romance, and there just aren’t enough of those in the world. But I am lowering my expectations about its quality, because I know it’s got the same flimsy setting as this one.

153 - Northanger Abbey

#153 – Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

  • Read: 11/16/19 – 11/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (100/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book set in an abbey, cloister, monastery, vicarage, or convent
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” because at this point I should know that I don’t really care for Austen and just stop trying to read her. I only got through P&P the first time this past year, after several failed attempts in my younger days, and I’ll reiterate here that I love her plots and hate her style.

I’ve enjoyed every single Austen movie adaptation I’ve ever seen, so it’s not that she can’t put together a compelling story, it’s that I can’t navigate her prose. I can’t. I’ve tried.

As far as I did get in this book before I gave up, I was impressed with Henry Tilney and the banter scenes between him and Catherine are by far my favorite bits. I’m basically annoyed by the existence of every person in the novel but the two of them, but that’s satire for you–all of Catherine’s “friends” and her brother and even her parents are so exaggerated in their personalities that they’re awful as people in their own special ways. Knowing it’s satire doesn’t necessarily make listening to their prattle more pleasant, but again, this might have gone easier for me if I wasn’t just trying to keep my head above water following the convoluted sentence structures and florid prose.

I didn’t make it as far as the titular abbey, which was a disappointment, but I didn’t want to beat my head against the brick wall any longer. I don’t enjoy Austen and I’m going to stop trying to make myself.

154 - Watchmen

#154 – Watchmen, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

  • Read: 11/18/19 – 11/20/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (101/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: Reread a favorite book
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I first read this around the time the movie adaptation was announced, though I’d been told for years prior by many people that I should read it and the movie prompted me. (Before anyone asks, I was disappointed with it. The casting was a mix of good and questionable, the restructuring/editing for length was bungled, the effects were pretty good. Moving on.)

I’m prompted to reread it now because of the television show, which, when I first saw the trailer, I questioned the wisdom and necessity of. Does Watchmen need a sequel? I get the appeal of creating one, it’s a rich world with so much story potential, but at the same time, isn’t the story perfectly complete as it is?

Then the show is (so far) amazing, and I needed to reread the source material to refresh myself on ALL THE TINY DETAILS the show has extrapolated into an even richer, future-Watchmen world.

Like, Steven Spielberg made a movie about the event and it’s named “Pale Horse” because that was the band playing at Madison Square Garden when it happened? That’s prime, grade-A world-building.

So of course I had to read it again. And of course it’s still amazing. I’m not changing my previous five-star rating. I hate that the world is coming around to possible war again on a large scale, I hate that the environment is failing, and more than ever I can understand the drive to force the world to play nice with each other, as Adrian Veidt did in such a horrible, brutal way. It’s a triumph of the writing that every single “hero” is morally gray (though some darker than others) and everyone is understandable, with a little empathy on the part of the reader.

It’s amazing, and it’s startlingly relevant again. I look forward to the show continuing to be excellent, but even if it’s not, this always will be.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

144 - What If.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

145 - The Canterville Ghost.jpg

#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

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

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

146 - They Both Die at the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

147 - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

148 - Death by Chocolate

#148 – Death by Chocolate, by Sally Berneathy

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

DNF @ 20%. I was bored.

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

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

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

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

149 - The House on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week, I Read… (2019 #45)

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#140 – Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 10/20/19 – 10/27/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (91/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Weaker by far than both the first and the second books, this was a slog to keep reading at times. I can admire how skillfully interwoven the disparate story lines became over the course of the novel while still strongly disliking some of those plot threads.

Serilla’s was the worst for me. Watching a foreigner become embroiled in and increasingly bewildered by Bingtown politics was just not entertaining, even though I did care about what happened to Bingtown itself. The Trader that tried to use her in his schemes had never been important before and didn’t get enough development here to be a convincing antagonist, even a minor one. I also felt like Serilla’s complex and ever-changing relationship to Ronica didn’t follow any logical or understandable progression.

The Satrap and Malta’s plot line comes in a close second for least appealing. Malta shows her smarts, sure, and I’m all for women overcoming adversity, but the Satrap is so useless and whining and irritating for 95% of his subplot, then at the end, miraculously grows a spine and makes his first attempts to actually rule? I don’t buy it.

Even the story lines I mostly enjoyed ended up in weird places. The romantic in me loves that Brashen and Althea have a mostly-happy ending, but I don’t like that it came at the cost of Althea regaining Vivacia, which was the central driving thrust of not only her own plot, but half the wider story itself. Wintrow succeeds Kennit as the captain of Vivacia instead, but also sort of ends up with Etta, too, even though she’s pregnant with Kennit’s child? I didn’t peg Wintrow as a surrogate father figure.

The only ending I might be completely satisfied with, strangely, is Paragon’s. Watching him go from a splintered soul to a whole person (for lack of a better term) was an incredible journey, and as the secrets of his past were teased out slowly, I was pleased to see I’d gotten some of my guesses right while being wholly surprised by a few things.

The dragons were fascinating, as well they should be, and I’m intrigued by the return of the long-vanished Elderlings, especially coming about how it did.

I’m going to keep reading, of course. The next trilogy, from what I’ve been told, is supposed to be amazing, and after six books I’m solidly invested in this setting. But after how stunning The Mad Ship was, I can’t help being disappointed some by this relatively weak wrap-up.

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#141 – Beloved, by Corinne Michaels

  • Read: 10/27/19 – 10/28/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (92/100)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 15%. I could feel myself getting more annoyed with every page. Buckle up, I’m going into detail on this one.

First problem, the prologue: girl’s got daddy issues and has no problem laying them out there for everyone to see, but they’re not interesting. Leading with backstory is rarely interesting. Don’t just tell me she’s got abandonment issues, show me somehow with the plot instead of dumping it on me up front!

Second problem, the first chapter: By the end of the first page, I already knew the fiance was a cheater, not because I’d met him yet, not because he’d said a single word, but because there’s no other reason for the narrator to text him “surprise! I’m coming over” as the very first plot point. Duh, of course she’s going to find him banging another woman. Yawn, not invested.

Third problem, meeting the hero: This could have been a good meet-cute, except that the narrator has no personality yet and everything about the scene is rushed. Here’s the first time I noticed the serious lack of flow to the text itself–in one paragraph, while the narrator is eating dinner with her friends, she summarizes their conversation as catching up on old times and talking about people they all know, but after a paragraph break, she interrupts them while they’re talking about movies. But they weren’t talking about movies? You just said they were talking about mutual acquaintances? If that’s supposed to show time passing as the conversation moves on, then find a better solution, because it just reads as abrupt. Anyway, the hero himself is so perfect and so handsome and so pushes all of her buttons. She describes that brief encounter like she’s waking up from a ten-year coma and not a three-month break from dating after she and her fiance split.

Fourth problem, her job: Here’s where the inconsistent tone in narration really takes off, because the narrator spends most of a page psyching herself up for a meeting by reminding herself what a badass bitch she is and how amazing she is at her job. Fine, great, not original but at least it seems genuine and reads as empowering. But then, next paragraph, she’s gushing about her assistant and how lost she’d be without the help and support and thank GOD the assistant doesn’t realize she could be doing the narrator’s job. So…are you a badass bitch who’s great at her job, or is your assistant doing it all for you? Both of these things can’t be true at the same time, not as we’ve been presented with them. PLUS she smells the hero’s cologne just before she goes into the meeting, hinting that he’s going to be there, but then he’s not and it’s her ex instead. Total letdown.

Fifth and final problem that I got to before giving up: The train ride. The narrator lives in New Jersey and commutes into New York City, fine. So she’s on her way home after the disastrous meeting where her ex stole her presentation because she never changed her passwords after they broke up. It’s the middle of the day, and randomly, the hero is on the same train with her and sits down beside her so they can pick back up on their flirting. I spent most of the scene irritated that the author was failing to address the extraordinary coincidence of the hero being there without being a stalker. Then, at the very end of the scene, the narrator wakes up. Because she fell asleep on the train, you see. She dreamt the whole thing.

WHAT?

At 15% in, the narrator still has no real personality except that her life keeps taking a shit on her, and then the second interaction she has with the hero, whom eventually I presume she’s supposed to fall in love with, is actually a dream sequence and he was never there at all? When are they supposed to get to know each other? When are they supposed to develop feelings for each other? When is this romance going to get around to actually starting?

142 - The Way You Look Tonight

#142 – The Way You Look Tonight, by Bella Andre

  • Read: 10/28/19 – 10/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (93/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I finished it. I liked a lot about it. But there were issues.

The chemistry our leads and the bedroom antics they got up to were by far the strongest part of the story, while character development was pretty one-note. Yes, Brooke uses her relationship with Rafe to grow sexually, and Rafe learns through her that even a “cynical bastard” like himself is capable of love. But that’s the only internal conflict to sustain them through the entire book, and the only external one keeping them from hopping into bed together (briefly) was two of his siblings showing up for a surprise visit.

There’s just not a lot else going on, except sex. And while the sex scenes are reasonably good, maybe a shade too “everything gets more intense every time” but generally good, I wanted more about the characters.

They’re childhood friends, except they’re kind of not? She had a crush on him as a kid, but their six-year age difference was insurmountable then. I feel that–I had crushes on older boys myself–but then Brooke doesn’t see him for eighteen years and they’re still friends? Nuh-uh, I don’t buy it. I don’t care how close you were as kids (and the narrative implies it was like sibling closeness, like she was family) if you don’t see someone for eighteen years, you’ve got to spend a little narrative time reestablishing that friendship before I’m going to believe it, especially when there was a significant age gap as kids. You’re acquaintances, sure, who were close once, but you’re not friends as adults, now. But they breeze right past it in just a few days to start sleeping together, and they treat each other with an emotional intimacy that I just don’t accept that they could forge so quickly, no matter how sweet and innocent and open-hearted Brooke is.

The bones of the story are there, and they’re solid. But it all moves too fast and comes together too neatly. There needed to be more conflict and more history and more time spent on them as adults rather than relying on holdover feelings from a long-gone past.

143 - We Have Always Lived in the Castle

#143 – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

  • Read: 10/29/19 – 10/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (43/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I haven’t read any Shirley Jackson since seventh grade English class, when The Lottery was in the book of short stories we studied. I enjoyed it but thought it was weird and maybe not as good as my teacher thought it was.

All these years later, I feel much the same way about We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I enjoyed it, but it’s really weird and maybe not as good as the general consensus would have had me believe before I read it.

Some writerly qualities of the book are astounding. Merricat has a distinctive and engaging narrative voice that conveys a blend of childhood innocence, sinister intent, and superstition. At times I forgot how old she was supposed to be, because she could be so child-like, but I don’t see that as a flaw in the work, because given her upbringing it’s understandable she would be stalled in her emotional growth. I caught some hints of mental illness as well, though that’s of course up to reader interpretation, but Merricat’s narration reminded me of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which spoke to me strongly as someone battling an anxiety disorder, though I don’t have OCD. Merricat could, though.

The atmosphere is also masterfully handled, with simple but evocative descriptions, careful word choice and even more carefully chosen repetition. I could see this house clearly in my head, but more importantly, I felt this house and its dread in my bones.

The “mystery” is weaker. I never really thought Constance had done it, and from there it wasn’t a long leap to (correctly) assume the identity of the real culprit and the reasons behind Constance’s suspicious actions the night of the poisoning. The reveal is touching, in a way, but wasn’t at all a surprise to me.

The overall plot is thin and wandering. Framing this story as the origin of a haunted house certainly gives it atmosphere, but not a lot of forward motion. I had no trouble reading this in a few hours because of its length and simple language, but I wouldn’t call it a gripping page turner.

So I liked it, and there’s a lot to learn from it as a writer, even if horror isn’t my genre. But it wasn’t the amazing classic I had been led to believe it was.

This Week, I Read… (2019 #39)

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#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 #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 #34)

112 - Muse of Nightmares

#112 – Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

  • Read: 8/14/19 – 8/17/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (35/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In the first book, a number of oddities and mysteries were set up, leaving me eager for the rest of the story. I can say the conclusion does pretty much answer all of them, but it takes a weird and twisting path to get there.

I feel like this story, despite having clear goals to accomplish, is ultimately less focused than the first book. Nearly everything there was framed around the relationship between Lazlo and Sarai–even before they met, it was clear they were going to meet, and that was the moment we were hurtling toward in the beginning. (For long enough to make you maybe-forget about the very beginning of the book, when Sarai’s death is laid out neatly as a spoiler, but with absolutely no context.) Other characters occasionally had POV scenes or chapters when the plot demanded it, but on the whole, it was the Lazlo and Sarai Show, with each chapter generally sticking to one or the other.

Muse, on the other hand, jumps between characters and story threads constantly, even to the point where in a single scene where many characters are present, there’s extensive head-hopping. I hate head-hopping. I hate having to readjust my perspective to align with a different character with no warning, especially multiple times on a page. And I get it–when the big stuff goes down and you’ve got Minya and Nova and Sarai and Lazlo all in the same place, all thinking/feeling important things that the reader needs to know, head-hopping is the easiest way to get it all on the page.

But it’s kind of a mess to read, and I didn’t enjoy that part of it. It robbed the climax of some of its thrill and emotional impact, when I constantly had to sort out who I was suddenly supposed to be focused on.

The story is still interesting, and I’m still invested in these characters–mostly. I think I never felt as much sympathy for Minya as I was supposed to? The relevation about her and the Ellens felt flat to me. On the other hand, Thyon got way more sympathetic and fascinating and I honestly wish there had been more time spent on his development, though I don’t know where it would have fit. And I’m thoroughly delighted by the direction of Eril-Fane and Azareen’s subplot. So there’s plenty of good to balance out my frustration with the bad. And the bad is a pretty minor bad, all things considered. But this wasn’t the same ecstatic thrill ride I experienced in the first book.

#113 – Once Upon a Coffee and Once Upon a Setup, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 8/17/19 – 8/18/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (72/100)
  • Rating: both 3/5 stars

Pairing these together as short novellas from Nolan’s Wishful romance series, which I decided was time to “finish,” as in cleaning up what I had left on my Kindle, these two and one more full-length novel.

Once Upon a Coffee is cute and charming and an excellent example of Nolan’s easy-to-read narrative style. I fell right into this short story about a blind date mix-up, and I liked the characters enough to wish we were getting a whole novel out of it–the ever-present danger with short stories and novellas, that they’re good enough to make the reader want more.

And there is plenty more to be had in the Wishful series, though I don’t particularly think this is a good entry point, despite that #0.5 label–it’s set in Wishful, sure, but no major characters make an appearance (which is fine, considering the context) but also these characters, to my memory, don’t show up at all in the three Wishful novels I’ve already read.

So it’s cute and charming, but it’s also isolated and left feeling both hopeful and unfinished.

I enjoyed Once Upon a Setup, but I’m left honestly questioning why it’s a novella and not just the first few chapters of book 4, which is going to finish the romance set up here. I checked, and book 4 doesn’t break 200 pages, so why is the story chopped in two? (My gut says “marketing” but I hope not.)

I have some of the same issues with this story-bit that I had with book 3, because I still haven’t watched White Christmas so I still don’t get the references. I’m really hoping that we’re going to stop beating that horse in book 4. Please.

All that being said, I like Myles. I like him a lot. It can be hard to write the funny-charming guy as a romantic lead, because humor is so personal and not everyone is going to respond. But beyond the funniness, he’s a thoughtful, respectful guy. Piper doesn’t get quite as much time put into her personality here, but I mostly remember her from before, so it’s okay that Myles gets more development, especially when he’s the big draw.

I’m starting book 4 next, so let’s hope it pays this off.

114 - Just For This Moment.jpg

#114 – Just For This Moment, by Kait Nolan

  • Read: 8/18/19 – 8/19/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (73/100)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I wanted to like this early on so much more than I actually did in the end. It’s a much more plausible fake/quickie marriage setup than I’m used to seeing in my romance novels, and I do appreciate a good setup. I’m even on board with the external obstacles thrown in their way, forcing their plan to adapt in ways neither of them anticipated.

It’s the internal conflicts that piss me off. A character misunderstanding something they overheard eavesdropping, whether intentional or not, is just such a lazy way to introduce conflict. I don’t like it in other romance novels where I’ve encountered it, and I don’t like it here. To the book’s credit, the character does get called on it–when Piper goes to Tucker to hide out in her confusion and upset, Tucker insists she talk to Myles about it. Which is something, at least. But it’s still lazy. And having that bundled together with an unexpected pregnancy, another tired trope that isn’t usually handled well, this really was a let down. Again, it’s not quite as bad as it could be–since the marriage was such a rush job, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have talked about their desire for or timeline regarding kids, and the birth control thing was just an accident–those do happen. But it leads to an epilogue that’s very “a kid fixes everything” in its attitude, because the best thing to happen to a rushed relationship and marriage is adding a kid to the mix? No, no, I don’t buy it.

So the first 60% of the book, leading up to the wedding itself and events immediately following it, is fantastic, the exact fun and “madcap” romantic romp the blurb promises. That part of the book is five stars. Then the remaining 40% is a mess and a downer–I accept that there are consequences to rushing a marriage like that, even with someone you think you can make it successful with, but it’s just smashed together out of lazy tropes and ends happily with very little reason to.

115 - Saga, Vol. 8.jpg

#115 – Saga, Vol. 8, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/20/19 – 8/21/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (36/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s not that I don’t still love this series, because I do, but something about this volume felt off to me, and I didn’t love it as much as most of the earlier volumes. Something about the pacing made this read so fast, it didn’t have as much impact, or I didn’t feel as satisfied at the end.

Still, it’s full of the fun twists we’ve all come to expect in theory without necessarily being able to predict in practice. I did see Petrichor and the Robot Prince getting together, but only a few pages before it actually happened, so it’s not like the pieces weren’t there for me to put together. Ghus is still amazing and I love him. When Squire called Hazel his “fair maiden” I was like, “oh no tell me that’s not where this is headed” but she (as narrator) immediately refers to him as her brother, so good, that’s not where we’re headed. And given the brotherly-love feeling of most of this volume, I look forward to seeing that plot line in the future.

But there’s not much future left at this point–how could the story possibly end? Maybe that’s where some of my dissatisfaction with this particular volume is coming from, I can’t picture an ending coming from this. The most basic story trajectory has always been obvious and firmly in place–it’s Hazel’s story, from conception and birth through childhood, at least, so far. But when will it end? With only one volume left, at the pace we’re going, she’s not going to die peacefully of old age. I don’t even know that we’re going to see her as an adult, and I sure hope we’re not going to see her kick the bucket as a kid, or at all, really. But I have no basis for predicting how far the story still has to go, even with most of it done. That unmoored feeling of being unable to form expectations about a story never sits well with me, though Saga has been fun, interesting, and inventive enough to distract me from it this whole time. In this volume, perhaps, maybe it didn’t accomplish that as well, and that’s what’s left the faint irritation in my brain that says I should have liked it better.

116 - Saga, Vol. 9

#116 – Saga, Vol. 9, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

  • Read: 8/21/19 – 8/22/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (37/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was under the mistaken impression that this was the end, until I came to Goodreads to be all like WTF JUST HAPPENED and I saw people talking about the hiatus. I was incorrect, but I have to say, reading this volume under the mistaken impression that it’s the final one definitely left me disappointed.

Treating it as the cliffhanger it’s intended to be, instead, I like it better. Unsurprisingly.

So a lot of things happen, as usual, and a lot of them are still unexpected, because this story has a consistent track record of putting together plot twists that make perfect sense in hindsight while being nearly impossible to predict. Lots of characters die in this volume–lots of named, important characters, that is, because the earlier volumes are also filled with character deaths. But this had a far greater impact. (Which was part of me going WTF when I still thought this was the end of the story.)

I’m looking forward to more in the future, but I know I’m going to have to reread everything when the new stuff drops, because there are so many interwoven plot threads, and while there are definitely events I will never forget, there are going to be plenty of references to the story that would leave me scratching my head otherwise. Which means dragging my soul through this meat-grinder of a cliffhanger again, something I can say I’m looking forward to as much.