This Week, I Read… (2019 #46)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#145 – The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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#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.

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#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.

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.

 

This Week, I Read… (2019 #32)

101 - Blackout

#101 – Blackout, by Mira Grant

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

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

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

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

Let me break that down a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

102 - All the Birds in the Sky

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

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

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

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

Yeah, it’s personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

103 - Saga, Vol. 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

104 - Justice Calling

#104 – Justice Calling, by Annie Bellet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

105 - Moloka'i

#105 – Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert

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

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

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

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

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

106 - The Right Swipe

#106 – The Right Swipe, by Alisha Rai

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

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

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

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

And that’s what’s happened here.

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

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