This got so wordy (fun medication side effect), I’m not going to let it go for the usual two months.
I finally finished 24 read-all-the-way-through books! Who’s ready for the victory parade?
Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have celebrated with ice cream.
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Somebody asked me why I don’t rate or grade these “reviews.” Grades and stars mean different things to different people. The star designations on Goodreads, for example, include 2 for “okay” and 3 for “liked.” Some people think a C is “average,” and some people think a C warrants being grounded for nine weeks until you pull your shit up to an acceptable level. Lack of consistency in interpretation makes such designations meaningless.
This is my rating system:
- 1 star: Rage quit or rage finished out of compulsion to bear witness to the sheer fucking gall and will never read the author again
- 2 star: Quit due to less-than-rage aggravation or lack of interest and will never read the author again
- 3 star: Finished but will never read the author again unless mitigated by prior 4’s and 5’s and this is the first dud, in which case I allow one more chance to disappoint me
- 4 star: Finished and willing to read the author again
- 5 star: Mind blown by the awesome, gimme everything this author has ever written
I have somewhere around 2,000 books rated, and my average overall is 2.6. I have mostly threes, slightly fewer twos than threes, about half as many fours and ones compared to twos, and fives are rare. (My scale looks meaner in print, but if I used the Goodreads system, for example, I’d be forced to 1-star all my 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s as “didn’t like,” and wouldn’t that cause a shitstorm.) Now, if you’re predisposed to believe 3 is “like,” you’d get a really, really wrong impression from my numerical ratings, where 3 tilts negative. It’s more informative to put into words what I liked or didn’t and let you decide by your own standards whether I’m nuts or incredibly insightful. I’m very aware things that are deal breakers for me are invisible to others, so I’d rather provide info than a yea or nay recommendation.
Ratings are mostly for my own benefit so I know at a glance whether to steer clear of an author when I see a sale.
Yours Until Dawn by Teresa Medeiros: An intrusively literal homage to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The housekeeper is Mrs. PhilPOT. The description of the house is awfully familiar. He has a pre-beastly portrait. She storms out, he gets hurt while chasing after her, so she stays to take care of him. Table manners lessons. The dance in the ballroom. Et cetera. On one hand, collecting the references started out as amusing. On the other, prior exposure made the story predictable, and immersion was a problem because before I could ever settle into an original plot development, CLANG CLANG CLANG HERE’S A GLARING REMINDER THIS IS BASED ON A CARTOON WITH A FOOTSTOOL DOG IN IT.
This is a prime example of why I generally avoid “retellings.” (And song covers. A good cover is respectful of the source material but also sounds like the band performing the cover. A good cover doesn’t butcher the song or sound like every garage band that has ever practiced faithfully reproducing someone else’s music. A good cover adds without destroying, and those are really, really hard to find. Now replace all the music words with writing words because it’s the same damn thing.) A story about a scarred, blind, grumpy, reclusive soldier falling in love with the “nurse” hired to take care of him would have been a good beauty/beast tale without a single reference to Disney. Forcing those references in there as a gimmick ruined the story for me.
She also had sex with him while deceiving him about her identity (deceiving him about TWO identities!), which probably would have altered his willingness to have sex with her on at least one occasion, which I consider a consent issue.
Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas: I heard Derek Craven sets panties on fire at fifty paces, so expectations (and skepticism) were high.
Sara is a small-town novelist who writes about things like prostitutes, everybody knows about this, and nobody bats an eye, so there’s your realism yardstick. She takes a research-based approach to her fiction, which means hanging out with prostitutes where they live and work. On one such research jaunt in a seedy part of London, she witnesses a man being set upon by hooligans, pulls out her pistol, shoots a hooligan in the throat, and kills him. Fear not! There are absolutely no consequences, legal or psychological, for taking a man’s life. It will literally never be mentioned again. (She’s later appalled [but only briefly, since she has the emotional depth of an eyelash] about grave robbing because THE FAMILIES!!!!!, but I guess lost corpses are more destructive to the family dynamic than lost lives.) Derek is the set-upon fellow she saves (by murdering his assailant, but WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT, CAPICHE?). Sara takes him to the club he owns to be patched up, where she charms everyone into giving her the run of the place. For research!
Sara is more of a Disney princess than the heroine in the book actually based on a Disney princess. She engages in incredibly risky behavior, apparently oblivious that there’s any danger, but no harm ever befalls her because her Sweet Nature Armor™ keeps her safe at all times. She commits murder, gets caught up in a rioting mob intent on disemboweling a corpse, and is dragged off to be gang raped, and it all slides right off her like it never happened, not so much as a bruise on her body or soul to constitute a learning experience.
She’s a manic pixie sociopath.
Derek has scars, literally and figuratively. He was born in a gutter, raised by whores, and employed in all manner of child labor, legal and il. He hoarded his money, used everything he knows about vice to build a club that makes him more money, but nothing is ever enough to satisfy him because he can always feel the wolf of poverty breathing down his neck.
A book about Derek might have been fine. Unfortunately, Sara. And head hopping. And rampant illogic. And plot events that lead nowhere. (Don’t assume anything in this book is foreshadowing because 99% of those expectations won’t be fulfilled or subverted in delightful ways — they’re just abandoned like the words were meaningless.)
Point-of-view pingpong is not okay with me, so this book and I were not destined to be friends. On the other hand, there was a loooooong stretch in the middle when Sara was off in the country cheerfully preparing to marry another guy and I would have rejoiced to be jerked into Derek’s POV because holy hell that was boring. Derek was allegedly Going Through Some Shit™ during that time, so his conflict would have been a lot more interesting than Sara not getting along with her future mother-in-law.
Yes, you heard that right. Sara returns home after her slumming adventure to happily, non-coercedly proceed with her marriage to her childhood sweetheart. In fact, she pushes him to issue the proposal he’s been putting off.
MONTHS have passed. Sara is planning her wedding, living arrangements, and future children with SOME OTHER DUDE. But I get the impression I’m supposed to be upset that Derek had upset sex with a prostitute. I’m only upset that his upset wasn’t on the page. Fuck Sara — but not really because she’s almost certainly a serial killer. She’s been gone, for MONTHS, planning her WEDDING to SOME OTHER DUDE that she is EAGER to marry and says she LOVES (though she’s a sociopath, so… grain of salt). Derek has my blessing to fuck everything that consents until he finds a less-awful person to love.
Am I swooning over Derek Craven? No, but I like him enough to want better for him than what he got.
He deserves better friends, too. Jesus, Lily, if you’re socially obligated to host the woman that you know hired thugs to CUT HIS FACE OFF, maybe that’s not the best occasion to invite him over to matchmake. Maybe? Ya think?
Screw it. I’m DNFing this one at 77% before I find anything more to dislike.
NB: Just to demonstrate how much mileage varies, here’s a squee at Smart Bitches that mentions zero of the things that made me loathe this book. This phenomenon is a big lesson in how much a book relies on what the reader brings to it.
The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert I. Sutton: This is not an uplifting book. I spent three nights with it, and I doubt it was a coincidence those were three sleepless, heart-racing, thrashing nights. If you’re an experienced target of abuse, there’s nothing illuminating here, and the resulting hopelessness may be triggering.
The introduction cites a survey in which 50% of people reported experiencing or witnessing asshole behavior, but only 1% reported engaging in it. The “discrepancy” (I guess by someone’s flawed reasoning, if 50% are victims, the other 50% must be perpetrators?) is attributed to (a) some people being too sensitive and (b) some people lying about how nice they are. While I’m sure both of these are factors, the book fails to acknowledge what is, to me, an obvious (c): it takes only one asshole to terrorize a large group of people. Also, since I have a really hard time imagining HALF of any population has never encountered an asshole, I present to you (d): some people have already adopted the maladaptive coping strategies in this book and “reframed” the asshole behavior they’ve observed as normal and acceptable so they can get through the day, and that 50% is actually wildly underreported. This study, at least as reported in this book (and I don’t care enough to investigate which is at fault), was basically everything that’s wrong with social science — there’s no objective measure of human thought and emotion, so you just stop when you get the answer you wanted, regardless of how many unexplored variables any random onlooker can easily point to.
The titular guidance in a nutshell is this: If you can, leave your asshole. If you can’t, suck it up because the asshole will never stop abusing you. On the bright side, the stress will make you die young. Cheers!
For those who can’t escape their tormentors, the suggested coping mechanism is a self-induced dissociative disorder (detach, check out, lie to yourself about what’s happening to you, forget it), a thought pattern veterans of abuse can confirm you’ll be in therapy the rest of your life trying to fix. Cheers!
If you’re a stranger to abuse, maybe it would offer you some insight and comfort that you’re not alone? For those of us who bear the scars of previous battles, this book isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel. Forget victory or even justice. Survival is the best we can hope for, and we already know every fucked-up thing we have to do to survive. The bad guy wins. Cheers!
Viable Threat by Julie Rowe: Special Forces bodyguard to a CDC microbiologist in the midst of a biological weapon attack by homegrown terrorists. Plenty of competence porn. (I originally had “and women in charge,” but I think other than the two female CDC doctors, the only other woman in the book who’s more than stage dressing is a brief appearance by one of the terrorists and it’s otherwise raining men.) The terrorism investigation and departmental infighting kept me reading. I knew who the secret bad guy was from his first appearance, which isn’t a bad thing. (One of three things can happen: I can be proven right, which is cool. I can be proven wrong in a surprising and exciting way, which is even cooler. Or I can be wrong for unsupported, handwavy reasons, which is a hot mess. Here, I was right, so it’s cool.)
On the other hand, the romance was… awkward. He had a lot of respect for her job, which was lovely, but every bit of dialogue between them that was supposed to be charming or sexy made me cringe, and the dude had hyperactive boner syndrome. After the fourth time she got blown up, he was treating her injuries and got a stiffy. When she was dying of juiced-up meningitis, he was obsessed with wanting her, and since there was no broader context provided than the word “want” (I want her… to meet my family, hold my hand through a movie, survive and spend the rest of her life with me), I could only go by past characterization and assume he wanted to put his dick in an unconscious woman with a fever of 105 and a bunch of sutures, which is disturbing, to say the least. Credulity is unavoidably strained automatically because of the two-day timeline of the majority of the book, but 362 pages is still plenty of real estate in which the standard romantic beats of relationship development can be deployed beyond “I want to bang her.”
The terrorists, when they finally showed up in person and alive (the first few located were dead), were ridiculous. Granted, radicalized frat boys are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier by design (cultish leaders actively dislike people with strong critical thinking skills and exclusively recruit idiots they can easily manipulate to be their stooges), but zealots with guns, bombs, and biological weapons should be all the more scary for their lack of ability to be reasoned with. These were just clownish. One after another, they allowed themselves to be taunted by insults to charge into a trap like it was an episode of Scooby Doo, which made it difficult to take the danger seriously.
The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore: It says “a novel” on the cover, but we’re going to have to disagree about that.
A busload of tourists comes across a fancy, mysterious hotel. The desk clerk says they can’t possibly leave until they’ve had a tour of this architectural masterpiece and historic landmark! Within the frame of this tour, residents/employees of the hotel relate the stories of their colorful pasts (and persuade a tourist or two to hang out with them just a little while longer).
I mentioned the last time I read an anthology that I’m not a big fan of short fiction because it’s usually over before I have adequate time to commit. The format of this book was actually worse for me because the length felt like a lie. The individual stories lack continuity (as collections tend to do, as opposed to novels) and drag out the framing, which is really another short story. I’m a poor judge of short fiction because I don’t like the format itself, but I keep trying in hopes somebody will blow my mind someday.
The only story I remember well is the former TV chef whose show got canceled, so his producer set him up with a combo cooking/ghost hunting show. I remember because why isn’t that on TV in real life? This would invigorate all reality TV. Say Yes to the Haunted Dress. My 90-Day Fiancé Is a Ghost. Naked and Afraid Because There are F*cking Demons Everywhere. Queer Eye for the Dead Guy. Get on the ball, networks.
The Vagrant by Peter Newman: A silent man, a singing sword, an adorable baby, and a noncompliant goat on a journey in a world fought over by warring demons after the human heroes have been vanquished.
It was an interesting world and exciting things happened, but most of it felt like optional side quests in a video game — if you skipped it entirely, you’d still be able to complete the main quest (and in 80% less time) as opposed to actions necessary to achieve the goal, stemming from what came before and leading to what comes next. I didn’t need all (or any) of the rescues of groups of people who play no part in the story. Dude’s doing his best to take care of a baby from page one — I get that he’s a savior without the random NPC rescues that served no other purpose.
SOCIAL JUSTICE ROGUE ALERT: Pretty much every woman with a speaking part gets killed, either on page or presumably in the distance. Female hero (in the warrior sense, not the protagonist): Dead. Female doctor: Dead. Female rebel grunt
and leader: Dead and presumed dead (turns out she survived, will wonders never cease). Female traveling merchant: Dead. And that’s just in the first third of the book (a longer list would be spoilery). A lot of men get killed, too, but there’s a greater volume of them and a large percentage walk away unscathed. Populating the world with women who aren’t sex objects is good. Slaughtering all of them is more hostile than excluding them in the first place. Statistical equality in fictional murder or GTFO.
Heart of Fire by Bec McMaster: A village in Iceland would rather hire a dragonslayer than give a sheep to the local dragon once a week (idiots and their tax aversion…), so the dragon takes matters into his own claws and snatches the only ram Freyja has, thereby screwing her future livelihood and consigning her and her father to starvation and death. Pissed off, she heads up the volcano to get either her ram or revenge. Unsurprisingly, the dragon didn’t snatch the ram to be his pet, so its safe return ain’t happening. Enchanted by Freyja’s feistiness, the dragon offers her some of his treasure as restitution for his dinner and lets her escape with her life in return for her promise to visit him. Sounds better than getting eaten, so she agrees. The dragon doesn’t have the patience to wait for her to show up, though, so he slips into his human skin and insinuates himself into her life, which embroils her in his murderous family conflict.
There’s a guy in this book I had to call Gaston. (I can’t get away from the B&B references, but I’m pretty sure I brought this one on myself.) Town bigshot who offers to pay the village weird girl for sex but won’t lower himself to marry her. The mastermind behind hiring the dragonslayer to kill the Beast he’s too cheap to pay the sheep tax to. Especially good at expectorating. (Okay, I made that one up, but I wouldn’t be surprised.)
I appreciate some of the attention to detail. (LOGIC!) For example, Freyja gets to take a handful of dragon treasure, but she can’t exactly walk into her village and make it rain gold coins without raising some suspicion, so she has to spend her loot elsewhere, where she’ll be less conspicuous.
The ending leaves too much unresolved, which is a trend I don’t appreciate in a lot of series. These two characters have too many responsibilities waiting to be addressed to get any sense of closure. (The morning after, I actually had a hard time remembering whether I’d finished. I remembered looking for what to read next. I remembered flipping through the back matter to 100% the marker. It took a while to remember how the book stopped, though.)
It’s clear Rurik’s going to have to get into a dragon war, and the dragons aren’t going to approve of Freyja, and… this is all going to get crammed into somebody else’s book, stealing space that should belong to THAT story, and I don’t want to go through that again because STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT SERIES EXECUTION.
STORY TIME! I knew a guy in high school who was so ludicrously hot, it was impossible to take his existence seriously. I was certainly not immune to his charms—tall, lean and hard-bodied, dark hair, soul-sucking dark eyes, sexy grownup voice, trench coat, he was in a band because of course he was—but I was incapable of treating that degree of transcendent teenage sex appeal as anything but a cosmic joke directed at ovaries everywhere. I had a study hall and a French class with him. He was a terrible student, but he was smart enough to figure out that if he rarely spoke and just gazed at girls with the penetrating stare of a serial killer, they’d think he was broody, mysterious, and dangerous and fall at his feet in worship. (I’ve had reason to hate and fear men from an early age, I am mercilessly suspicious of all of them, yet I will certify there was not an atom of menace anywhere in this boy’s body, which made this persona all the more laughable to me.) He desperately needed my help to get through that class so he could graduate, so he was nice to me despite our radically different positions on the coolness spectrum. He’d utter something in his bass rumble that spontaneously impregnated every womb in a 50-foot radius, and I’d just laugh, like “Okay, where’s the camera crew because this guy cannot seriously exist outside of a teen drama on MTV.”
He was genuinely baffled by my failure to respond to his bullshit as expected. He said to me once, “Nobody sees through me like you do, and I hate that about you.” I have never felt more powerful as a woman since that day. He’s also responsible for one of the kisses tied for first place on my Best Kiss Ever list—one was unexpected and sweet and made me float around on little birdie wings; his was hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhholy shit there should be a mandatory workshop teaching every man to do this. He was a phony and an unabashed manwhore (that kiss was sandwiched between two appointments with other girls, and I knew it at the time), but because he was so transparent to me and did me no harm, I wasn’t victimized or deceived about his nature in any way and actually have a special fond place in my heart for the memory of this guy.
I am therefore totally on board with promises of an over-the-top intense romantic hero, which brings us to the next book. (I always have a point, even if it takes me a while to get there.)
Spite Club by Julie Kriss: Evie gets a phone call from a strange man telling her that her boyfriend is currently in the act of fucking the stranger’s girlfriend and he’s going to go kick her boyfriend’s ass. She rushes over to the boyfriend’s apartment. The boyfriend is on the floor with a bloody nose. There’s a woman with her bare ass hanging out. And there’s Super Intense Stranger looking broody, mysterious, and dangerous.
Here’s another lesson in readers bringing a great deal to the story. ORDINARILY, this scenario would be a nonstarter for me. I’m not a fan of real-world violence, and it has never made sense to me to blame the person your significant other is fucking for the fact that your significant other betrayed you. (LOGIC FAIL!) I’m certainly not advocating punching his cheating girlfriend instead, but his feelings of disappointment should have been expressed solely toward the person who committed the act of treachery. The dude she committed it with had no relationship with him to betray, and it’s not that dude’s responsibility to do a background check to make sure his hookup isn’t cheating on somebody. HOWEVER, because this character reminds me of a completely implausible person from my own past, he might as well be a billionaire philanthropist time-traveling Viking angel werewolf vampire merman Navy SEAL rock star alien. Real-world standards no longer apply. Go ahead and tell me a fairy tale with unjustified violence because this guy makes everything he touches unreal, but I absolutely understand if others can’t get on board with the punching. Under any other circumstances, I’d be right there with ya.
Nick (the puncher) takes Evie out for a sandwich after the punching, invites her to the boxing gym if she feels like hitting something, tells her to fuck somebody else to get her ex out of her system, and then goes home to take care of the yappy little dog his now-ex dumped on him. He doesn’t really want anything more to do with Evie because she’s a Nice Girl™ and he’s an Asshole Who Doesn’t Do Feelings™.
We all know how that goes.
She takes him up on his offer to teach her to throw a punch. Then they go to a party and pretend to be a couple so her ex gets over the idea she’s pining for him. Then she tries to take his advice to get laid but the singles scene is grim, and he has to rescue her from the local meat market, which leads to all-night banging because he likes her, dammit.
Nick tries really hard to come across as an asshole because it absolves him of responsibility, which he doesn’t want because he’s accustomed to being the family fuckup, but he’s harmless and has a decent heart. Evie tries really hard to be a Nice Girl™ because when she was “bad” in her younger years, it was for shitty reasons rather than fun and now she’s trying to have some self-respect, but the role is chafing and she’s screaming to get out of it and actually enjoy her life a little. THEY’RE GOOD KIDS. I LIKE THEM AND HOPE THEY FLOURISH.
Just for kicks: 3, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4