Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

I’ve been slowly working my way through a pile of middle-grade and lower YA literature, all of which have held a special place in my heart at some point in time. Richard Peck, E. Nesbit, Louis Sachar, Madeline L’Engle–these were the authors I grew up with, and even just a glimpse at the covers of these books bring back fuzzy, happy memories, even though I have close to no recollection about their actual contents. Reading these older books feels akin to taking a deep dive through my elementary school brain; this is how I came to pick up O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins.

It feels a little presumptuous to write a review for this cherished children’s classic, which sports a gold Newberry Medal on the cover and was named one of the ten best American children’s books by the Children’s Literature Association in 1976. Island of the Blue Dolphins has more than 260,000 ratings on Goodreads–what else is there to say? Well, here goes nothing.

If you are the type to enjoy a good wilderness survival story, this is the book for you. Similar to Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, readers watch as the MC makes a life for herself in a deserted area–though in this book, the solitude is more forced upon the MC than the plucky MC from George’s series.

The straightforward, first POV prose matches the contents of the book and the MC’s character; this is a book where you feel that the MC is narrating, rather than that we are peering through her eyes, but that’s not a bad thing. To me, this writing style did make the book feel slightly old-fashioned, but just in a “this is different” way, rather than a dated way. Entire seasons pass in a sentence or two; just as the MC stops counting the years she’s been alone, so does O’Dell coax the reader to do the same, leading you to truly feel how solitary her situation is. By the time the book ends, I really wasn’t sure how old the MC was. Twenty? Thirty? Hard to say, and it doesn’t really matter, since the most memorable sections of the book are about individual moments. Befriending an otter. Fighting off wild dogs. These detached scenes from the MC’s years on the island are the true meat of the book.

This being said, I do still wish that the first POV was a tad “closer.” There were a few quick comments from the MC that caught me off guard, simply because it would have been nice to experience the scenes she described, rather than being quickly told about them. The one that I noticed most was a throwaway description when the MC is wrangling with the devilfish.

[His eyes] were the size of small stones and stood out from his head, with black rims and gold centers and in the centers a black spot, like the eyes of a spirit I had once seen on a night that rain fell and lightning forked in the sky.

The description of the spirit is so specific that you can’t help but wonder why we weren’t allowed to experience the scene with the spirit as it happened to the MC, rather than having to be told about it after the fact. How long ago did she see the spirit? What was it doing? Surely whatever she saw is just as relevant to her experience on the island as her going through the arduous, dangerous process of making food and securing shelter.

Yet these are small gripes only. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a book that has stood the test of time, and I recommend it for anyone looking to take a quick and easy mind-getaway to another time and place.

The Dream Gatherer by Kristen Britain

This little book of two short stories and one novella set in the Green Rider universe was a decent way to stem the sadness of knowing that the next Green Rider book is still probably years away. I do hope that Britain didn’t push off working on the next book too much in an effort to get this one out the door!

If I had to find a common thread between the different pieces in The Dream Gatherer, it would probably be “rambling.” It’s great to meet some new characters and revisit some older ones (especially the Berry sisters!), but many of the plot points somehow didn’t feel rooted to anything. This is especially apparent in the novella, where the various scenes feel more like snippets to allow us to view the characters doing interesting or funny things, rather than a cohesive story arc. Why the inclusion of the pirate? He hardly seems to add anything to the story, so I’m left wondering why he’s there at all. Perhaps he’s a character I’ve forgotten–it’s been a while since I’ve read a Green Rider book, after all.

The book also had a surprisingly New Agey feel; there is a lot of talk of healing and taking your time to work through things. These sorts of topics normally aren’t my cup of tea–I’m more the action or intrigue sort–but I guess this focus does make sense, especially after the hyper-violence of the last book in the series.

One last thing to note is that the stories are interspersed with many of Britain’s illustrations–a very nice, personal touch. If you are a diehard Green Rider fan, pick this up. If not, I imagine that you won’t need the novella for extra context when the next book in the series finally drops. And if somehow you’re at the end of this review and have never read any of the series at all, well, what the hell are you waiting for? It’s the fantasy series you never knew you needed.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Every once in a while you come across a book that’s drenched in magic. This isn’t a book that approximates a fairy tale, but rather is one, spun to the reader in beautiful, purposeful, poetic language. It’s a hypnotizing and comfortable book perfect for a wintertime read; nothing about the story, whether plot or characterization or sentence craft, gets in the way. Instead, every word invites you to read on, until you turn the last page and wonder how soon you can pick up the sequel.

I loved the large cast, and I admire the author’s ability to make the overall arc a standalone, yet include all sorts of juicy possibilities for book two. The way Arden’s characters interact with magic, too, is fantastic; I was living for the later scenes when Vasilisa has one foot in reality and the other in an unknowable place beyond our world. Here’s hoping there’s much more of this in books to come.

Something I do want to mention is that this book didn’t feel much like YA to me, but rather like a fantasy book that happened to have a young adult main character. This was especially true in the first half of the book, when point-of-view sections featuring Vasilisa are often few and far between. I found myself wondering if Arden’s publisher decided to market it as YA, because, let’s face it, YA sells; I’m sure most of us in the YA sphere can think of a few books that fall into this category. I don’t know what Arden has in mind for this series in terms of length, but I could see this heading in a Green Rider direction beyond the scope of a trilogy, where we see Vasilisa grow and mature throughout the years into a woman in her own right.

So here’s another fantasy series where I’m going to need to read the second book. Add it to the stack; somehow I have such a difficult time continuing series, even if they were excellent. Yet even if it takes me a while to get to book two, know that this book is fantastic and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

2018 Reading Wrap-Up and 2019 Bookish Goals

January 1st–that singular day of the year for goals, resolutions, and bookish people pretending to be statisticians. I can’t pretend I don’t like all these stats, even though I honestly think the breakdowns won’t have much of an effect on my reading habits for the coming year. I mean, reading’s hard work, right? Way harder than bingeing a Netflix show, at least. So I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment pulling together all this data and making lists of my bests, worsts, and everything in between.

Let’s start with how many books I read in 2018. On Goodreads this year I set my goal at fifty books. I ended up officially reading thirty-seven, but I would adjust this up a bit, based on the fact that I completed two beta reads and read my own forthcoming book, Specter, about four or five times all the way through. Yet even if you don’t count these last two points as being part of the final tally, I’m still happy with thirty-seven, to be honest. Listen, I have a full-time job, a husband, a dog, a demanding hobby, a social life… So working reading into the day is hard sometimes, even though it’s super fun, too. I’m satisfied with thirty-seven–think it’s really good, even. That’s not just me trying to pat myself on the back, I promise.

Now on to the graphs and statistics. Here was the audience breakdown for the books I read. (Based on my own personal judgment.)

Clearly YA is a dominating force in my reading habits–is that really a surprise to anyone? I try to stay decently up-to-date on what’s happening in the field, especially in any works that seem somewhat related to things I like to write about. I also just like YA books–they’re the comfiest read for me, no matter what that says about me as a woman in her late twenties. I imagine this will stay pretty consistent in 2019.

Adult books predictably come in second place. I also read two middle-grade books this year (The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Red Scarf Girl), as well as two short story anthologies. As for the “indeterminate” category? I honestly couldn’t pick where Something Wicked This Way Comes should fall, so I decided it should just be required reading for everybody, no matter how old you are.

First of all, sorry that the numbers floating around the chart up top are a little off-center from their categories. Not sure how to fix that.

All right, so looking at the chart itself, I’m really happy with this breakdown. I definitely read widely this year in terms of genre. Mystery dominates, but it’s such a catch-all category that I feel that was almost inevitable. The amount of fantasy I read was way down this year, but that was a purposeful decision on my part, since for the better portion of a year I was gearing up for the querying process and searching for Specter comps. There was no sci-fi this year (!) but I lumped Scythe into speculative, so make of that whatever you’d like. As for “N/A,” that’s where I stuck the short story anthologies. I’d be quite happy to see this kind of a spread in next year’s statistics.

Next up is star rating. What strikes me right off the bat is the low amount of one- and two-star books; when you do the math, my average star rating is 3.7. I don’t think this is because of inflation on my part, but really just picking good books. Yes, I read with a very critical eye, but honestly, most of what I read this year was decent to excellent. (Though those occasionally terrible reads really stick in your head, let me tell ya.) For this category, I don’t see much point in wanting there to be a spread; here’s hoping the whole chart is five star books next year.

That’s the end of the charts. Looking at my reading as a whole, a couple things that jump out at me is the amount of short stories I read this year (only two anthologies, but that’s up from zero last year) and all the vampire books–four, more than 10% of my official book count. I do think both of these trends will continue next year, since 1) I think there’s a lot of value in reading short stories in terms of quick craft study, and 2) I have to finish the Twilight series and Charlaine Harris is a fucking amazing author.

Now on to the awards section of the show.

Favorite New Author: Maureen Johnson

Reading Truly Devious this year was like slipping into a warm bubble bath. Maureen’s writing has just the right amount of quirky and details and boarding schools. How much more effusive do I need to get? I read three books by Johnson in short order, and look forward to making my way through her entire back catalog in the years to come.

And The Vanishing Stair is coming out in twenty-two days. Be still my heart.

Favorite Re-Read: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Like I said above, this book should be required reading for everybody. What the hell is this book, anyway? Surreal, horror-tinged literary fiction that’s equal fun for all ages. Whatever it is, it’s good reads, and you should pick it up come October.

Biggest Surprise: Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

I really thought I might hate this book. A whole book about Chaol? Seriously, SJM?

But this book was a thoroughly enjoyable read that came across as something Maas had had marinating in the back of her mind for quite a while. The editing was tighter than books past (even though it weighed in at a whopping 672 pages, my longest book of the year). It’s not my favorite in the series, and it’s not a five-star book, but give it a chance. I think it will surprise you.

Biggest Disappointment: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

I’ve already done my griping about this book, so I’m going to move on quickly. Just let it be known that I don’t recommend this book to anybody, for any reason.

Oh, can I have a runner-up to this category? I’d like to nominate the movie adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. (I can do that since I make the rules around here.) That book was pure gold, but the film was absolute trash. I was so. goddamn. disappointed. Sorry, Tom Cruise, but you’re an awful vampire.

Top Three of 2018

3. One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I already waxed rhapsodic about this book in My Top Ten TBR Picks for 2019. I loved it. It was awesome. Two Can Keep a Secret comes out in LITTLE MORE THAN A WEEK.

Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!

2. Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

You guys probably get it by now. Maureen Johnson is amazing. Moving on.

1. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Not even kidding that as I write this post and listen to my Spotify 2018 wrap-up that Vampire Again by Marlon Williams started playing. Yes, even Spotify knows that 2018 really was The Year of the Vampire, and everything fang-related I read was four- or five-stars.

I remember reading this book, then texting my sister. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: Have you read any of the Sookie Stackhouse books? Like goddamn, the  first one is fucking amazing!!!!!!!

Her: Yes, Katie, I’ve read them. -_- I’m actually waiting on reading the last one because I don’t want the series to end. You are late to the party. Like, really fucking late.

So I’ll be reading more of these soon. It was really that good. I was reading my favorite bits aloud to my husband. Ugh, just the best.

2018 DNFs

This is the downer portion of the KJG Incorporated awards show. Bring forth the disclaimer: it’s not that I don’t like these books. The timing just wasn’t right; any book lover will understand. My goal is truly to finish these books, in part because the blog post title “F’ing the DNFs” is just too good to pass up. It’s coming, I promise. But as of right now, these books got abandoned halfway through.

  1. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. Abandoned because I switched from researching my next book to putting finishing edits on Specter.
  2. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Abandoned for the same reason as above.
  3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Abandoned because it’s hella long! And reading classic works like this requires a bit more effort.
  4. Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard. Abandoned because I’m just not that into it. This is the one out of the bunch that might get truly DNF’d.
  5. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson. Abandoned because I just wasn’t in the right head space to read this.
  6. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. Abandoned for similar reasons to #3. Hard sci-fi is difficult to read!

2019 Bookish Goals

Last but not least, let’s set some New Year’s resolutions. I truly love goal-setting; even if I don’t strictly stick to the goals, the very act of thinking about my future goals is motivating to me. I’m going to make these goals both reading- and writing-related.

  1. Read forty-five books. I’ll keep this goal a bit lower this year, given my end of year totals for 2018.
  2. Read more middle-grade and non-fiction, in the pursuit of stretching myself.
  3. Continue to read short stories. I received an anthology of “weird” short stories for Christmas that is calling my name… even though it’s more than a thousand pages.
  4. Write some sort of Specter teaser short story thing.
  5. Finish drafting my third book by the end of July. This will be a difficult one; I have the sense that this upcoming book is going to be a lot of work.
  6. Finish editing my third book by the end of November.

And that’s it for the wrap-up! If you’re still reading at the end of this post, then I love you, thank you, etc. Seriously. I appreciate anyone who finds my little corner of the Internet a pleasant place to hang out.

Happy New Year, everybody. ❤

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Well, here’s my personal answer to the question anyone reading a Bird Box book review right now will be seeking: Yes, it’s a great book. Yes, you should read it before watching the Netflix original. And after you do read it, maybe consider not even bothering with the flick at all. I finished the book, then immediately (and I mean immediately) turned on Netflix and watched the movie, so I feel in a unique position to compare the two. Essentially, the movie is a piss-poor adaption of the book–the sort of nondescript two hours that makes you wonder if Netflix got so excited about throwing money at Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich that they forgot to hire a decent screenwriter.

But back to the book. Harrowing is a word that comes to mind, especially in a few of the later chapters. I’m not going to give anything away, but there were a few moments when I was a bit worried about having to watch those scenes in visual form. (Worries that proved unfounded, as it turns out. Again, the movie kind of sucks.)

As can be expected from your standard stuck-in-a-house-with-baddies-outside plot, it is all about character interactions, à la The Mist, à la ninety percent of zombie movies, à la et cetera et cetera et cetera. You’ve seen this before, but there are nice inclusions that set it apart from the rest: chiefly the MC’s pregnancy and the Lovecraftian elements. For a book that relies so much on character relationships, I do wish we had gotten to know the other characters in the book better. Cheryl, Felix, and a few of the others blend together; even by the end of the book, I felt like I knew hardly anything about them.

Yet those later chapters make up for all of that. The scene in the attic, especially, is pretty unforgettable–the sort of scene that makes you wince and speed-read at the same time. I won’t say that this book is groundbreaking, but it accomplishes what it set out to do–to thrill, to shock, and, at a very basic level, to make us appreciate the wonder that is sight.

You Belong to Me by Johanna Lindsey

I’m going to keep this relatively short, since those who read my recent post about romance will know that I didn’t enjoy the initial hundred or so pages of this book. You Belong to Me came to me as a recommendation from a friend; I’d told her I was trying to get into the romance genre but that I didn’t know where to start. And even though this book did not improve in the latter portion, it did spark a foray into a whole slew of other romance novels. I’m definitely not writing off the genre as a whole, but suffice it to say that Lindsey’s writing is not for me.

Again, I already wrote a bit before about my initial impression in terms of the wordsmithing of the book–those opinions have not changed. The one new thing I’ll add is regarding the book’s conclusion, so spoilers lie directly ahead.

Ready?

Do you know the principle called Chekhov’s gun? Essentially, everything in a story should matter. Don’t leave a gun on the table and have your audience on tenterhooks wondering who’s going to get shot, then provide no payoff.

That’s a little bit how I felt at the end of the book, knowing that the MC hadn’t found out her father’s lie. And for those of you who haven’t read the book, this lie is a real doozy: her father invents a betrothal, essentially saddling his daughter to the swaggering, womanizing love interest. Of course they learn to love each other in the end, but still, we need closure on this lie. Even the MC’s brand-new husband finds out… but doesn’t bother sharing with the MC. So to me, this reads as a broken promise to the reader, similar to Chekhov’s gun. If there’s a lie forming the backbone of your plot, the dirty details and resulting fallout had better surface at the end of the book. It made the ending unsatisfying, since I’d been anticipating the MC’s tirade once she discovered her father’s misdeed for four hundred pages.

My first dive into romance wasn’t the greatest, but I’m hopeful the next time will be better. I’ve been thinking about those Deveraux books–they seemed legitimately promising. And Three Nights of Sin by Anne Mallory read like a dream, though I wasn’t looking for a smutty read. One of my reading goals for 2019 is to find great romance. I’ll keep you guys updated on the journey, whether it’s smooth sailing or a bit bumpy.

My Top Ten TBR Picks for 2019

It’s the time of the year for lists: bests, worsts, hopes, fears, aspirations. Before I do some tidying up here in KJG Incorporated and sort through everything I read in 2018 for trends and analysis, I thought I’d have some fun and make a top ten TBR list for 2019. My goal is to read more than ten books, of course–I’m thinking of setting my sights on forty-five–but here are the ones I really want to get to in 2019, in no particular order.

33590260

I’ve been with this series a loooooong time–since years before it was published, in fact. Back when I was in middle school, Maas was posting chapters that would eventually spawn the massive Throne of Glass series on FictionPress. I loved Maas’s writing back then, and I love it now, even though I (surprise, surprise) do have some critiques of her work. I even still have reams of chapters that I printed out back in the day and saved, always with the fear that Maas’s sprawling story would disappear from the Internet, never to be seen again. It’s really cool to read those rough draft chapters and see the changes and edits that became the massive YA series so many people love.

So I’ve sort of been putting off reading this last book, with the knowledge that it is the period at the end of one of my very favorite fantasy series. But I will get to it in 2019, probably sooner rather than later.

35068705

This book has gotten crazy praise from one of my favorite reviewers, Emily Fox, and I’m ready to bite, especially since I’ll be looking for some new fantasy after Throne of Glass winds up. Add in the Chinese-inspired setting and I’m hooked. Very much looking forward to this book.

32620332

This is another Emily Fox recommendation, and it’s been staring down at me from my TBR shelf for months. Why does that happen, by the way? Everything on my TBR shelf always looks so appealing, and yet… so many of the books end up sitting there for far too long. (I’m looking at you, Invasion of the Tearling.)

Anyway, this book is definitely out of my comfort zone, since I’m strictly a genre fiction kind of girl, but I do think I’ll end up enjoying it.

18361137

The South African duo S.L. Grey is my horror spirit animal. Yeah, Stephen King will always be a favorite of mine, and his son Joe Hill ain’t too bad either, but S.L. Grey really takes the cake. I devoured the first book of theirs I read, The Apartment, and then… then… I read The Mall.

Here was the horror book I had always hoped and dreamed for. A fantastical, creepy, no-holds-barred alternative reality set in a mall, à la Silent Hill 3, which I wanted so badly to play as a kid. It was funny and well-written, with excellent world-building, and the main characters were so thoroughly detestable that I was grinning all the way through as they did their best to navigate an entire horror society. The New Girl is the third in the series, and I am just. so. excited to finally read this book.

21416716

Here’s another one by S.L Grey. As far as I’m aware it’s unrelated to their Downside trilogy, but come on… The cover is a picture of an elevator’s down button. So here’s hoping it’s a lot like the Downside trilogy, but honestly, whatever this book is about, I’m sure it will be excellent.

97967

I saw comparisons of this book to Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series, which pretty much placed it instantly at the top of my TBR. Britain’s Green Rider series was a recommendation from my sister that I ignored for too long. Then when I did read the first book, I loooooved it and devoured the books, and now I’m out. Familiar story, right? So maybe this book can plug that hole. Maybe. Hopefully.

Sob…

29589079

If S.L. Grey is my horror spirit animal, then Maureen Johnson is the same for me in terms of YA. I discovered her this year as I tore through the stupendous Truly Devious, and I love her. That’s all there is to it. Her main characters are all sort of samey, but listen, more of excellent is still excellent. I’ll be buying this book the day it comes out, guaranteed.

36535913

This is Herman’s debut, and I couldn’t be more excited. A YA book with a Stranger Things comp? Why I too have a YA book with a Stranger Things comp! And it has a rural setting, which my next book will also have… I just have this gut feeling that this book and I are going to get along splendidly.

38225791

I read One of Us Is Lying because I was thinking it might be a fitting comp title for Specter. I have fond memories of having a snow day off from work and holing up in the little cafe two minutes from my house, tearing through One of Us Is Lying. The characters were great–especially Addy–and the suspense was killer.

So count me in on McManus’s next book. If it’s anything like her first, I’ll be done with it in twenty-four hours.

27160570

I have such awesome memories of reading the first of this series. It was romantic, the world-building was unique, the emphasis on religious ritual was welcome (this so often gets overlooked in fantasy), and honestly, I just loved it. So I’ve been very excited to read the second in this series–the first one left off with quite the cliff-hanger, if I recall correctly.

Loveless in Connecticut: One Girl’s Quest for Good Romance Writing

As a rule, I don’t read romance. The closest I get is your standard slow burn secondary plot device, and, of course, the dreaded, unwanted YA love triangle. I do have vague memories of reading a few Harlequin Teen books when I was a young teenager, as well as flipping through a lengthy romance novel set in Hawaii on a quest to root out the sex scenes, but all that was more than fifteen years ago. Yet here’s the thing: romance sells like hot cakes, my closest writer friends all write romance, and I just want to know what the fuss is about. Some of my favorite books have strong romantic threads, so surely if I dive into the genre, I can find something for me–right?

I asked a friend for recommendations, and she lent me a couple books by Johanna Lindsey. I started off with You Belong to Me, because it has a snowy estate on the cover and we’re close to Christmas-time right now.

301826._SY180_

Yup, that was my legitimate thought process. Yet I’m on page 173, and the book just feels so dated. We’re POV switching, and the third POV isn’t at all close–a major pet peeve of mine. There’s loads of telling and not enough showing, and for a book with lusty counts and kings and betrothals, these characters feel utterly modern.

Anna’s eyes flared. She could have hit him at that moment, something she would never in her life have considered doing–until now. “Dammit, Constantin, get to the heart of it before you drive me mad!”

So here’s what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll finish the Johanna Lindsey book, maybe not, but I want to try an experiment. I found an article purporting to list the ten best romance novels, and I’m going to take a peek through the first page or two of each of them on Amazon, just like an agent would skim through the query sludge for that golden nugget. Yet there’s a bit more at stake here than having to force my way through some potentially cringey first pages. As per my husband’s excellent suggestion, I’ve decided to read the entire text of one of the best and one of the worst, as a way to give a couple of these books a truly fair shake and gain a better understanding of the juggernaut that is the romance genre.

Here’s my Christmas romance wishlist:

  1. First POV or close third
  2. Show, don’t tell
  3. Just a touch of corny–legitimately witty repartee that is situationally appropriate is very much preferred
  4. If it’s a period piece, the writing and dialogue need to fit the setting. (Not looking for thees and thous necessarily, but definitely don’t want the characters to feel like they’re time travelers from 1995.)

So, prepare for a lengthy post. And here… we… go.

1. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

13728-1

Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she’d planned on taking to her sister’s wedding and thought, Those days are gone.

So we start off in the very first sentence of the book by breaking Rule #1–not pleased. The MC’s inner thoughts are alarmingly reminiscent of the I Dreamed a Dream lyrics from Les Misérables. Two paragraphs later we hear how “Min” wants to shove a swizzle stick through the handsome man’s heart–corny. I’m going to move along.

2. This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

13729-1

  • Is the author’s advance funded by brand deals? There are more brands in the first 250 words than in a Haruki Murakami novel: Ferrari, Lexus, Comme de Garçons, Prada, Volkswagon.
  • Chicago’s football team is now called the Stars?? What is happening…?

“Oh, you pesky quarterback,” she muttered under her breath. “Someone needs to castrate you.”

Oh, isn’t joking about genital mutilation just hilarious and so, so romantical? On to the next.

3. Gallaghers of Ardmore Trilogy by Nora Roberts

13730-1

I’m going to focus only on Jewels of the Sun here. Going to be honest–I have really high expectations, not only because this is Nora Freaking Roberts, who makes a bazillion dollars a year so she must be decent, but also because I’m a Gallagher, so I’ll be disappointed if this sucks.

… time passes …

All right, so she is definitely a better writer than the last two. The writing style doesn’t really appeal to me–too much internal thought, not enough initial action. We start the scene in the character’s head as she psychoanalyzes herself; truly it feels like the reader is floating in space as the character thinks, since there is no scene or action being described. But I can see why people would like this… It’s just not pulling me in.

4. A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

13731-1

This one is starting off strong! The third POV still isn’t close enough for my taste, but it is more thoughtfully done compared to some of the other books here. The author has a good voice, the details are interesting and fitting, and I’m even intrigued by the prologue, which was mercifully short, as a prologue should be. I read the four pages allowed me by Amazon before the preview text skips ahead. This might be an author to come back to.

Hurrah!

5.  Nine Rules To Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean

13733-1

Awesome title. I really hope this one is good.

Some nice historical details here that feel fitting. I had to look up “cheroot,” and I’m still not 100% sure what the author means by “ton“–the stylish, aristocratic crowd the MC hangs out with, I’m assuming by the context.

“I never should have allowed my mother to pour me into this monstrosity,” she muttered to herself, looking down at the gown in question, at its too-tight waistline and its too-small bodice, unable to contain her breasts, which were a good deal larger than fashion dictated.

No issue with the focus on the boobage–I’m just not buying the dialogue. Nobody would talk to themselves like that aloud, even young English women in 1813. The third POV isn’t close enough. (My, how that’s becoming an oft-repeated refrain ’round these parts.) Moving on, regrettably.

6. The Duchess by Jude Deveraux

13732-1

Excited for this one, based on the other Deveraux book above.

Okay, this author once again really seems to know what she is doing! There is some POV switching, which is always alarming to me, but at least it seems to be kept to a minimum. I wonder if that will change when the main love interest is introduced. I may be picking up this book or the other at the end of this experiment for a full read-through.

7. Whitehorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

13734-1

Interested to see the tone of this book, since the article I’m getting these book recommendations from mentioned that this is technically not romance.

And… having now read about eight pages and then the blurb, this does really seem to be more literary fiction. Maybe it sorta qualifies as romance according to the woman who put together the list, but it’s not what I set out to read in the interests of this experiment, so on to number eight.

8. Three Nights of Sin by Anne Mallory

13735-1

Look at that bodice-ripper cover. And still, still my husband was astonished when he first learned that much of romance is porn in book form.

Oh. Oh, finally. Here’s an author who knows how to write, who has a contemporary voice that still fits the early 1800s setting. Third POV is close and done artfully. There’s a style here, but it’s not so heavy that it takes away from us moving forward. I’d say the voice will feel very familiar to those who enjoy YA fantasy. The dialogue feels anchored and real…

His head tipped. “Surely Rookwood explained how I work. I rarely accept charity cases from members of the ton.”

Again, what is this “ton” thing? I have to say I did not expect I’d be encountering so much new vocabulary in this experiment!

Anyway, I’ll go ahead and put Anne Mallory squarely on my TBR list. At last, here’s a voice that seems like it won’t quash the romantic elements.

9. Caressa’s Knees by Annabel Joseph

13736-1

Not the sexiest title I’ve ever heard. Knees? Also Caressa is such a strange name. I’m squinting at my computer right now, imagining someone with a caressing-the-knee fetish… That can’t possibly be what this is about–can it? Or, perhaps, about someone who spends a lot of time on their knees, in the pursuit of sexual pleasures?

Okay, let’s get to it. We start in media res, which is generally preferable to me than internal monologue. Aside from the Binchy non-romance up above and the brief prologue in the first Deveraux book, this is the only one of the bunch so far that has started with a male MC–interesting! The author has a good voice, and the characters featured in the first couple pages feel solidly real. I’m not connecting with the novel yet, but that’s a me thing, not a Caressa’s Knees thing. Still intrigued to know what the deal is with the title, but it’s not enough to grab me–I’m going to skip to #10.

10. Wild Card by Lora Leigh

13737-1

I did end up reading the blurb before jumping in, and the premise of the book sounds unique.

And we’re starting with another male MC! The opening tone is very interesting–almost middle-grade, which does fit with the MC’s age. I assume we’re going to flash forward in time once we’re out of the prologue.

Oh my goodness, we have a second prologue. Bold move–I thought only Brandon Sanderson was allowed to do that. The tone of this book is really nice–that playful, semi-corny romance tone but nothing over-the-top. The combination of the premise and the voice might make me pick this one back up later.


And we’re done. Now comes the tough part. As promised above, I will read two books on this list: the one I least connected with and the one I most want to read. Hopefully, this will assuage the ire of anyone who assumes I wrote this post merely to shit on romance. I am really trying, people–I just honestly think I haven’t found my romance peeps yet.

My best pick: The Duchess by Jude Deveraux.

13732-1

I loved the tone and pacing of the opening few pages. I’ve thought about this book off and on in the few days I’ve been writing this post. There was a tiny bit of head-hopping, but maybe that’s just a no-no specific to the genres I’m familiar with that doesn’t apply to romance. I’ll be anticipating reading this book.

My most unwilling pick: This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

13729-1

I mean, how bad can it possibly be? Look at that cover–it radiates romance, so maybe I just need to lose my Grinch-like attitude. I’ll make sure to give a final critique.

I’m glad that I conducted this experiment. Reading the opening couple paragraphs or pages of a book and writing up a blog post about my opinions might seem harsh, but aside from the cover, isn’t that how most of us judge books when we pick them up in the bookstore? Those opening pages are key–as an author, that’s your chance to woo your audience, so you’d better make ’em count.

Anyway, I’ll keep you guys updated on my romance genre forays. Stay tuned for some end-of-the-year lists, and have a very merry Christmas, everybody.

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang

“Life is stranger than fiction.” Reading this unassuming-looking middle-grade book from 1999 really displays the truth of that statement. The Hunger GamesDivergent–none of these modern popular dystopian works come even close to the impact of Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl. As Ji-li takes us through her life during the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, the fabric of Chinese society crumbles day by day. Heartbreak and destruction are constant, as homes are ransacked, the elderly are beaten in the streets, and children are coerced into denouncing their parents, all in the name of a poisonous left-wing ideology.

The parallels to the political issues the modern world faces are undeniable and scary. The struggle sessions, where the ideologically possessed pile insults and accusations on supposed counterrevolutionaries, are just a few ticks up from a Twitter mob. Readers watch on as poor Ji-li struggles to come to terms with her grandfather’s class status as a landlord, whom she never even met. Yet his status has left a black mark on her family background, meaning that Ji-li has unrenounceable privilege which haunts her at every turn. Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

This is not a book with lush descriptions; it reads as a bit older, though not dated, and the verbiage is very straightforward. Though the language used is pretty plain, I remember reading this book as a kid and not really getting it. Why was Ji-li being pressured to write ugly lies about her teachers and post them around the school? Why were the grown-ups always holding whispered meetings in the bathroom? If you read this book when you were younger, please give it another go, since I suspect hefty chunks of it will fly over the heads of the target audience. Read as an adult, the message of Ji-li’s memoir is impossible to miss: this is what happens when a government endorses equity and social justice, then elects extreme measures to achieve those impossible goals.

Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace

This book was a pleasure to read. The opening was especially strong–the author sets the tone and genre straightaway. I loved the sensory details that she picked; this is a book that feels visceral. The action is happening in the moment, without needing to rely on the crutch of a present tense POV.

I will say that the middle started to lag for me as more characters were introduced. It’s pretty apparent that the author intended for this book to be a classic “standalone with series potential.” Rain, Zeke, Jake,  the brownie in the basement–all these characters are interesting, but don’t feel like they necessarily matter to the story. They float through the book, saying witty things and allowing us more details into Wallace’s world-building, but it feels like the real reason they’re present is so that they can be part of book two. More involvement of these characters in the plot would ground them a bit more. Wouldn’t you like to see Zeke and Jake eat their gory dinner at last? Wouldn’t you like to know how Rain’s children actually turn out? It all comes across as seeded details and characters for book two–and according to Wallace’s Goodreads page, book two will unfortunately not be dropping.

Another thing that could use some small tightening up is the use of memory in the book. Don’t get me wrong–I really appreciate the blurriness of the MC’s memories, but I don’t enjoy that we only find out about what really happened to her (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) at the end of the book. It feels tacked on, since the main action of the book has already concluded. And from a realistic standpoint of how humans interact with memories, the MC would have thought about these difficult memories prior to the point where they’re revealed to the reader. I always want to be as close to the MC as possible, and keeping this information from the reader feels like manipulation by the author.

One last thing. Are normal American names allowed for YA main characters anymore? Breezy is a cool name and all, but I feel like there is some sort of unspoken taboo of using “ordinary” names. Anyone else noticing that?

These little quibbles aside, I really enjoyed Shallow Graves. The description of the author’s other YA book didn’t really snag me, but I’ll be excited to read future books by the author.