Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

C’est finis.

Apologies for not updating last week, I fell a little behind but by god I did it. I read Les Miserables in one month and can now put it away as soon as this review is written.

The Good:

I love Jean Valjean and the Bishop and the friends of the A B C (though we barely see them) (also RIP) and Cosette(ish) and Gavroche. The writing is beautiful. Many of the characters are compelling. There are many salient points made that strike a chord over two hundred years later. I’m genuinely glad I read it and it will be in my thoughts for some time. I felt almost sad when I finished it simply because it’s been something I did every day for a whole month and feel a weird kind of bond with it now. Call it appreciating literature or call it stockholm syndrome, some combination of the both is probably apt.

The Not So Good:

Oh Victor. Victor Victor Victor. In all my years of reading I have never yelled at an author like this. I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you. You showed promise in how you wrote Fantine and then Cosette came and the ball has never been dropped harder.

Cosette essentially has no voice until after she marries Marius and even then it’s to note that she is being excluded. The relationship between her and Marius is bad from literally its first moment when he identifies her as a child and then suddenly becomes obsessed with her and literally stalks her. Victor does a lot of hand waving with that relationship telling us “they’re in love because that’s how it is for youths.” When I was ranting to my fiance about my disappointment in the relationship that is regarded as The Love Story in the novel, he suggested it may have been intentional to make a point about love being silly but I don’t think that’s it. I have not read any biographies of Victor Hugo so please don’t come for me if there’s some Vast Tragic Context but I just don’t think he understands romance or relationships. I am not expecting this to be a romance novel by any means but if you are going to write in a couple and declare that they are In Love… that’s just not enough. I need them to speak to each other first. I need them to consent to meeting. I need them to not make practically every single choice Marius makes. And while we’ve got Marius here…

Marius Pontmercy is one of my least favorite literary characters of all time. The few times he grows a spine it’s to support the most ridiculous and self-righteous standards he inherited from a man he never met based on stories from another man he only met by chance. He “adores” Cosette but he also lies to her until he makes the judgment that Valjean is worthy of associating with. He goes to the Cafe Musain once, spouts bullshit and has his ass handed to him and then doesn’t return until he decides to use the revolution as a convenient tool to die by suicide. I will never forgive him for parting Cosette and Jean Valjean and in short he is dead to me.

Final Thoughts:

This book was both better than and as bad as I anticipated. I’d heard about the meandering and the sewers. I wish he’d swapped some ancient history of sites for more interactions with the Friends of the A B C who are grievously underutilized. I wish Cosette had been given more of a voice. I wish he hadn’t slapped in a dash of the ol’ antisemitism near the end. I wish many things but I was also surprised by how much the book did move me. I got teary towards the end as Valjean was dying and I was genuinely sad when Gavroche died and my heart ached when he was taking care of his (unbeknownst to him) little brothers. I’m glad that I read it.

I have a bit of a book hangover but next up for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge I’ll be reading Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts and I’m still working my way through A Daring Arrangement by Joanna Shupe for the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. See you next week!

Review: The Obsession by Nora Roberts

The Obsession was my first Nora Roberts read and while it’s not going to be my last, I have complicated feelings with this one. But first – synopsis time!

“Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous. No matter how close she gets to happiness, she can’t outrun the sins of Thomas David Bowes.

Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, a rambling old house in need of repair, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the kindly residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.

Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But the sins of her father can become an obsession, and, as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away. “

The first thing that struck me about this book is how beautifully Roberts writes. The imagery was vivid and the characters had unique voices and I cared about the heroine and her family. I appreciated the way Roberts depicted the viciousness of the crimes committed without it turning into something gratuitous for the sake of gratuity. I never felt like it was being used for shock factor. Granted, I say this as someone who listens to a lot of true crime podcasts so please do consider the trigger warnings listed below before picking this one up. Now onto the complicated parts.

The pacing was rough. It starts off with a bang and there’s a pretty steady flow for awhile. I echo many other reviews in citing the start of the trouble being when we catch up to grown up Naomi who is remodeling a house she bought. We go through many little mini trips to antique stores and paint swatch contemplations and furniture shopping and I kept waiting for any of those moments to have an impact on the story… without the payoff. I believe some of it is to give us a sense of the way she begins to bond with the characters and perhaps to lull us into a false sense of safety that the heroine herself experiences, but there was just so much of it that it grew tedious. There were times I felt as though I were overhearing shop talk and wished I could wander off to someplace more interesting.

I predicted the killer but I didn’t mind that too terribly much. I felt the justification or reasoning behind the killer was a little weak but not impossible by any means. I appreciated that the dog (spoiler) does not die but could have done without the melodramatic and completely unrealistic scene involving him towards the end. I felt that the brother’s career was a bit of a stretch, considering his age, but I’m not an expert on criminal forensics or the FBI or anything like that. My biggest issue with the book, and the reason I nearly DNF’d, is a consistent one for me and romance novels.

I hated the hero.

He was arrogant and Cool(tm) and abrasive. His supposed “tough love” struck me more like cruel invalidation. I didn’t like his persistence in pursuing her despite acknowledging that she was intentionally placing barriers. His insistence that he was justified because he could tell she wanted him holds no water with me because she said no and that should be the end of it until/unless she indicates otherwise. I’ve never believed “I can tell you want me” is a meaningful justification or excuse for pursuing someone. Their first interaction set the scene and their first kiss continued the theme of Hot Cool Dude Gets What He Wants Because You Want Him And He Knows It. I don’t mind an assertive guy. I don’t even mind one who might be a little emotionally clueless. But I just did not like him no matter how hard I tried and did not want them together.

Like I said, I intend to read more Nora Roberts in the future because her catalogue is immense and part of my dislike may just be that romantic thriller is a new subgenre for me. I’d like to give both another shot.

Trigger warnings: Rape, depictions of torture, wounded animal, suicide

Review: Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Never Seduce a Scot is about as cliched HIghlander romance as you can get. It has a frail, petite, virginal heroine and a stoic, warrior hero. It also has a refreshingly consent positive throughline and a well handled enemies to lovers approach.

The plot is a familiar one. Two rival clans are forced into peace via marriage and the two who are chosen – Eveline Armstrong and Graeme Montgomery – are resistant but eventually fall in love. I hesitate to call it enemies to lovers because the tension that’s usually aligned with that is resolved pretty quickly and easily, at least on Eveline’s part.

I like the concept of the enemies to lovers trope but struggle to find reads that feature it which I enjoy because I really need a solid reason for the enemies part and I also don’t like how usually “enemy” is just an excuse for either character to be a flagrant asshole. You can be angry and bitter and vengeful – but don’t be a dick about it. The reasoning in this story is that the hero’s father was killed by the heroine’s father in a battle over a grudge that has lasted for a long time, somewhat like Romeo and Juliet where no one can really remember THE reason and it’s just how things are. Both characters are loathe to wed each other right up till the moment Eveline first “hears” Graeme and then she’s totally on board. Graeme, though recognizing her as a beautiful angel of gorgeousness, is still reluctant because he believes they cannot be together sexually because she is “touched” and he simply refuses to either initiate something with her that she might not fully understand or be able to consent to OR go sleep around with someone else. You love to see it.

Eveline is not mentally altered in any way however – she’s deaf. She can hear some things sometimes, specifically she can somewhat hear Graeme’s voice, but otherwise goes through life by reading people’s lips. This is the result of a horse riding accident and ensuing sickness and she allows people to think she is “simple” to avoid a marriage with a truly disgusting person. I spent half of this book thinking Graeme was just an idiot because he kept asking her questions and getting upset when she wouldn’t answer but in truth it was I who was the idiot as I fell prey to the most common reading mistake ever, forgetting that I knew things other characters did not. When she explains her deafness to Graeme they are able to establish a steadier form of communication. I kept waiting for her to be “cured” by true love or some doctor to have a miracle suddenly but it never happened. Banks actually allowed her heroine to have a disability and showed her find ways to adapt and have her loved ones adapt with her and she gets her happily ever after without having to change.

There are some things that gave me pause. The sex scenes were ok but the hero kept referring to her “woman’s release” and her “woman’s parts” and I feel like the author was going for “this is historical and they use historical phrases” but it took me out of the scenes. So did some of the “historically accurate” sexism like them chiding their little sister for wanting to learn to read (though they do finally allow it).

Overall I appreciated how the families clearly care about each other and the event that leads to the families agreeing to move beyond their feuding past was reasonable. I like that these characters could have been one-note but had conflicting feelings and loyalties and I know I’ll be going back to read the other two in the series when I need a break from my reading challenges. If you’re looking for a classic Highlander romance without the unfortunately common rape heavy plots or stoic to the point of not feeling heroes, this is a good one to try out.

Trigger warning: Eveline does describe being molested and abused by her betrothed (before Graeme) but this is not done graphically and it is brief. Their first time together is also painful for Eveline but she offers repeated, clear consent and the hero is careful to be attentive and gentle.

Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace 2021

My final reading list for the year is the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace! You may remember (or read) that I planned on completing it last year but 2020 happened all over the place and here we are, trying again!

  1. Darkness Button – Twice Tempted, Jeaniene Frost
  2. Defcon Most Extreme – The Obsession, Nora Roberts
  3. Englandtimes America – A Daring Arrangement, Joanna Shupe
  4. Furrrrrr – Moonrise, Ines Johnson
  5. Ghost Boner – Highlander in Her Bed, Allie Mackay
  6. HB Author – What Comes After, Blair Leigh
  7. Holy Cats That’s A Nice Nipple! – Get A Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert
  8. Keep Being A Badass- First Grave on the Right, Darynda Jones
  9. Lady Love – Sunsets and Shades, Erica Lee
  10. Morality Boner – Rafe, Rebekah Weatherspoon
  11. Murder Smolder – Big Bad Wolf, Suleikha Snyder
  12. Never Seen Snow Before – Love at First Snow, Jami Davenport
  13. Orgasms and Waffles – The Waffle House on the Pier, Tilly Tennant
  14. Remembering Things in 2021 – The Wallflower Wager, Tessa Dare
  15. Roll Butter – The Widow of Rose House, Diana Biller
  16. Royal Boner – A Duke By Default, Alyssa Cole
  17. The Seven Seas – Savage of the Sea, Eliza Knight
  18. The Sheriff of My Vagina – Dance Upon the Air, Nora Roberts
  19. Traditional Naperville Tree Lightings – A Lake House Holiday, Megan Squires
  20. War Horniness – A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Milla Vane

*All books subject to change

Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stok)

I read Blood of Elves  by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stok) because for the last month and a half instead of doing anything remotely productive like reading or writing reviews here, I’ve been writing fanfiction for Netflix’s The Witcher. For COVID-19 reasons.

Quick Note: I hope that all of you reading this are doing well and able to take the necessary measures to be safe. I know some of you will be essential workers. I hope that your employees are ensuring your safety by providing you with the proper PPE and that you’re doing a lot of self-care. For those of us who are quarantined and either working from home or (in my case) just kind of trying to hang in there, my thoughts are with you as well.

I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about Sapkowski’s series but frankly I really enjoyed this. I appreciated that the male figures aren’t just a bunch of stoic heroes but have feelings and concerns. There was a sense of humor that I also wasn’t expecting because in my admittedly limited experience in reading Fantasy, that isn’t usually a thing. I’m invested in the characters and looking forward to reading on in the series.

Review: Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger

I read Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger for the “Competency Boner” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. I read Romancing the Werewolf last year and thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m happy to report this author is the gift that keeps on giving.

This is a wlw novella featuring a parlourmaid eager to be ruined and a mature inventor anxious to avoid the mistakes of the past. Both work and live in a local vampire hive (it’s Carrigers world so vampires and werewolves are just facts and I’m all the way on board). Imogene, the parlourmaid, is smitten with the inventor on sight and despite herself Genevieve, the inventor, is as well. The barriers to them being together are understandable and I was cheering for the couple throughout. I also loved the friendship between Imogene and Major Channing, the hero from Romancing the Werewolf.

I will definitely be checking out the rest of Carriger’s catalogue and if you enjoy Victorian Fantasy Romance with likable, realistic characters I suggest you do as well.

Review: His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins

I read His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins for the “I’m a Waitress!” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

This is a very, very short read, only 69 (*snicker*) pages. The premise is simple; a billionaire and his friends stop by a diner on their way to their annual hedonist retreat. There they meet the heroine, a waitress stuck in a small town in a dead-end job. The hero and the heroine hook up in the bathroom and then he invites her over where they hook up again and she agrees to go back to New York with him and they are in love. It’s most contemporary romance novels just ramped up on speed to hit the required page limit and not go too far over while still giving the reader an HEA and a minimum of two sex scenes. Both were written well. I don’t read many billionaire novels (this may have been my first actually) but he was the right balance of cocky without being an arrogant dick head which is the way I feel most billionaires skew. If you want a breezy read, pick this up. It’s one in a series I probably won’t be reading but it’s still good fun.

Review: The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

I read The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson for the “Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This was a quick read but it contained a great deal.

The book, written for children ages 5 – 8, speaks to the experience of realizing that you stand out in some way from your peers. For some of the children represented this is due to race, for others it is culture or a disability. Woodson does not sugar coat or pretend away the pain this can cause. She doesn’t make it a metaphor or write that this feeling will never happen again. Instead she acknowledges this feeling, draws parallels between how people can feel this way for many reasons and how valid this is, and then emphasizes that this moment doesn’t diminish their value. Woodson also discusses the way our differences don’t need to be barriers and that while people may ask questions or make you feel like the odd one out, they can also be inclusive and you can be felt seen and accepted in your uniqueness.

Too often the answer to working with people who are different is to just say you “can’t see” those differences, most often coming up when people talk about race. This is an issue for many reasons, chiefly that it attempts to ignore or diminish someone’s identity for personal comfort. Woodson shows children from a very pivotal age where these differences are becoming clearer and socialization, which is filled with biases and prejudices, that you do not have to be the same and you do not have to pretend others are the same as you to benefit from knowing them and accepting them.

Though short it is a powerful piece and I would encourage people who have small children in their lives to get it for them. Even if your child doesn’t stray from the cultural norm of their environment, this is a lesson that needs to be learned by all.

Review: Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin

I read Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin for the Book Riot Reader Harder Challenge’s “Read an audiobook of poetry” category. It is a contemporary, poetic retelling of Romeo and Juliet about an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living in modern Palestine. With the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the trope of star-crossed lovers becomes more understandable and heartbreaking.

I am a defender of Romeo & Juliet, both the characters and the play. Yes, they were kids. Yes, they were rash. But suicide is always in some element tragic, especially when it is young people who feel driven to commit the act in the face of overwhelming despair. It is easy for adults (or cynical teens) to scoff and look at all of the life left for these two but I wonder how many of them remember what it feels like to be a teen and to have these feelings for the first time. You don’t exist in a timeline when you’re young, you’re far more focused in the moment and if the ones you trust and have been told to follow are forcing you into a future you can’t stand, it’s normal to feel trapped. The big miscommunications are hard for modern audiences to understand when we can reach out and talk to someone in an instant instead of sending letters that can be mixed up or delayed. And when you break down the primary catalysts for catastrophe it is more about the meddling and influence of adults trying to guide and push Romeo & Juliet, regardless of theri intent, rather than just spontaneity or stupidity on the protagonists’ part. All of that being said, I was open to a modern take on a much lampooned story and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

The language of Ronit & Jamil is beautiful and I felt it was fairly easy to navigate. I did feel, much like when I read The Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish, that I would have gained more by being more educated about the conflict as well as the culture of both Israel and Palestine. I am very glad I had read Darwish’s work before so I had some level of familiarity with the topic overall. That being said, I don’t feel that anything I didn’t understand impeded my enjoyment of the work. As I said the language is beautiful and the stakes are much clearer and higher, which may help people who don’t like Romeo & Juliet to still enjoy this work. The author also provides a space for fathers of Ronit & Jamil to monologue about their inner thoughts and fears for their children which helps humanize the parents and validate their concerns.

The author makes an interesting choice to give Ronit & Jamil an open-ended but decidedly happier ending than the original play. It does not end in their mutual suicides but instead with them going over their plans to run away to America with the help of distant family members, mourning the losses they must bear and trying to give each other hope with thoughts of the future they may have together. It is possible to view the ending as just as tragic as the original with the couple doomed to the same fate as the original pair they represent. But I think that Laskin was making a choice to give these two some peace. In the play Romeo & Juliet’s lives, while fraught with interfamily conflict, is still a fairly privileged one. They’re both financially and socially well off and while their lives are not without challenges they have a much better prospect than most. Ronit & Jamil grow up in an area fraught with conflict far beyond anything Romeo & Juliet faced and their prospects are much more dire. I liked Laskin providing this chance at happiness for Ronit & Jamil, while leaving the ending open enough for the reader to consider and decide what they thought may happen on their own. And the reader knows that the life they try to have in America will be rife with new challenges and obstacles such as xenophobia, racism, and a struggle to survive. But they will have a chance and I think that a chance is the best anyone can hope for in the end.

Review: Tomorrow’s Journal by Dominick Cancilla

Trigger Warnings: Mutilation of an infant (off screen but result described), violence throughout, suicide, mention of rape

I read Tomorrow’s Journal by Dominick Cancilla for the “horror book published by an indie press” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. As I mentioned in my last review, Furnace, I am not a regular consumer of the horror genre. I generally stay in a literary fiction/cozy mystery/romance bubble and I don’t think any of those genres prep you very well for a horror story so I’m going into this at a disadvantage.

Basic premise: A teenage girl finds a journal in her bedroom that can communicate with her and enlists her help in preventing a terrible future. Her primary obstacle is her own disbelief and feeling of powerlessness in the face of impending doom.

I’m not sure how I felt about this story. Most of the time I was just incredibly aggravated by the protagonist, which was absolutely intentional as the reader is supposed to feel what they’re feeling. And they definitely succeeded! But I don’t really enjoy reading something where the main person is just irritating. You can be evil, manipulative, even cowardly but if you’re irritating and boring I just don’t get invested. The premise was interesting but also paced weirdly in reveals? It’s hard to do worldbuilding in an epistolary work but definitely not impossible and I think it would have helped if there had been a bit more context provided as it went even without revealing the Big Twists.

I wanted to like the story but ultimately it’s just a book that fulfilled a challenge purpose but didn’t really interest me in going further in the genre. I’m determined to find horror out there I can get into, some of the classics definitely have and The Girl in the Well was interesting, but I think I’m still looking for a contemporary work I really get into.