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: 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: 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.

 

Review: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

Trigger warnings: Graphic, violent sexual assault in the last three stories, grotesque imagery, graphic violence

Second book club review of the year! We read Furnace by Livia Llewellyn with our February genre of Horror.

I feel so torn about this book.

When I read the reviews for it I feel like I’m just not the right audience or maybe I just didn’t “get it” because I tried really hard but for the most part I’m left… meh.

The book is a series of horror vignettes with no solid throughline except that most of them are set in the Pacific Northwest.

My experience through 75% of this book was reading, feeling like I understood what was going on, paying attention carefully, and then the ending things would happen and I would be left feeling like I was waiting for something to happen. But it never did. I mean, things most certainly happened, but they didn’t impact me much. I felt horror at times but never fear and I know those are two separate feelings but it still surprised me that at no point was I scared or even uneasy.

The author’s writing is fucking gorgeous. Her talent for writing is undeniable.

But.

I am a firm believer that if you are going to depict sexual assault or make that a major point of focus in your work, you need to justify the hell out of it. Both the choice to include it and the choice to depict the scene graphically on the page. In the first story that really went for it with using it as a major plot point it is an epistolary vignette from the perspective of a young teen girl. It isn’t even written in a way that feels fearful, it just felt like it was trying to shock the reader by how awful it all was. It was a cheap shot at shocking people and I was thoroughly disgusted by it. The second story also featured a rape. A very graphic, violent rape enacted by a demon who has been stalking this woman since she was a child. I get it, demons do evil shit, if this had been the only or maybe even the first story to depict assault I would have been a bit more resigned with it but it was right after that other one and I felt a firm strike two had been struck. The third and final story was the third, and perhaps most damning, strike. A woman is fucked hard and rough and even though she tells him repeatedly to slow down and that he’s hurting her his only response is “make me” and then later he treats her gently before another rough fucking and she decides to stay with him. This was horrific in its clear depiction of, I felt, a domestic abuse relationship but I don’t know if that is what the author intended. By this time the book was done and I was left feeling bitterly disappointed.

Maybe I just need to read more horror, maybe this just isn’t a genre for me, or maybe this just isn’t the right author for me. I really tried to enjoy it. I did enjoy a few of the stories. But when it came to those last few were rape was used so cheaply and without any warning anywhere in the copy or reviews, I felt soured on the whole experience.

Review: A Kiss for Solstice by Elizabeth Allyn-Dean

Trucking along with the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace we have A Kiss for Solstice by Elizabeth Allyn-Dean to fulfill the “HB Author” requirement! That’s right, this author is a member of the Heaving Bosoms listenership but I will write an unbiased review.

The plot is a little convoluted but let me do my best to get down to the nitty gritty. Zelda is a witch whose younger sister is being held hostage by their coven leader/evil stepmother who has Zelda use her unique necromancy gifts to do her bidding. One of the ways the coven leader makes money is by using the local werepack to do underground fighting. One night a human, Dax, wins and later stumbles into the girl who’s been taken hostage which seals his fate. He is killed by the werewolves and left for dead. Zelda brings him back to life, binding their souls in the process, and asks for his help in freeing her sister. Complicating this is his transformation into a werewolf and their hot, hot chemistry.

The book is written well. I felt that there was a lot of worldbuilding that could have been fleshed out a bit more because it was a little confusing to enter in media res. I didn’t feel anything with the sex scenes. They were hot but also because it’s a shorter story everything has to be turned up a bit hotter to cook quicker and I didn’t get the tension that usually makes a sex scene impactful for me. It was two hot people finding each other hot and having hot sex. Not a bad thing, not a thing that left much of an impression. The ending also felt a bit hurried and easy but again, short story, turn up the heat. I didn’t feel invested in the relationship but I’m also not a big paranormal reader so that may be impacting my interest or lack thereof.

If you like witch x werewolf pairings and good writing, this is a good bet for you!

Review: Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

Trigger Warning: Attempted sexual assault, some graphic violence

Sorry for the unexpected week off, life got a little busy but that did not stop me from reading so you’ll get caught up here pretty quickly.

I read Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning for the “Fae is Bae” category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

It got big Sookie Stackhouse vibes from this heroine. Blond, gorgeous, desired by all who see her, and also gives very detailed descriptions of her “super cute” outfits. The outfits were so 2006 that I actually really enjoyed this part and made me wonder why we stopped caring what characters wore. It gives an interesting insight into the character and also, while aging the book, gives the reader a fun blast from the past. Anyway, I should give a synopsis first.

Mackayla (Mac) is a modern day southern belle who lives with her parents and is eagerly awaiting the return of her big sister and best friend who went to study abroad in Ireland. Her picture perfect world gets shattered when she receives word that her sister was brutally murdered and no one can say how it happened or why. Despite her parent’s protests, Mac goes to Ireland on a one-way ticket determined to discover her sister’s murderer. While there she discovers that she is a sidhe-seer, one who can see the fae. She is taken in by mysterious shop owner Jericho Barrons who also knows of the fae and is seeking the sinsar dubh, a powerful and dangerous book only Mac can help him find.

There are some things this author did that I really enjoyed. First of all, the fae are powerful and manipulative and many of them are evil. Usually we see typically monstrous creatures turned romantic but this time she took typically (in modern media) beautiful, romanticized creatures and took them back to their more monstrous origins. Even the “good” fae represented is a character whose power is making people instantly, overwhelmingly horny and attempts to take advantage of that more than once. The fae are complex creatures that do not adhere to mortal moral codes and that’s an interesting thing we don’t see played with often. Or at least I don’t in the admittedly limited fae reading I’ve done.

The heroine is also unapologetically feminine and feels no shame about it which I also appreciated. She also does not put up with Barrons being condescending or treating her like shit (which he does often). She makes some rookie mistakes but she is a rookie so I’m more than ok with that. The author also does a good job of depicting grief. Mac does not discover the fae are real and suddenly that’s all that matters. Her sister’s death and trying to cope with that and do the basic tasks that are often forgotten, like cleaning up their home and choosing which items to keep or give away, is an equally important, difficult part of her new reality.

There were a couple of things that rankled. The issue of adoption is handled in a way I felt a bit… shitty? Mac discovers her and her sister were adopted by her parents and she falls into a “I have no real family left cuz my sister is dead” spiral which I felt was unfair and honestly gross. Both of my parents were adopted into their families and my older brother is technically my half-brother. It was always important to my family, and to me, that adoption be viewed as an equally valid and legitimate form of creating a family. I never felt that my grandparents weren’t “really” my family, even when I was old enough to understand what adoption meant. Then again, these facts weren’t treated as secrets growing up and it is possible I would have felt differently if I had been the one adopted or if I had found out when I was an adult. This is probably just a personal peeve but I felt it should be mentioned in case others also struggle with adoption plots for whatever reason.

I am interested in where the story goes. My only real big issue is that I genuinely did not like the hero who is clearly going to be the love interest for the heroine. He’s an asshole who gaslights her, threatens her, roughs her up, and gives zero fucks about how he treats her. I’d say he’s an alphahole but I don’t read that kind of hero so I can’t confidently say that he is but if you like heroes who are gorgeous assholes, here’s your man. And listen, no judgment, it’s a type and I salute you and your thirst.

Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit sexual assault, death of children, racism, homophobia, representation of dementia, depictions of the refugee asylum process that may be especially difficult for those impacted by family separation through deportation

I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen to fulfill the “read a book about a refugee” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

This novel is comprised of a series of vignettes featuring characters whose lives were impacted by the Vietnam war. There is little I can say about the book without spoiling it but I can say that it is incredibly well written and heartwrenching. Nguyen gives the reader glimpses into the lives of different characters who live in varying degrees of separation from the Vietnam war. Some characters are Americans who served, some are direct refugees from the conflict, some are second generation Vietnamese Americans trying to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Nguyen himself is a refugee and the two essays at the end of the novel provide excellent context for the novel itself and I highly encourage you to read them though they are not directly connected to the novel itself.

This book is important to read even years past the Vietnam war because it is easy to draw a pattern in how America reacts to refugees. America is quick to create or join a conflict that suits its needs but the fallout from those conflicts, namely human lives, is left to others. I remember studying how America has treated immigrants in the past and this maltreatment is always treated like a sin we’ve atoned for and moved away from instead of a continued policy we weaponize against people of color. Vietnam refugees, like the characters in this book, are facing a backlash as are Syrian and Mexican refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will one day be taught with the same detached criticism that our treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century are today. But it is not enough to look back and be regretful. The only genuine apology is changed behavior and if the US does not change its inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers we will continue to be a shameful mockery of the values we claim to represent. Worse, more and more human lives will be traumatized and lost.