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: 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.

Review: The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

I read The Governess Game by Tessa Dare to fulfill the “romance about a single parent” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This is the second book in the Girl Meets Duke series, I reviewed book one, “The Duchess Deal” last year and really enjoyed it. This book continues that trend and also furthers my love of Tessa Dare.

The premise: Chase Reynard is a rake who has been tasked with two young wards – 10 year old Rosamund and 7 year old Daisy – after he jumps from being fourth in line to the heir apparent. Desperate to find a nanny until he can send the girls to a boarding school he turns to Alexandra Mountbatten, a woman he literally ran into months ago at a bookshop who has shown up to set his clocks (not a euphemism). After she gives him a scathing takedown for his poor taste in creating a Cave of Carnality (complete with mirrors and nude portraits) he insists she is the right one for the job. She accepts the position for the money but quickly learns that there are depths to this scoundrel and that his posturing and attempts to but distance between himself and those around him speaks to a depth of feeling that he fears after past heartbreak.

One thing that I loved about this novel was that both characters have clear, well-paced growth. Chase doesn’t just fall in love and suddenly lose all of his fears surrounding attachment and Alexandra doesn’t magically get over her terror of being on boats just because he’s there. Love is not treated like a magic cure all, it just shows how choosing to accept the love you feel for others can help give you support to face down your fears and grow through them. Dare also does an excellent job showing how children can react to trauma and grief, one growing rigidly practical and the other falling into the continued roleplaying of funerals. The girls also grow in the novel and the reader is left knowing that they will be ok and this will mostly be because they will be allowed to grieve and be loved unconditionally instead of them just suddenly being “happy” or “ok.”

Despite its take on many painful issues, the novel made me laugh repeatedly and balanced its poignant and humorous moments well. In my opinion, Chase is the quintessential rake. He has a healthy sexual appetite and makes no bones (lol) about feeding it. He is a generous lover and a conscientious one as well. He is talented through practice and just the right amount of cocky. And, most importantly, he has that wonderful quality of being roguishly unaffected on the outside with a soft, creamy, marshmallowy inside of affection. Alexandra is also a great heroine and they make an excellent match. While (spoiler alert) their epilogue does include a reveal of the fact that she is pregnant, I didn’t get the sense that this baby is what would make them a family. Chase, Alexandra, Rosamund, and Daisy are already a complete and happy family and the baby would only grow what is already there. That’s not common in romance, particularly historical romance, and as the daughter of two people who were adopted into their families, I really appreciated this respect given to the legitimacy of a family created through nontraditional means.

I will be reading book three, The Wallflower Wager, coming up sometime but in the meantime I am going to be reading Darkfever and A Kiss for Solstice so keep an eye out for those reviews.

Review: More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

Continuing with the Reading Embrace I read More Than a Mistress by Mary Balogh for the “Dueling, Bring It Back” category. This might be a bit of a meander-y post because honestly you guys I’m still not sure how I feel about this book.

This is my second Balogh read. Before this I read Someone To Love which I also felt confused about. Like that one, I really liked the heroine and I thought the side characters were compelling and endearing, but I hated the hero. In both books the hero was a haughty, arrogant dick who intimidates everyone with a squint through his quizzing glass.

Please go with me on this quizzing glass journey because guys, I’m lost.

This is a quizzing glass:

quizzing-glass-closeup

I always called it a monocle but here we are. Maybe if I did more research I would understand why a man looking through his quizzing glass at you could be intimidating but reader, I do not understand. If a man raised his quizzing glass and peered at me like a grumpy owl I would simply laugh. And be a little embarassed for him. But this is the second time Balogh has used The Quizzing Glass as a tool of intimidation so it clearly is A Thing for someone or the period or etc.

Let’s get the plot out of the way though and I am going to use the synopsis on Goodreads because I tried explaining it to my boyfriend last night and there was so much I kept forgetting.

“An arrogant duke does the unthinkable-he falls in love with his mistress.
She raced onto the green, desperate to stop a duel. In the melee, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, was shot. To his astonishment, Tresham found himself hiring the servant as his nurse. Jane Ingleby was far too bold for her own good. Her blue eyes were the sort a man could drown in-were it not for her impudence. She questioned his every move, breached his secrets, touched his soul. When he offered to set her up in his London town house, love was the last thing on his mind….
Jane tried to pretend it was strictly business, an arrangement she was forced to accept in order to conceal a dangerous secret. Surely there was nothing more perilous than being the lover of such a man. Yet as she got past his devilish facade and saw the noble heart within, she knew the greatest jeopardy of all, a passion that drove her to risk everything on one perfect month with the improper gentleman who thought love was for fools.”

I liked that the heroine refused to be cowed and was doing what she needed to be safe. I liked some of the banter between the main characters. I loved Tresham’s sister and brother, both very lively and funny characters that I would happily read more about. I liked the loyalty his friends showed even if they were kinda gross when they talked about women. I like that the hero does genuinely apologize at one point. I like that this book was chock-o-block full of dueling to more than hit the requirement for this category. That might be where what I like ends.

I did not like the hero who was an emotionally stunted prick with a Tragic Backstory that is supposed to excuse his behavior. I did not like the relationship as a whole. The author didn’t seem to know how she felt about it either based on how between “I’m pregnant so I’m forced to marry you” and “we’re married guys surprise and also we are in love” there is absolutely nothing to segue the parts. The characters bounce between being angry with each other (and having people say that’s proof of their love, which – ugh DON’T) and confessing their deep love and back to the fighting. I didn’t see growth from either character. He learns how to express emotions which is good but he was still by and large an ass. Also, the dueling is genuinely stupid and I know Jane is there to be that voice going “hey maybe don’t almost die or murder a person because of Honor” but it’s never taken seriously and he sure seems down to duel still at the end.

I struggle because I want to like Balogh’s work. There’s always some stuff in them that I like that keeps me wanting to return and try something else. But so far (and admittedly, only two books out of her catalogue isn’t a huge sample) the heroes seem very similar and very obnoxious. Also the descriptions and language around sex is ludicrously flowery. There was a lot of talk about Becoming One and Mounting and Making Love when I mostly wanted to know where was what and what impact was that having on people beyond a metaphysical sense of Bonding and Togetherness.

I don’t know, you guys. Maybe I will try another Balogh next year but I think one a year is a good rate of sampling for me unless one of you has a rec for one you think I’ll enjoy.