Dangerous Beauty // by Melissa Koslin

We all know I’m a sucker for the marriage of convenience trope, so I requested this book from Revell’s reviewer program in hopes that it would be an engaging read.  Unfortunately, this one just didn’t really work for me.  I didn’t buy the chemistry between the main characters, the marriage scenario felt rather weak, and for a story about human trafficking, I found myself somewhat disengaged.  I did like the Lillian as a character, and the concept, but on the whole this one just ended up falling flat.

We meet Liliana when she is fleeing from traffickers.  She’s escaped their custody and runs into a gas station.  When they close in on her, she’s rescued by a random stranger, Meric.  During the ensuing interview with police, etc., Meric offers to marry Liliana so that she won’t have to worry about getting deported back to Mexico.  And she just says yes??  And everyone goes along with it??  Marriage of convenience really only works if the scenario surrounding it makes sense, and two absolute strangers deciding to get married within 15 minutes of meeting each other just didn’t work for me.

Throughout the story, we rarely hear anything from Meric’s perspective, and the story really suffers because of that lack.  Koslin uses almost entirely negative words to describe him, like cold, hard, barely controlled rage, emotionless, abrupt, etc.  He’s constantly brushing off Liliana and leaving her alone.  She’s supposedly in constant danger, but he encourages her to go out and go shopping.  She tells him repeatedly that she hates being kept in the dark and needs information to feel safe, but he’s always withholding information and telling her it’s because “she needs to heal,” even after she straight-up says that, for her, the way to healing is understanding what is going on.

Of course, in the end, we find out Meric has been in love with her all along but didn’t want her to feel pressured so that’s why he couldn’t bear to spend time around her yadda yadda but since we never hear anything from his perspective, he just comes across as a real jerk, and it honestly made zero sense to me why Liliana even liked him, despite her CONSTANTLY talking about how kind he is and how she sees “behind the coldness in his eyes” and that kind of nonsense.  This made the emotional pacing the of the story feel uneven and disjointed, and left me never really rooting for them as a couple because I honestly never actually liked Meric.

I also didn’t like the way Liliana says repeatedly (to herself) that she views herself as “damaged” and “impure” because of her experiences with the traffickers.  Then at one point she just suddenly goes, “Oh no wait actually that’s not true!” and then it’s never mentioned again.  For as much as she referred to it negatively, it would have been extremely positive to have this epiphany actually be more involved.  And since Liliana is presented as someone who, if not a Christian, at least a believer in God/that He has a plan for her life, and since Revell is a Christian publisher, it was a pretty amazing opportunity to talk about how Liliana (and everyone) is valued by God no matter what happens to us.

Meric and Liliana have both gone through major trauma, yet in the end apparently their love for each other is all they need to “heal” and go forward.  I found it somewhat hard to believe that Liliana was really so quickly past a lot of what had happened to her.  Meric also finds out this huge thing about his past right at the end of the book and is basically just like, “Oh.  Well, at least I have love!”  It just didn’t feel realistic.

I hate to spend most of a review bashing a book.  I did feel like this incredibly complicated topic of human trafficking was handled really well and presented in a realistic yet not horrifically graphic way, which made it feel more approachable.  I would have loved it if this book had included some kind of information about a ministry or organization that is working against human trafficking that I could look up for more information on what I could personally do to help, just a little “here’s a place to start” kind of thing.

This book has over a 4* average rating on GR, so I’m definitely in the minority on this one, so if the synopsis sounds intriguing to you, I would still check it out.  I really loved Liliana, who is an incredibly strong and brave character and who doesn’t just roll over and give up, despite everything she has been through.

NB: This book was given to me for free from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

June Minireviews // Part 2

On to the next batch of June!!!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl – 4*

//published 1950//

This nonfiction account was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  On the one hand – fascinating!  On the other hand… Heyerdahl just isn’t the most compelling writer, so even some of their more exciting adventures felt a little flat.

In the 40s, the author, who was living on a Polynesian island at the time, theorized that instead of those islands being originally populated from Asia, the could have come from South America. He based his theory on many oral traditions and stories of the native people he had met, who had a lot of stories of gods and ancestors coming from the east. Determined to prove that it was at least a possibility, he and five others built a raft out of balsa logs, using only materials that would have been available at the time, and actually did sail from Peru to a Polynesian island just east of Tahiti – 4300 nautical miles in 101 days. They were mostly carried by trade winds and the Humboldt Current.  Since this book was published, this theory has fallen out of favor, because genetic testing has shown that “most“ of the native people of Polynesia did have ancestors from Asia. However, even the article I read that was incredibly dismissive of Heyerdahl, both as a person and of his theory, admitted that genetic testing had also shown that that some people were descended from South Americans as well. I’m a little confused as to why it can’t be both, but I’m just a layman haha  Heyerdahl definitely proved that it COULD have been done, and I was honestly just so intrigued by things like water storage, food provisions, surviving storms, etc.  It was so interesting!

This book was published in 1950 so there are a few things that jar with modern sensibilities, but for the most part Heyerdahl has a great respect for the native peoples both in Peru and the Polynesian islands. As a story, this is great fun, even if the author does tend to somehow make even very exciting moments a little dry.  It’s also obvious that Heyerdahl has already decided that his theory is the correct one, so his material is presented in a somewhat prejudiced manner, but on the other hand… he did it!

Something Wilder by Christina Lauren – 3.5*

//published 2022//

Do you ever read a book expecting one thing and then it just goes completely off the track, and even though it’s not a bad story, it’s just kind of like… the heck just happened??  That’s how I felt with this one.  I read it expecting a little second-chance romcom, and I … kind of got it??  About 100 pages in this book was just like, “Now for something completely different!” and I wasn’t exactly here for it.  I think if this plot twist had been hinted at a bit in the synopsis I may have been more on board.  It was supposed to be a little silly and fun, but it honestly just felt kind of ridiculous and unbelievable to me instead.  Not the worst book I’ve read this year, but definitely one of the odd ones.

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold – 3*

//published 1935//

Speaking of odd…  it’s honestly surprising to me that I never read National Velvet growing up, as I was a total horse-book girl, but somehow I never did.  I finally got around to it in June and it was… strange??  Mostly because it wasn’t actually a horse book!  It’s more of a slice-of-life kind of story in which horses are peripherally involved.   Basically all of The Pie’s training, and even most of the big race, happened off-page. We rarely see Velvet’s thoughts and I honestly never understood why she was so passionate about racing The Pie because we only saw incredibly rare glimpses of her interacting with him on-page. This was a fun story as a not-horse book – I fell in love with the entire Brown family, and some of Bagnold’s wry observations made me smile. I loved the complete and utter lack of romance between Velvet and Mi, and the utter randomness of Donald’s wild stories. But for all that, it’s still just a soft pick for me – not one I see myself rereading. The actual story was odd and disjointed and frequently felt like it was going nowhere. We spent significantly more time on the aftermath of the race than the race itself. I felt completely ripped off that the race wasn’t from Velvet’s perspective! There’s an entire side story involving an entire pile of other horses that felt odd and unnecessary and also didn’t really go anywhere. So, on the whole, a perfectly fine story, but one that I wouldn’t particularly label as a genuine Horse Story, despite the presence of multiple horses, and not one that I see myself rereading time and again.

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan – 3.5*

I feel like I should just summarize this entire series with “it was fine” because that’s pretty much how I felt when I finished each of these books.  I didn’t dislike them but also found them really unmemorable.  I never finished one feeling compelled to grab the next.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte – 4*

//published 1848//

After suffering through Wuthering Heights, I was a bit sad when the PemberLittens decided to read another Bronte.  I had never even really heard of this one before, but decided to give it a go nonetheless, and I actually enjoyed it WAY more than WH, although that’s not honestly saying much!  Another review I read said, “I respected this novel more than I enjoyed it” and I have to echo that sentiment. This was really a bold story for its time and I found Helen to be a remarkable heroine, absolutely hardcore devoted to her religion and her morals, refusing to ever take the easy way out if it meant compromising her beliefs. The entire story is such a call-out for so many things that were (and in many cases, still are) socially acceptable but objectively wrong, and Anne, through Helen’s voice, isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade and rake everyone over the coals.

That said, I didn’t really have a great time reading this book. It’s kind of a downer, Helen can definitely get preachy, and Gilbert made me roll my eyes CONSTANTLY. The ending especially went on too long.  I especially couldn’t get over Gil whining about how Helen “left him” when he thought she was getting married – like dude, you haven’t reached out to her in over a year?? Seems a little ridiculous to blame her if she DID find someone else who, you know, actually talked to her?! 

Part of the reason I didn’t really love this one may have been because there wasn’t a single likable guy in the entire story. Gilbert is spoiled, sensitive, prideful, and whiny. Helen’s brother is smug and self-satisfied. They’re supposedly the best out of the bunch, and, in fairness, the male characters do all go downhill from there. Anne keeps this story from going into a full-on screed against the entire male half of the population, but barely. And in fairness, considering women were virtually property and unable to make any independent decisions about their own lives, an anti-man screed may have been warranted at some level lol

All in all, this is definitely a worthwhile read, and I found the story and characters significantly more engaging and relatable than those in Wuthering Heights. But despite my 4-star rating, this isn’t a book I see myself reading again.

Gone With the Wind // by Margaret Mitchell

Wow, I was doing SO well on catching up on reviews, but then apple season hit and I have been absolutely slammed!!!  But I’m feeling like trying to catch up a bit again, so here’s a review I partially wrote in August (lol) and decided to finish up this morning.  I may even go write a few minireviews after this to be published tomorrow!!!

//published 1936//

Despite finishing this back in June, I still don’t even know how to organize my thoughts on this crazy story.  I had a complete love/hate relationship with this book – mostly hate, if I’m honest, but the writing was strong and compelling, and even though I genuinely couldn’t stand Scarlett (when has a heroine ever been so self-absorbed or self-sabotaging??) I also did want to finish this book and find out what happened to everyone.  I went in mostly blind, having never even watched the movie, so many aspects of the story were a complete surprise to me.

In the end, I found this book worthwhile and valuable for the look it gave at a perspective now almost completely ignored – the view from the losers.  What was done in the South during and after the Civil War was absolutely reprehensible, and it was a good for me to read this and be reminded of exactly what our government is capable of doing to its own citizens “for their own good,” including putting them under martial law, seizing all their assets, refusing to allow them to work unless they subscribe to a specific set of beliefs, imprisoning them for saying the wrong thing, raising taxes to force people out of their homes and/or starve them into submission, etc.

It was also interesting to see the perspective of the slaveowners who believed that they were actually doing good things for the people they were enslaving.  Obviously, I’m not agreeing with that position, but many people at the time believed that black people were incapable of caring for themselves.  I thought the later portions of the books, where various northerners are now living in Georgia, handing out judgment, quite fascinating as it’s revealed how little respect they had for the former slaves, despite claiming that that was what the war was all about.  At one point, Scarlet is driving through town with one of her former slaves who has stayed with the family even after the war and pauses to talk with a few northern acquaintances.  During the conversation, that woman says she is having trouble finding someone to help with her children. Scarlett says it shouldn’t be that hard to find a former slave to take the position –

“Do you think I’d trust my babies to a black nigger?” cried the Maine woman.  “I want a good Irish girl.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find no Irish servants in Atlanta,” answered Scarlett, coolness in her voice [considering she’s Irish lol].  “Personally, I’ve never seen a white servant and I shouldn’t care to have one in my house.  And,” she could not keep a slight note of sarcasm from her words, “I assure you that darkies aren’t cannibals and are quite trustworthy.”

“Goodness, no!  I wouldn’t have one in my house!  The idea!”

“I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I could see them and as for letting them handle my babies…!”

Scarlett thought of the kind, gnarled hands of Mammy worn rough in Ellen’s service and hers and Wade’s.  What did these strangers know of black hands, how dear and comforting they could be, how unerringly they knew how to soothe, to pat, to fondle?  She laughed shortly.

“It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”

“Lor’!  Not I, dearie,” laughed the Maine woman.  “I never saw a nigger till I came South last month and I don’t care if I never see another.  They give me the creeps.  I wouldn’t trust one of them – ”

For some moments Scarlett had been conscious that Uncle Peter [former slave] was breathing hard and sitting up very straight as he stared steadily at the horse’s ears.  Her attention was called to him more forcibly when the Maine woman broke off suddenly with a laugh and pointed him out to her companions.

“Look at that old nigger swell up like a toad,” she giggled.  “I’ll bet he’s an old pet of yours, isn’t he?  You Southerners don’t know how to treat niggers.  You spoil them to death.”

Peter sucked in his breath and his wrinkled brow showed deep furrows but he kept his eyes straight ahead.  He had never had the term “nigger” applied to him by a white person in all his life.  By other negroes, yes.  But never by a white person.  And to be called untrustworthy and an “old pet,” he, Peter, who had been the dignified mainstay of the Hamilton family for years!

Scarlett felt, rather than saw, the black chin begin to shake with hurt pride, and a killing rage swept over her.

I’ve quoted this rather lengthy passage because I think it illustrates so well the complete conflict of ideas and ideals that were going on at the time.  While obviously the Southerners underestimated the actual humanity of the slaves they owned, at the same time there was still a type of respect and an understanding of the responsibilities that they, the slave-owners, had towards their slaves.  The North didn’t ride in as an amazing hero – they literally needed more manpower and freeing the slaves was a great way to make it happen.  Yes, slavery was one of the core aspects of the conflict, but it was not the only one by any means, and the attitudes concerning the humanity, intelligence, and potential of black people was just as incorrect in the North as it was in the South.

In the end, I would absolutely never read this book again, but I’m glad to have read it once.  I’m from Lancaster, Ohio, birthplace of General William T. Sherman, so I’ve grown up in a community that takes some pride in the part it played in the Civil War.  It was good to be reminded that every story has more than one side, and that the looting and pillaging that took place during the war was reprehensible, as was the treatment of the Southerners after the war ended.  My biggest takeaway from this book was honestly that the government can and will do whatever it takes to keep you in line, even if that means revoking your constitutional rights.

The Civil War was a huge and complicated conflict that can never been simplified to one issue.  Repercussions are still felt 150 years later.  I absolutely hated Scarlett and spent most of this book wanting to strangle her, yet still found her story to be strangely compelling and a worthwhile read.