I won’t mince words here: this was a very, very bland book, not a single shred of personality to be found anywhere. The characters’ personalities and motivations are painfully simple: Kitty is the Scheming One Who Needs to Find a Husband, Lord Radcliffe is the Uptight One Who Wants to Foil Her Plans, Arthur is the Lovable Idiot Who Feels Abandoned by His Brother. And I would’ve forgiven it its simplistic characters if it maybe had some interesting character interactions or dynamics, but no, that’s nowhere to be found either. The plot is just kind of…there, moving us from one scene to the next, with little tension or excitement or literally anything that would make you invested in what’s going on.

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting tries to be a historical fiction and a romance, and succeeds at neither. It’s nowhere near immersive or detailed or atmospheric enough to really evoke its historical setting (Regency London), and its romance is so lackluster and poorly developed that it can barely even be called a romance. (The extent of the romantic development we get here is like two scenes where the characters talk about Deep Stuff and then next thing you know, they’re in love!) Altogether, my fundamental problem here is that this book lacks any kind of depth; it’s a very paint-by-the-numbers Regency “historical fiction” with a romance thrown in, and you can really feel that reading it. It feels very perfunctory, like it’s just going through the motions of its already very conventional plot. And I don’t mind “predictable” stories, but this one just gave me nothing to work with; no life, no layers.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley.

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Frustrating, irritating, infuriating, yes, but more than anything, The Arsonists’ City was just a deeply, deeply unpleasant book.

This book reminded me of The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, which is just about the most damning indictment I can give it. There are some books I dislike, and there are some books I actively hate. This was the latter.

Let’s begin with the characters, who are, according to what I’ve written in the notes on my phone, “absolutely fucking insufferable.” And I stand by that statement. The characters in this book are, by all measures, adults; in their 30s and 40s, in long term relationships or marriages or even with kids. Tell me why, then, they act like children all. the. time. “Petty” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Like of course adults can be immature or childish and petty, but god these characters just stretched the limits of what I was willing to tolerate–and then promptly broke through those limits and became absolutely intolerable. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single character in this book infuriated me. Every single one. First of all, it feels like everyone is constantly cheating on everyone else in this book. Wives cheat on husbands, husbands cheat on wives, boyfriends cheat on girlfriends, girlfriends cheat on boyfriends. If there is a character in any semblance of a long-term relationship in this book, rest assured that they will cheat and/or will have already cheated on their partners. Cheating can be explored in a way that’s interesting or engaging–simply giving me a book full of cheaters is not really the way to go about doing that.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and all of them are annoying in their own unique ways. We have Mazna, the matriarch of the family, whose chapters give us a look into her childhood and lost love. This is all well and good, except that Mazna is judgemental, sanctimonious, and snobby; everyone constantly sings her praises and yet there is not a single sympathetic thing about her that the reader can latch on to (at least this reader). Then we have Mazna’s children, who I’m just going to quickly go through because I hated them all: Ava, the cheated-on mother, which is a tired trope that is no less tired in this book; Mimi, the sad, failing musician who’s held a grudge against his sister for the last however-many years because she has a successful music career; and Naj, whose life seemingly and exclusively consists of concerts, partying, and drugs, all rendered in a very boring way for all their supposed excitement. So yeah, not to beat a dead horse or anything, but I really did not like these characters.

Aside from that, there were also a couple more things that I didn’t think this book did very well, to say the least:

– There is no sense of place in this book. Part of why I was so eager to read it is because I am always desperate for books by Arab authors that are set in Arab countries. This one is set in Lebanon and Syria (as well as the US), and yet there’s barely any sense of those countries’ environment or culture beyond the very superficial (your occasional mention of maklouba or kenafeh or whatever).

– Tonally, this book is SO melodramatic. It needed to be toned down like several thousand notches. I can’t be invested in a touching family portrait if the characters and story are crafted with the subtlety of a brick to the face.

– hated the way this book talked about women’s bodies. Are women conditioned to constantly critique their own and other women’s bodies? Yes. Did I think this book portrayed this reality well whilst also calling attention to how it can be and is problematic? Absolutely not. There’s literally a scene where Mazna has lost a of weight because someone she loves has just been MURDERED and her sister comes in to take care of her and this is what we get:

“‘You’ve lost weight.’ (There is a trace of wistfulness in her tone. Her own body has expanded with age, like a layer cake. Though Nawal knows it’s wrong–her poor little sister, who’s always seemed to Nawal on the edge of disaster, chasing after lofty, unlikely ideas–she cannot help but admire Mazna’s flat stomach, the perch of her collarbones as her sister dresses.)”

Like???? Can we not have a single moment of peace??? Do I really have to read that in the midst of the aftermath of a horrific MURDER ????

– I was expecting a lot from the writing since the author is a poet but I didn’t feel like it gave me much. It was definitely a little weird sometimes, and not in a good way. For example: “‘Mazna.’ Her name sits like a pet in his mouth. It sounds like what you’d call a woman.” Like, what does that even mean ??? make it make sense please

Anyway, I did not get along with this book in any way, shape, or form. There was not a single redeemable thing about it for me, and frankly there is nothing about it that can make up for how much I hated its characters. I’m going to take a breath, finish writing this review, and then try not to think about this book ever again.

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Yikes. This was not good.

I am so baffled by A Brush With Love. This is a romance book; that is, an entire book that is, at least in large part, dedicated to developing a romance. Where, pray tell, is the development, then, because it is definitely Not Here.

To put it plainly, A Brush With Love is unbearably instalovey. In Chapter 1, the main character, Harper, accidentally bumps into the love interest, Dan, in a stairway. She breaks some teeth mold thing (?) of his and wants to make it up to him so they arrange to meet together the next day so she can help him redo it. In the next chapter or two, they redo this mold and then hang out. And this is when I start having trouble suspending my disbelief–literally two chapters into the book and it’s already going downhill. During that first meeting of theirs, there are already so many instalovey things happening: Harper is so proud of Dan for remaking the mold that when they hug, she puts her palm to his cheek (can you imagine doing this to a person you’ve literally just met??), they meet in a diner and basically give each other their life’s backstories, they go back to Harper’s place and almost kiss, and on top of all that the whole time all they’re thinking about is how desperate they are to kiss each other, touch each other, etc. etc. etc. Let me remind you that, at this point, they’ve known each other for less than a couple of hours. And I just ??????? I am so deeply confused, because this novel almost immediately fails at the one thing that it’s supposed to do: DEVELOP THE ROMANCE. Where is the tension????? The best part of a romance is getting to see how the characters grow closer over time, how they slowly learn more about each other and how that translates into them wanting to be with each other. None of this is present here because the novel just gives you all of these things without actually leading up to them: you get honesty and intimacy and attraction, but none of it means anything because it doesn’t grow organically out of the characters’ interactions.

And because it doesn’t do that initial fundamental work of building its romance, the novel’s foundation is not strong enough to really sustain anything that comes after. It already lost me from the very beginning, so anything it tried to do afterwards was just doomed to fail. The romance started out as contrived, and it just continued to be contrived. And also SO cringey. Seeing people who have literally just met be so obsessed with each did not endear me to them at all.

Other issues include: clunky dialogue, irritating side characters (you can’t just make a character crass and have that be her entire personality), and ~kooky~ scenes that were trying to be funny but that weren’t funny in the slightest.

Listen, I can forgive romances a lot, but I can’t overlook a failure to do the very basic work of developing the romance.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio for providing me with an audiobook ARC of this via NetGalley.

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